Steve Kerr's Case for the 20-year old NBA Draft age limit
The Case for the 20-Year-Old Age Limit in the NBA
It's not just personal experience — it's common sense
By Steve Kerr on May 8, 2012
When Kentucky won John Calipari's first national championship earlier this year, it spawned a fierce debate in basketball circles about the NBA's age requirement. Some believe the league should raise it from 19 to 20 years old; others believe it should remain the same; a third faction wants to restore the old rule (which allowed prospects to join the NBA straight out of high school); and there's even momentum for adopting baseball's stance, which allows high schoolers to enter the draft right away OR commit to three years of college before becoming draft-eligible again.
There are valid reasons for any of the above courses, but I believe the NBA would best be served by raising its age requirement to 20 years old. Fans and critics have assorted opinions about morals, ethics, education, fairness, and law, but to me, this really comes down to a single issue: Would the NBA's business be stronger by raising the age requirement? I say yes for the following six reasons.
1. Player maturity.
I have been involved in the league for the past 24 years, either as a player, a general manager, or (currently) as a television analyst for TNT. I love what I'm seeing right now — the league is teeming with young talent, the style of play is wide-open and fun, the rules have been successfully tweaked to encourage more movement and scoring, and most games are played at an undeniably high level. Unfortunately, there's a collective immaturity that troubles me, especially with some of the league's more talented players. Many enter the NBA as child prodigies: physically gifted, but lacking any concept of how hard the day-to-day work is, or even how the NBA functions as a whole.
True story: I once had an extremely young teammate ask me when our Christmas break was. He then became visibly shocked and saddened after learning that we didn't get to go home for a week or so. Another time, a different young player asked me how the NBA's playoff format worked. We entered the first round of the postseason and he had no idea what "best of 5" meant. These were players who were ready to be professional athletes?
That level of immaturity naturally leads to growing pains; it's why so many young players struggle for a season or two as they adjust to the workload, schedule, travel, stress, and media scrutiny, and especially, with seemingly basic off-the-court stuff like managing money, paying bills, and dealing with pressures from their extended family. Even with a few NBA seasons under their belts, that lack of life experience and the backbone of a college education hampers many players' ability to handle adversity and/or make difficult decisions. (See Howard, Dwight.) The league would obviously benefit by its rookies arriving with a little more seasoning, both on and off the court, armed with a little more life experience to prepare them for the oncoming challenge. A more mature workforce means a stronger league. Even one extra year of college would help.
2. Financial costs
NBA franchises spend anywhere from 50 million to 100 million on yearly salaries, plus another few million per year evaluating and developing players. For a scout or general manager (I've only been the latter), seeing a prospect for one measly four-month season of college ball increases the risk of being wrong about his potential. Remember, talent evaluation is a business in which, in the words of Jerry West, the greatest GM of all time, "Being right 51 percent of the time means you're doing well." Having an extra season to assess the potential of college players would cut down on the personnel mistakes that teams inevitably make in the draft, something that could potentially save the league tens of millions of dollars every year.1
Of course, that extra season pushes their moneymaking timetable back, which is why certain agents hate this idea so much. For NBA rookies drafted in the first round, there's a four-year contract scale; after that, they become free agents (and eligible for much more lucrative deals). Had LeBron not been allowed in the NBA until he was 20, his first max deal wouldn't have happened until 24 (not 22), and his second one would have happened at 28 (not 26). That's why certain agents (some of whom influence collective bargaining more than anyone wants to admit) push to keep that age limit in the teens, even if it's counterproductive for their clients. Do you think Tim Duncan or Ray Allen ever looks back at his career and says, "Man, I wish I'd skipped college and gotten my max contracts started earlier!" I'd bet anything that they look at it the other way — without college ball, they wouldn't have been as good (and would have earned less money).
3. Player development
Why should NBA franchises assume the responsibility and financial burden of player development when, once upon a time, colleges happily assumed that role for them? Think about the 1980s, when the best college players usually played at least two or three years before entering the draft. Stars like Michael Jordan (three years in college), Larry Bird (four years), and Magic Johnson (two years) used their college time to hone their leadership skills, improve their games, and deal with real pressure (all three played for national championships). They learned how to deal with media scrutiny, how to handle game pressure, even how to handle success and failure under a pretty sizable spotlight. By the time they were drafted, they were ready to succeed at the highest level and compete for titles immediately. Bird and Magic won eight of the league's next nine championships after they entered the league in 1979; Jordan won seven scoring titles and three NBA titles in his first nine seasons. All three thrived immediately as rookies.
Larry Bird, 1979-80: 38.0 MPG, 21.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 4.5 apg, 47% FG, 20.5 PER, 11.2 win shares, 61 Celtic wins (lost in Eastern Finals).
Magic Johnson, 1979-80: 18 ppg, 36.3 MPG, 7.7 rpg, 7.3 apg, 2.4 spg, 53% FG, 20.6 PER, 10.5 win shares, 60 Laker wins (Finals MVP).
Michael Jordan, 1984-85: 38.3 MPG, 28 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 5.9 apg, 2.4 spg, 52% FG, 25.8 PER, 14 win shares, 38 Chicago wins (lost in Round 1).
Compare those numbers to the rookie stats/records of four of today's best players (all of whom arrived straight from high school):
Kevin Garnett, 1995-96: 28.7 MPG, 10.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 49% FG, 15.8 PER, 4.4 win shares, 26 wins (Minnesota missed playoffs).
Kobe Bryant, 1996-97: 15.5 MPG, 7.6 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 1.3 apg, 42% FG, 14.4 PER, 1.8 win shares, 56 wins (Lakers lost in second round, with Kobe famously firing two air balls in the last minute of the final loss).2
Dwight Howard, 2004-05: 32.6 MPG, 12 ppg, 10 rpg, 52% FG, 17.2 PER, 7.3 win shares, 36 wins (Orlando missed playoffs).
LeBron James, 2003-04: 39.5 MPG, 20.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.9 apg, 42% FG, 18.3 PER, 5.1 win shares, 35 wins (Cleveland missed playoffs).
Other than lost salaries, what would have been the downside of those last four guys playing two years in college? Garnett and Bryant needed the extra playing time (and added responsibility of carrying a college contender); meanwhile, LeBron and Howard were thrust into unfair positions as saviors of lottery teams, and after seeing how their careers have unfolded, maybe those burdens affected them more than we realized. Neither played a postseason game until his third season; meanwhile, Garnett didn't make it out of the first round until his ninth year, and Kobe didn't start logging big playoff minutes until his third season. You're telling me two years of leading elite NCAA teams wouldn't have been a better basketball/life/social/teamwork experience for those four guys?
In the old days, college basketball was the NBA's single best marketing tool. Nearly all of the league's future stars were well known by the time they were drafted. I'll never forget watching the lottery in 1985, when the Knicks won the right to select Patrick Ewing with the first pick. NBA fans had followed Ewing for four years as he dominated college basketball at Georgetown; by 1985, they couldn't wait to see him on a bigger stage. They knew that whichever team landed Ewing would contend for the next decade, at least. This was a common occurrence back then: college stars like Jordan, Bird, Magic, Hakeem Olajuwon, or David Robinson entering the league to great fanfare and anticipation, poised to change the fortunes of franchises immediately.
How often does that happen today? Even if Washington fans were excited to draft John Wall two years ago, and Cleveland fans were ecstatic about picking Kyrie Irving last year, none of them were actually thinking, We're back! Look out, playoffs!
5. A sense of team
Even if today's players are incredibly gifted, they grow up in a basketball environment that can only be called counterproductive. AAU basketball has replaced high school ball as the dominant form of development in the teen years. I coached my son's AAU team for three years; it's a genuinely weird subculture. Like everywhere else, you have good coaches and bad coaches, or strong programs and weak ones, but what troubled me was how much winning is devalued in the AAU structure. Teams play game after game after game, sometimes winning or losing four times in one day. Very rarely do teams ever hold a practice. Some programs fly in top players from out of state for a single weekend to join their team. Certain players play for one team in the morning and another one in the afternoon. If mom and dad aren't happy with their son's playing time, they switch club teams and stick him on a different one the following week. The process of growing as a team basketball player — learning how to become part of a whole, how to fit into something bigger than oneself — becomes completely lost within the AAU fabric.
And for elite players who play one college year before turning pro, that process remains stunted. That's the single most important part of a player's development and we ignore it like it doesn't totally matter — basic foundation points like learning how to commit to a team, embracing the unity of a group, trusting your teammates, and working within a larger framework. Harvard coach Tommy Amaker puts it well, saying, "We've become a culture of skipping steps." So many young NBA players might be physically gifted, but they skipped crucial development steps along the way. It would help if they were forced to make one or two more of those steps within the framework of the college game.
You know what also helps? Being part of a college program for more than a year — an experience that, if it unfolds the right way, can affect you forever. Quick story: I was in New Orleans a few weeks ago for the Final Four and saw a great scene. Late one night I was walking outside my hotel when I came across Draymond Green, Mateen Cleaves, and Steve Smith, all talking animatedly, laughing and joking around. Those three Spartans — none of whom played together, whose careers spanned 22 years at Michigan State — were bonded by their days wearing the green and white. To me, that's so important and so underrated. Green has a foundation for his future success: great mentors, a real connection to a school, and a group of teammates that will live with him forever. I believe that Green's experience playing for Tom Izzo (and such a terrific program) will give him a legitimate advantage as an NBA rookie. As always with these things, we will see.
This won't be the case for everyone, but let's say a player attends school for two years and plays for a superior coach — not just someone who knows his stuff, but a genuinely good person who cares for his players during their two playing years and beyond. That isn't a huge asset for any player? Think about the impact Dean Smith had on Jordan. The joke back in the day was that the only person on earth who could hold MJ under 20 points was Dean Smith. (And it was true: MJ averaged 17.7 points per game in three seasons at Carolina.) But what was Smith really doing while making Jordan pay his dues and share the ball? Teaching him how to be a good teammate, how to work, and most important, how to deal with success and adversity. Did MJ's experience at UNC help make him the champion that he became in the NBA? Even if there's no way to prove it, I believe the foundation and guidance Smith provided ended up being a big reason for Jordan evolving into the greatest player ever. In fact, Michael even admits this, saying many times that Coach Smith was one of the biggest influences in his life. Their relationship remains important to Jordan to this day.3
Doesn't this mean … something?
Wouldn't an extra year have the same effect on dozens of college players every decade? The backbone of the current league isn't just the influx of talent, it's the maturity and professionalism of veteran stars like Tim Duncan, Ray Allen, Grant Hill, Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Dwyane Wade, and Paul Pierce — guys who spent multiple years in college — setting the tone for everyone else. We need more of them.
The arguments against raising the age requirement hinge on civil liberties, points like, "Who are we to deny a 19-year-old kid a chance to make a living when he can vote, drive, and fight in a war?" If this were about legality or fairness, you might have a case. But it's really about business.4 The National Basketball Association is a multi-billion-dollar industry that depends on ticket sales, sponsorships, corporate dollars, and media contracts to operate successfully. If the league believes one rule tweak — whatever it is — would improve its product and make it more efficient, then it should be allowed to make that business decision. If an 18-year-old basketball whiz wants to earn a living right away, he could play overseas or in the D-League for those two years. Regardless, it shouldn't be the NBA's responsibility to provide working opportunities for teenagers, just like it's not the NFL's responsibility to do so. The NBA should only care about running its operation the best it can. That's it.
So why hasn't the age limit been raised when David Stern is already on record saying he'd like to add a year? It's an issue that, by law, must be collectively bargained with the National Basketball Player's Association. During last year's lockout, there were more pressing matters for both sides — really, the lockout was all about money, with each side fighting for its share of the pie. The league was fighting to shorten contract lengths, alter the percentages of raises, and bring down total salaries. Anything with a quantifiable price tag became a priority; since the financial impact of a raised age limit is so difficult to quantify, that issue was placed on the back burner. The union wasn't giving that up without getting something in return; the league was doing a lot of taking and very little giving; and many of the agents certainly didn't want to pursue it. That's how the age limit slipped through the cracks.
And it's a shame, because both sides would have been helped by that age limit bumping to 20. The league would be stronger for every reason discussed above. The union would benefit because veterans would hold their jobs for an extra season. And fans would win because the game would be better — we'd see an influx of elite young talent arriving into the league more prepared, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. If that translates into better basketball, then isn't that what we all want? I realize I may sound like the old guy — stuck in his ways, out of touch with today's players — but I know what college meant to me; I know what it meant to most of my peers. And I know that the NBA would be a stronger league if its players stuck around school a little longer, too.
Steve Kerr is a five-time NBA champion.
Do not necessarily agree with every point he makes in this article, but I think he makes some good ones. I for one call the current age limit "a guilty pleasure". Yes, I realize that guys can come into the NBA and contribute at a young age. Still, I really like it when they come in and contribute big right away.
Have raised the classic rookie year argument before. Imagine how great KG, Kobe, LeBron, Amare and Dwight Howard would have been as rookies with even one more year of seasoning? Is this a reason for an age limit? Not really, but I agree with the owners having an ability to protect there investment.
If you read the article on Grantland, Kerr also points to the fact that no one seems to argue about the NFL age limit. Completely agree there, the NFL uses the NCAA as a training ground for their football players rather than paying for some kids who will need a couple more years of physical development to come close to their capability. It is a smart business practice and I think it helps the NFL quite a bit.
Obviously the NBA has had a number of prep to pro's and one and done players that have had a nice deal of career success. I am actually fine with the rule remaining 19, as I feel that extra year against superior competition has been pretty crucial to teams making more informed draft decisions.
Have to say though, Kerr makes some good points and if it were possible, for basketball fans, would it not be great to see some of these guys get a couple years of college than come in ready to kill it? Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose coming into the league closer to 3rd season form, would that not be awesome?
I honestly believe they might not put up those numbers, but something close to it. They both won rookie of the year and were good, just not classic rookie years like some of the games best. I kind of miss those. Might not mean everything, still would be a guilty pleasure. Don't see the 20 year age limit happening, don't know if I want it too, still is an interesting read from a former player who seems to be passionate about the possibility.
Easy solution, pay players a fixed amount and the pay increases the longer they stay in college.
I don't see why anyone would argue the NFL age limit. They need to develop there bodies more then future NBA players do for the most part. You won't see many Fr. RB's who will be able to take a pounding from Patrick Willis.
I believe my thoughts are similar to yours
A simple solution is to allow NBA teams to draft players before they leave college, and leave it up to the teams to decide if they want to keep them in college.
This can't happen because the NCAA has strict rules. If they were more flexible it would be better for everyone involved
The thing is, Y2G, remember when Maurice Clarett and Mike Williams (USC) challenged the age limit? Plus, I am sure there are NCAA RB's who feel they could go pro after one year of play after a redshirt. The problem would be where to pick them as far as when they would be able to contribute at the level you think they could. Sound familiar? The NBA deals with this every year.
Want to know why players are drafted on potential? Because they have little seasoning and you have to project how much better they will become. Think "potential" was much less of an issue when no one thought about leaving after their freshman season. Yes, the physical toll football takes requires more time and there is proven success of younger players coming to the NBA.
But, what if Adrian Peterson had left after his freshman year at Oklahoma? What if young guys in the NFL had success after a while and were drafted far too low comparatively? That happened in the NBA. Kevin Garnett went 5th. Kobe Bryant went 13th. Tracy McGrady went 9th. Trends catch on, and soon guys started going to high. Kwame Brown went 1st, DeSagana Diop went 8th. I mean, besides LeBron James and Dwight Howard, were there really any picks that match there true draft value? They were few and far between.
This would bring the draft back to ask fewer questions. Fewer variables would be present, we would see what Andre Drummond looked like with another year of college. He would be one more year closer to contributing at a high level and earning his salary, rather than having to take time to merit his selection as he is projected too.
TOL, think that solution is not at all as easy as you claim it is. Teams might actually be more encouraged to draft younger players to save money. That might actually hurt juniors and seniors, cause more people to leave early so they do not fall into the more pay zone. I know you would like to think that is some solve all, but I see issues with it from the get go. I do not think that Tyler Zeller should be entitled to more money than whatever freshman would be drafted at the same spot. Do not think that is necessarily incentive to stay longer.
I mean, college pays them not the NBA teams.
If the NCAA pays them, how much do they get paid? Yes, some of these guys make schools a ton of money. The Fab Five obviously have made Michigan insane amounts of money, not to mention brought them exposure. Nearly every NCAA school has jerseys that sell with the best or most popular players number, though no name. They seem to have a case that they should be paid.
My thing is, who gets paid? NBA Draftees? Professional players? Are scholarship players 10-13 also getting dough? Is it communal, everyone gets paid the same? How can it not be? Would other teams than not be given unfair advantages? Would Kentucky not even further monopolize the recruiting battle? How much more would one make per year?
A lot of questions and a pretty loosely based solution in my eyes. Sorry TOL, as much as I think college guys are entitled to money, don't think your system keeps kids in school much longer than they are already. Just think it gives them more money before they make pro bucks. That is not a bad thing, but not much of a deterrent from leaving for, well, more money.
The other thing is, basketball is not necessarily a cash cow for every NCAA school. Football tends to make much more and many schools athletics are completely financed through it. Basketball may make some of the bigger schools a lot of money, but not every school turns a large profit through it. Not sure about the numbers, but another thing that might make your system not as easy as you seem to believe it may be.
They can get paid as seasonal incentives as well as how many wins their team gets and how far they go into the tournament. This will keep some players in college longer.
Also, I've always thought the NBA should use the D-League as a minor league system. Like baseball does with AAA, AA, and A. NBA teams can draft players out of high school and if they feel they aren't ready, keep them in the D-League for a year or two where coaches work particularly on grooming their talent rather than wanting them to be ready as NBA coaches do.
Most of the time, NBA coaches don't take the time to teach rookies when they come into the league because they don't have time to focus solely on improving their skills, leaving a lot of rookies to improve on their own. In college, improving a player is the focal point of coaching, this should be done in the D-League as well.
Great read. I think Steve Kerr absolutely butchered the Phoenix Suns and was a heinously inept GM (Took the fastest team in the league, let its fastest players go, and brought in the league's slowest player...and it didn't work. Hmmm, weird!) , but I love his analysis and find him to be an astute observer of the Association.
My position is that the league can do whatever it wants to. I'm behind any decision it makes. I hate when individuals cry out with nonsense like, "I have a right to go pro at age 18 if that's what I want!"
It's foolish. The NBA is a group of employers. Employers can set their qualifications however they want. If a manufacturing company wants to hire engineers, they have every right to say, "If you want to be an Engineer here, you're going to need a four-year degree in Engineering." You don't see 18-year-old high school graduates whining that they're not allowed to be Engineers right out of high school. Companies aren't allowed to discriminate on the grounds of race, gender, or religion, but they're perfectly allowed to set qualifications however they want.
If a kid says, "I'm ready to work now, I don't need college," that's perfectly fine, he can go work for an employer who doesn't require a four-year degree. If the NBA says you have to be 20 but a kid wants to turn pro now, go follow in Brandon Jennings and Jeremy Tyler's footsteps.
read the whole thing before you make a judgement
I think that increasing it is bad. If you look at the last 2 drafts you will see that only 7 to 10 freshmen get drafted. That is a small number. You should give those guys a chance to come out after their freshmen year. It doesn't realy hurt anyone. Only 2 to 3 of the freshmen guys coming out are imature.
If kerr looked at the players NBA season 3 years after highschool (lebrons forth, jordans first, and so on for when ever they where going into their 4th year after highschool). LeBron averaged 27.2 points in his 2nd year in the league, that wouldn't have happened if he had to be in school for 2 years. How is that fair to force kids to go to college for a "basketball degree." Most of the elite prospects know they are great so what is the point of going after a degree. If you wikipedia the high school guys like howard, kobe and garnett, they still became great after 2 years.
It is better to be practicing against great competition than to be way better than the other players. I am just glad I am not an elite NBA prospect because thier reasoning to change something that is a not even a problem is dumb. If Kidd Gilcrest had been in the NBA last year he would have been shooting a lot of jumpers and his shot would have improved more than it did at Kentucky.
The guys have a right to make as much money as they can. Thier career las 10 to 15 years. To take more years away is dumb. for lebron, that would mean his rookie contract would have start 2 years later, which means that could $40 dollars he would have lost going to college, plus 2 years of endorsement deals. There is no fair way to justify doing this.
This is like the stupid kid who spits out gum on desks in school, so they ban gum chewing because of 1 moron. The NBA should be better than this.
I am open to criticism. I just was tired of everyone in the media supporting such a stupid idea
I feel what kerr is saying. College fanbases influence the nba viewer ratings. If you have favorite players from not just your fav college but any player you like then you look forward to them when they get in the league. Guys were coming in as rookies having big years. All these failed projects(players) should show the league they need to up the age limit. I would say just like college football 3 yr jr or rs sophomore. I mean how often do people think about terry cummings? He averaged 24 and 10 his rookie year. It shows that the league would put a better product on the floor if guys just stayed. Everybody claims to have the poorest family all the time or some crazy excuse why they need the money. Granted their is some like demar derozan had a situation with a sick parent who needed medical attention or something but everybody doesnt need to go. I would say if they are that broke then go do what jennings did. Most of these guys are just ready to purchase their favorite cars and hang out with their favor rappers but they are not ready to be pros. I just want them to minimize the waste of talent.
Give them the money they deserve.
Really agree with @Phila as well.
Just because some one-and-dones don't work out, doesn't mean we should ban them. I don't think we should be restricting players from joining the league when there are definitely some players who are ready.
Lebron, KG, etc. were ready to enter the league. Sure, you can compare their stats to superstars who played many years in college. But it's flawed logic because you have to their compare seasons at similar ages.
Which experience is more valuable? College or NBA? Who are we to decide... it depends on the player.
That's why I'd give NBA teams the option of leaving the prospect in College. They would still have to pay him. But say the Raptors took Andre Drummond and have a crowded frontcourt... imagine they could pay him for his first year in the NBA while he's playing in college another year. (maybe they could accumulate it for him until he enters the league).
That would meet the interests of everyone.
Football should never be brought into this argument. Two completely different sports. Football has a three year must because most of those guys have to develop more physically before they can compete. It's different with basketball. There are a lot of guys coming out of high school or coming out their freshman year of college that are ready to compete in the NBA. The two should never be brought into the same conversation.
Personally I wish they never changed the rule. The success rate of kids coming out of high school versus only one year of college is probably fairly similar. Just think of all the kids that came out of high school that have been successful; Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy Mcgrady, Jermaine Oneal, Lebron James, Dwight Howard, Monta Ellis, Josh Smith, Lou Williams, Amir Johnson, J.R. Smith, Tyson Chandler, etc. There shouldn't be any one year rule. If kids want to go pro out of high school they should have that opportunity. If things don't work out they can join the D-League or go play professionally overseas for a few years.