Assessing an increased age limit

Ronald Martinez

Adam Silver wants to up the age minimum from 19 to 20. Is that a good idea?

The NBA digital landscape has been awash in stories about Adam Silver's recent proclamation that, if he could change anything about the NBA, it would be to raise the league's age limit from 19 to 20, or two years from the date of a player's high school graduation.

It's a complicated issue that touches on everything from marketing to morality, and anyone who thinks it's a no-brainer in either direction is being willfully misleading or frustratingly ignorant. On ESPN, Jay Bilas wrote that "there would be no losers in this, only winners." To my mind, the most obvious winner would be the NCAA; now able to retain their best players for at least two seasons, college basketball would again begin to resemble the halcyon days of the 1980s, when a player leaving before his junior season was the exception, not the rule. If you're a Kansas or Duke booster, the idea of an increased age limit should be music to your ears.

If you're an NBA general manager or coach, there are potential benefits as well. With two full seasons to evaluate top prospects, decision makers would theoretically reduce the risk of gambling on an enticing but unproven talent like, say, Joel Embiid.

"That extra year of scouting helps everyone," an NBA GM told ESPN's Chad Ford. "It helps us see what adjustments a player makes from Year 1 to Year 2. It gives us another 30-plus games to break down. It also helps our analytics people tremendously as all of their formulas are more accurate with the more data they receive. It will make our life easier."

It will make our life easier.

Those six words get to the heart of the issue. Everyone in this situation is angling for an advantage: the NCAA wants to keep its best players around for longer; NBA front offices want to reduce the chances they screw up and get fired; current NBA players who are hanging on to their jobs would benefit by limiting the incoming talent pool and reducing competition for those precious roster spots.

But what about the elite college players themselves, the one-and-dones who would be most affected by an increase in the age limit? After all, raising the limit from 19 to 20 doesn't change the game for Aaron Craft, but it does for Andrew Wiggins; or, more appropriately, it changes things for Jahlil Okafor, the top high school prospect in the class of 2014 who might have to play two years at Duke because Adam Silver says so.

The NBA, and sports in general, is a unique business in the sense that its essential value is derived from its labor force, not upper management. Mark Zuckerberg and a few friends created Facebook, but no one's buying tickets to watch Adam Silver speak. They sit in the seats and watch at home to see Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis and John Wall, all one-and-done players in college.

Is there a guarantee that every one-and-done player will succeed in the NBA? Of course not, but it's fair to presume they would have among the best chances at success. Writing on ESPN, Kevin Pelton found that many players improved more rapidly in the NBA than they did when they returned to college for their sophomore seasons. That makes some intuitive sense; the level of competition is undeniably higher in the NBA than in college, there are more than twice as many games and the interests of the player and coaching staff are more often in line. For example, is it Bill Self's job to develop Andrew Wiggins as a player or win as many games as possible? Of course it must be the latter. It is possible that an NBA draft pick might regress once he comes to the league (see Bennett, Anthony), but to enact a blanket prohibition on the assumption that players will be more "ready" for the NBA after two seasons in college reeks of extreme generalization and faulty logic.

If Silver gets his wish and the age limit is increased, there are a few clear winners, chief among them the NCAA. It seems clear to me that the NBA would be hurting itself by delaying the careers of its most valuable commodity: young stars. If that's not counterproductive, I don't know what is.

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