A New NBA Age Limit Rule?

It’s been a few years since the latest revision to NBA draft eligibility rules. As everyone knows, the NBA decided that, starting with the 2006 draft, high school players would not be eligible until one year after their graduation. This killed the newest trend of high schoolers jumping straight over college right into the NBA.

And this rule was definitely needed.  The league recognized that its level of play was beginning to decline due to this influx of younger players.  Less experienced rookies weren’t progressing as fast as they used to.  Teams were wasting high draft picks on unproven 18-year-olds who couldn’t keep up with the NBA’s pace.  The important people in the NBA offices knew it was time for something to be done.

The high school thing hadn’t always been a problem.  Moses Malone was the first to jump straight to the pros in 1974, and things worked out well for him.  A few people followed suit in the years after that, but it didn’t start becoming common until after 1995, when Kevin Garnett successfully made the leap.  Here’s how it went as far as high schoolers getting drafted in the few years after that:

1995: Kevin Garnett(drafted 5th)
1996: Kobe Bryant(13), Jermaine O’Neal(17)
1997: Tracy McGrady(9)
1998: Al Harrington(25), Rashard Lewis(32)

So out of the six players drafted out of high school between ’95 and ’98, all six of them went on to become big names in the league. One-hundred percent efficiency. Why? Because teams were smart and knew that successful high school draft picks were harder to find, and so they only took the ones that were almost certain to succeed.

But then something changed. Look at the high school players drafted from ’99 to ’05:

1999: Jonathan Bender(5), Leon Smith(29)
2000: Darius Miles(3), DeShawn Stevenson(23)
2001: Kwame Brown(1), Tyson Chandler(2), Eddy Curry(4), DeSagana Diop(8), Ousmane Cisse(47)
2002: Amare Stoudamire(9)
2003: LeBron James(1), Travis Outlaw(23), Kendrick Perkins(27), James Lang(48)
2004: Dwight Howard(1), Shaun Livingston(4), Robert Swift(12), Sebastian Telfair(13), Al Jefferson(15), Josh Smith(17), J.R. Smith(18), Dorell Wright(19),
2005: Martell Webster(6), Andrew Bynum(10), Gerald Green(18), C.J. Miles(34), Ricky Sanchez(35), Monta Ellis(40), Loius Williams(45), Andray Blatche(49), Amir Johnson(56)

All of the sudden, these other teams thought, “Hey, I want a Kevin Garnett or a Tracy McGrady, I guess the best place to look is high school players!” And then they ignored common sense and began snatching up every guy who could dunk on another 17-year-old. In those six years, 29 high schoolers were drafted. And from what I can see, only nine of those have become somewhat successful on the NBA level. That’s only 31%, a huge drop from the previous years. All because the NBA teams wanted to gamble on who the next Kobe would be.

The best example was the 2001 draft. The Washington Wizards made Kwame Brown the first high school player picked number one. Three of the first four picks were high school players – picked over Pau Gasol, Jason Richardson, Shane Battier, Joe Johnson, Richard Jefferson, Gerald Wallace, Tony Parker, Gilbert Arenas, and Mehmet Okur. Now, obviously we can’t criticize every team that’s made a bad draft choice because such things are impossible to predict, but just imagine for a second how different the NBA would be today if those teams hadn’t been looking for a miracle in a high school gym.

But the question is, how has that rule affected the current state of the NBA? Well, I don’t think too many people would argue that it was a bad idea. Players get more experience at the college level, giving NBA scouts a better chance to evaluate them. But the question that needs to be asked now is, did this rule go far enough?

Without high school players to draft, NBA teams are starting to look for the freshmen who go one-and-done in college. These players went into the NCAA knowing they would only stay for one year before entering the draft. It’s clear that this is noticeably better than coming out of high school, but is one year enough? Again, look at the number of freshmen drafted from ’04-’06:

2004: Luol Deng(7), Kris Humphries(14), Trevor Ariza(44)
2005: Marvin Williams(2)
2006: Tyrus Thomas(4), Shawne Williams(17)

The two years before the new rule was put in place, only four college freshmen were chosen, compared to 17 high schoolers. And in 2006, with the new rule, still only two freshmen were picked. but then things started to pick up:

2007: Greg Oden(1), Kevin Durant(2), Mike Conley Jr.(4), Brandan Wright(8), Spencer Hawes(10), Thaddeus Young(12), Javaris Crittenton(19), Daequan Cook(21)
2008: Derrick Rose(1), Michael Beasley(2), O.J. Mayo(3), Kevin Love(5), Eric Gordon(7), Jerryd Bayless(11), Anthony Randolph(14), J.J. Hickson(19), Kosta Koufos(23), Donte Greene(28), DeAndre Jordan(35), Bill Walker(47)
2009: Tyreke Evans(4), Demar DeRozan(9), Jrue Holiday(17), Byron Mullens(24)
2010: John Wall(1), Derrick Favors(3), DeMarcus Cousins(5), Xavier Henry(12), Eric Bledsoe(18), Avery Bradley(19), Daniel Orton(29), Hassan Whiteside(33), Lance Stephenson(40), Tiny Gallon(47)

If you look at those names, you’ll see that a higher percentage of them have become top players, compared to the high school picks from previous years. But there could still be room for improvement.

You’ll also notice that only five of these 34 freshmen were picked in the second round. It seems the NBA teams have started the cycle all over again. They begin looking for the next big player, and they think he must be a younger guy who has risen fast and will only keep going up. So they spend their high draft picks gambling on these players, hoping they’ll get a star. But where does that leave the upperclassmen? Well, in the case of Scottie Reynolds, a four-year senior at Villanova who lead his team to a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament, it gets you an “undrafted” label and a ticket to play in Europe. Was he more likely to get drafted if he left college earlier, even though he wasn’t as good a player yet? Probably.

Which is why the NBA needs to take this rule a step farther. Making a draft pick go through all four years of college is a little unreasonable, but two years could be a great requirement. It eliminates the one-and-done philosophy and makes college much more competitive. A more competitive college game means the true future stars will stand out that much more, making it easier for scouts to see their potential. One year in college is good, but two years is better for everyone.

Will the NBA change the rules again? Who knows. But if they want to raise the level of not only the drafts, but the entire NBA, this is their best option.

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2 Responses to A New NBA Age Limit Rule?

  1. Kane Lambert says:

    HI,
    While you make some very good points, I think you are making one big ommission. Like Salary Caps, this rule is in place to stop GMs and owners from making dumb decisions. This isn’t about doing something for the youth that try and make the jump to the pros. The owners chose those players who didnt make it. Why shouldn’t they suffer from wasted draft picks.

    The NHL and MLB allows 18 yr olds to play without it having a negative impact on the game. The problem with the NBA is that they never had a chance to balance out the equation. After wasting their draft picks and maybe allowing the games image to slip a little, NBA teams would have spent more money scouting and investing in the kids that have a chance of making that incredible step over the NCAA and thus learning from their earlier mistakes.

    Maybe the age requirement is good for the league, but it is a terrible prescedent to set when it comes to limiting individual rights and freedoms. People should have a right to pursue their livelyhood, if they are equipped with the skills to complete the task. If a person can fight for their country (the ultimate decision) or vote for their president, then why can’t they take a chance at pursueing their dreams in Basketball? I do have a suggestion for the NBA. The NBA should allow players to be under age players to be drafted, but those under 19 (or 20 as you suggest) have to play in the development league. This would allow them to learn those skills while still collecting a paycheque (much smaller). It might cut off their education route, but at least they would have received a fair shot at making the NBA without going the NCAA or European routes.

    I enjoyed your side of the argument, and your article. I like that it offered an opinion with facts to back it up, too many sports writers are just writing opinions and thoughts without evidence.

    • Michael says:

      Thanks for the comment, Kane. Good points – I’m actually doing some research right now about how the NBA could use the Development League more effectively, and allowing under-age players on those teams seems like a great idea. Glad you liked my post!

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