Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Age Limit: Unfair But Correct


It’s no secret that David Stern wants to extend the NBA age limit rule, making high school players wait two years before they could enter the draft. Despite detractors on both sides of the issue, extending the rule isn’t about the players, the college game, or even the NBA.

It’s what’s best for the game of basketball itself. And that’s why Stern’s wish should come true.

Speaking on behalf of the players, Congressman Steve Cohen, who represents the recruiting hotbed of Memphis, gave a forceful interview with the New York Times about Stern’s proposal:
Cohen said that one of his primary arguments against the rule, which is part of the collective bargaining agreement between the league and union, was that soldiers can fight for their country at age 18 but not play in the N.B.A. He also said noted that predominantly white sports like hockey, baseball and golf lack similar restrictions. 
The age limits rule’s detractors aren’t just on the players side; former coaches like Indiana’s Bobby Knight have expressed concerns about how forcing kids to take classes who don’t want to be there damages the integrity of the game.

While some sure-fire pros like Kevin Durant embraced the campus life, academic scandals have surrounded many “one-and-done” players. Serious questions have been raised about the manipulation of former Kentucky guard Eric Bledsoe’s high school algebra grades, while Memphis was forced to invalidate their 2007-2008 season after it became clear that Derrick Rose didn’t actually take his own SAT.

The age limit rule was never about its stated intention – improving player development and getting high schoolers more ready for professional basketball.

Preps-to-pro players have been overwhelmingly successful in the NBA; the careers of future hall of famers like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant certainly weren’t affected by missing out on college. For physically mature players like LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire there was hardly even a transition phase – both were rookies of the year.

The rules’ proponents often point to the many young high schoolers who never made it, like Korleone Young, or who couldn’t handle the rigors of being a professional, like Dallas Mavericks draftee Leon Smith. But two years at Arizona and a year at Georgia Tech didn’t seem to affect the maturity or decision-making of the Wizards’ Gilbert Arenas and Jarvaris Crittenton in their much publicized gun incident last year. And just as many four-year college seniors, if not more, have busted out of the NBA.

The college game itself, with a byzantine rule structure on practice hours per week, isn’t an ideal minor league system in terms of player development. College coaches are under intense pressure to win, and developing players for the next level and improving their fundamentals is a purely secondary objective to boost recruiting.

Syracuse players can spend four years in Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone without ever learning the fundamentals of individual man-to-man defense. Compare that with the European model, where players are intensely drilled every day on fundamental skills.

Brandon Jennings, while playing for Lottomatica Roma in Europe, spent countless hours learning the basics of outside shooting and pick-and-roll basketball. In contrast, Derrick Rose spent one year at Memphis overpowering smaller guards en route to the basket, never learning a Tony Parker type tear-drop or a consistent outside jumper.

But this lack of talent maximization in college sports doesn’t concern the NFL or the NBA. That’s because what collegiate sports does well is far more important – the free promotion of the sport in more rural parts of the country and the construction of ready-made narratives for the league’s young players. Tebow, without playing a snap of pro football, already has one of the highest-selling jerseys.

In his one year at UT, Kevin Durant created countless fans willing to follow him on the next level, to the point where the Thunder have scheduled exhibition games in Austin. Even when his team struggled through a 3-29 start in his second year, Durant was still marked for stardom by national columnists like Bill Simmons because of his days at Texas.

If he had come straight out of high school and then played in relative obscurity for bad teams in a small market like OKC, no one would know who he was. But now, after one playoff series against the Lakers and starring in an international competition no one watched, Durant is one of the league’s biggest stars.

In David Stern’s ideal universe, LeBron would have spent two seasons winning collegiate player of the year awards at Ohio State, racking up comparisons to Kareem and Bill Walton. His image, instead of being defined by a shoe company, would have been defined by exploits in the (seemingly) pure NCAA Tournament.

The anticipation for his entrance to the NBA, while similar in intensity to the anticipation of his debut in Miami, would have been the complete opposite in terms of fan approval.

None of this makes it any fairer for truly hard-luck cases like Oklahoma City’s Byron Mullens, who grew up in dire poverty and whose family desperately needed the money he could have provided as an NBA first-round pick out of high school. Instead, he had to spend a mostly wasted year playing behind the (slightly) more polished Dallas Lauderdale at Ohio State.

But what makes an extension of the age limit palatable despite Cohen’s objections and stories like Mullens’ are the growing number of options young basketball players have. Brandon Jennings blazed the trail in terms of going to Europe and making money without sacrificing his NBA career, while Latavious Williams, a completely disinterested student, earned a living playing in the NBDL last year before being drafted by the Thunder.

What players have to remember is that their physical abilities can lead them to successful careers only because of the game of basketball itself. Without basketball, Mullens would be a freak gawked at in public; too tall and uncoordinated to try any other professional sport. He owes the game something, and if that’s a two-year internship playing collegiate basketball, then so be it.

The game of basketball is better served in America by the NCAA being a functional minor-league system, promoting its star players in regions of the country – Tobacco Road, the Upper Northwest and the Great Plains – with few NBA teams.

It’s not fair; especially considering some of the beneficiaries from these athletes playing for selective state and private schools – huge corporations and students from vastly different socio-economic rungs.

But life isn’t either, and that’s maybe the most valuable lesson these players could learn at college anyway.

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