Thursday, June 19, 2003 has some interesting stuff today on the NBA Draft, most interestingly in my mind some discussion of the idea of an age limit for the league. The figure most commonly thrown around is 20 years old. I have very mixed feelings about this issue, but ultimately I would like to see the age limit enacted.
The argument that the other major team sports don't have a draft limit is a red herring--the NHL and MLB do not draft players right into the league (with very rare exceptions), and the NFL has a de facto age limit of 21 due to the nature of the game favoring people who have attained their full body size. Equally dubious is the idea that taking out the teens will lead to a diluted draft--pointing to the idea that in this year's draft the top pick would be T.J. Ford, who is projected to go 4th or 5th now. That would be true if a limit were suddenly imposed today; however, if a limit had been put in place in 2000, this year's draft would also include Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry, Gerald Wallace, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, DaJuan Wagner, Nene Hilario, and Amare Stoudamire. So the draft would be weakened by an age limit, but only for 1-2 years in which the best of the 20 year olds had been drafted at 18 or 19.
There are two good arguments against the age limit. One is that the age limit idea is the product of subterranean racism. I think there's some truth to that, as part of the support for an age limit comes from people who are uncomfortable with making millionaires out of black teenagers. I won't elaborate, as it's something of which I'm convinced and which I'm not going to convince anyone who doesn't already buy into it. Second is the legal argument that we shouldn't prevent adults from earning a living. I agree with this, and I make this argument all the time in sports arguments. For example, I can understand that some people were upset about the A-Rod contract, but I can't understand why any of that would be directed at him personally. He was offered a $25 million contract. What's he supposed to say--no thanks, that's too much?! (And don't give me any garbage that it's a $250 million contract; if people ask you what you make, do you give them the annual number or the per decade number?)
Conversely, though, the NBA has a compelling interest in protecting its product, and that overrides the individual interest of a handful of people capable of playing at 18 or 19. The problem with 18 and 19 year olds is that they are projects. They are drafted to be good in 2-4 years, but they must be kept on the roster and given minutes in the meantime. Is this the single factor causing games to be so plodding that teams in the finals barely combine for 150 points? No. But is it an important factor? I think it is. Carrying dead weight for two or three years is bad enough, but dead weight whose development and contract demand minutes? That's worse yet. Some of the best players in the league are alleged success stories of the current system, but were KG and Kobe successes before they were 20? Not really. And note that Stoudamire--the first true rookie success story among straight out of high school players--turned 20 less than a month into his rookie season.
I don't believe every player needs to go through college, and I don't care at all about the college game being diminished by great players skipping it or leaving early; the idea that the college game has some sort of right to 3 or 4 years from every decent basketball player is patently absurd. But I would like to see a true minor league develop with an allocation system so that teams could draft players with immense potential without being saddled with them before they are ready for the league.

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