As March Madness begins this week, the NBA is marking the 10-year anniversary of its age minimum. Well, actually, no one is really marking the occasion because seemingly everyone hates the age minimum. That old adage that you can tell a negotiation ended fairly when everyone dislikes the result? That’s the age minimum.
The NBA wants the minimum to be higher (20 instead of 19). The players’ union wants the minimum to be abolished. The colleges want it to be even higher (21 or 22). Fans disagree vehemently whether it should even exist at all. Bargained in 2005 and implemented in time for the 2006 draft, the rule has provided no more clarity on the underlying debate of whether teenagers can handle the NBA during its decade in place. It figures to be under heavy attention as the league and players negotiate a new labor deal over the next 18 months.
Into this debate arrives a new book from Jonathan Abrams — Boys Among Men — documenting the brief prep-to-pro era that precipitated the rule.
Abrams documents the history of players moving straight from high school into the NBA, touching on the players who did it in the ’70s — including Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby — but focusing most heavily on those who followed Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant on the path. As you can see in the text at the bottom, there are a lot of wonderful stories showing the character of the prospects who made the leap and the GMs who bet their careers on the 18-year-olds. But there’s also a pretty direct conclusion to draw from the survey: the prep-to-pro era successes far outweigh the failures.
Abrams doesn’t hide those failures. Korleone Young and Lenny Cooke, the most notorious examples of the era, feature heavily. The book also includes lengthy passages on lesser-known busts like James Lang and Leon Smith. But taken together as a group, the failures add up to just a fraction of the total collection of high school players who declared for the draft. And the best prep-to-pro stars are among the best NBA players of their generations, with long, productive and lucrative careers.
It’s hard to escape the sense that the institution of the age minimum in 2006 was purely reactionary. Former NBA commissioner David Stern is quoted at length, and it’s always been pretty clear that nothing in his push for the minimum had to do with helping college basketball. (There’s a great passage during which Stern slices up some quotes from NCAA boss Mark Emmert and Pac-12 leader Larry Scott in that indelible Stern fashion.) Stern wanted NBA scouts out of high school gyms and wanted to help protect NBA teams from being forced to use high picks on players who might not perform for three years, if ever.
This latter motivation is not unique in NBA rule-making. So many salary and trade rules exist solely to protect teams from their own ineptness. The Stepien Rule preventing teams from trading consecutive future draft picks exists because some bad franchise handicapped itself in the past by trading all of its draft picks. Max player salaries exist because without them Joe Johnson would have made even more money over the past six years. The tighter and more punitive luxury tax aims to prevent teams from Prokhoroving themselves. Heck, even the structure of the NBA draft itself is a handout to bad teams.
This might actually be the best justification for the age minimum. A number of the prep-to-pro success stories — Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O’Neal and Rashard Lewis to name three — needed a few years to become productive NBA players. A 15-man NBA roster is probably not the best place for these developmental players. NBA teams infrequently have time for full practices, and young players need game action to improve. Getting garbage time and spot play while making millions as an 18-year-old isn’t the best environment for player growth.
In this sense, college is a much better route: young players get game action and practice time with, and against, physical peers. And the education, if the players are able to take advantage of it, isn’t nothing. The problem is that in college players are working for free, making athletic departments and the NCAA itself collective billions of dollars while receiving the aforementioned education and a few other benefits that are not cash.
The NBA’s position is simply that this isn’t the league’s problem. As a business, it has an interest to improve its bottom line, and it feels deferring players until age 19 is better for its product.
But perhaps it should be the NBA’s problem. That’s the sentiment that sticks with me after reading about the paths of LeBron, Kobe, Korleone and Lenny. Stern is adamant that the age minimum was not a social issue for the league: it was strictly a business decision. Maybe it should be a social issue. Maybe instead of looking at the age minimum and draft eligibility purely as a profit factor, the NBA should consider its corporate responsibility to the sport and the next generation of players.
What purpose did it serve Jaylen Brown or the University of California to have him in Berkeley this year? What purpose did it serve Kevin Durant at the University of Texas in ’06, or Michael Beasley at K-State in ’07, or Andrew Wiggins at Kansas in ’13? College coaches rail against the impacts of one-and-done, players only begrudgingly accept their fate and, based on Abrams’ documentation, the NBA isn’t really protecting itself from rampant failure (because rampant failure didn’t exist).
The NBA wants to think of the age minimum as a successful business decision, but Abrams’ detailed history of the era indicates that the results aren’t at all clear. Similarly, the NBA wants to think it made the right decision despite social implications or its impact on the sport. It’s not clear the league succeeded in doing that, either. If it didn’t necessarily help the bottom line or the basketball ecosystem, what’s the point?
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More tales from ‘Boys Among Men’
Jonathan Abrams’ book Boys Among Men is filled with incredible anecdotes shared by primary sources. Here are the three most hilarious.
1. Kevin Garnett almost missed the deadline to sign his enormous extension in 1997 because he was at Jimmy Jam’s house previewing Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope.
In the hours leading up to the deadline, Taylor decided to offer Garnett a contract extension for six years, $126 million, an offer that sent shock waves through the NBA. “Kevin, you need to come over now,” [agent Eric] Fleisher insisted after Garnett told him he wanted to listen to Janet Jackson’s album. “The deadline is almost here and this needs to get signed.”
“OK,” Garnett said, leaving grudgingly to make history.
2. Kobe Bryant shot down Lenny Cooke’s challenge at an amateur camp in 2000 …
Cooke even had time to test Kobe Bryant’s restraint. Bryant talked to the kids and, during the session, Cooke confidentially challenged him to a one-on-one game. “When you get to the league, I’ll beat you in various ways,” Bryant answered.
… and scouted Cooke the same week.
[AAU coach Gary] Charles sat in the stands surveying the [adidas ABCD amateur] camp’s game in 2000, the year that Cooke made his one-on-one challenge to Bryant. One could watch four games simultaneously from the stands, the courts next to one another. Bryant approached Charles and remained quiet for the next couple of minutes as he watched the action. “Where’s Lenny?” Bryant asked.
“He’s playing over there,” Charles said, motioning to a court on the far end.
Charles’s gaze returned to another court. A few minutes passed. Charles forgot that Bryant was next to him. Charles received a tap on the shoulder from Bryant after about 15 minutes. “Oh shit,” he said. “Kobe, what’s up?”
“Lenny Cooke’s not ready for me,” Bryant said, rising to leave. “I’ll see you later.”
3. Joel Embiid used to compile take-out meals from multiple restaurants.
Embiid fractured a bone in his foot prior to the draft and spent the summer at the home of [agent Arn] Tellem and his wife, Nancy, while recovering. He discovered how to order online food during his stay. Every 15 minutes or so, one of the Tellems would hear their bell ring late at night, signaling another deliveryman with another one of Embiid’s orders — a drink from one restaurant, an appetizer from another, an entrée from another — until finally his meal was complete.
This article was written by Tom Ziller from SB Nation and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.