As much as David Stern likes to talk about the many successes of the NBA, there’s one little burr in the commissioner’s saddle: the age limit. Stern tried to get a minimum age of 20 when the NBA and the players union negotiated the previous collective bargaining agreement.
He missed by a year. He’ll try again when the new agreement is being negotiated, either in 2011 or in 2012. The operative question is, why bother? Haven’t we all learned by now that age is relative? And money is, well, not as relative?
The talk of extending the age limit for United States players has been going on for awhile; Stern has been stumping for it whenever he is asked about it. All the while, union chief Billy Hunter wonders what the big deal is; the younger kids who have entered the league recently are not a problem and he sees no reason to extend the age limit. In other words, if Stern really thinks this is necessary, something else is going to give.
But recently, Stern again made the case for a 20-year-old minimum to a different audience – the head men of FIBA in a session in Berlin.
Stern and deputy Adam Silver told the FIBA honchos, who included vice president George Vassilakopoulos, secretary general Patrick Baumann and secretary general emeritus Boris Stankovic, that they will push for the 20-year-old limit in talks for the next CBA. The current one expires at the conclusion of the 2010-2011 season. The NBA can extend it for another year if it exercises an option before Dec. 10, 2010.
Currently, a high schooler in the United States must be a year out of high school to be eligible for the NBA draft. He also must be at least 19 years old in the year in which he wants to be drafted. If Stern gets his way, a player would need to turn 20 in the year he was eligible to be drafted. Would Stern also insist on the player being two years out of high school as well? (The NCAA wouldn’t object.)
What the current age limit has accomplished is making the phrase “one and done” a part of the college basketball lexicon. In 2007, the first year of the new age limit, five of the first 10 picks (and three of the first four) were players who spent only one year in college. In 2008, the number of one-and-doners jumped to five of the first seven (including the top three) and seven of the first 12.
Also in 2008, a U.S. high school player, Brandon Jennings out of powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., is playing professionally in Italy for Pallacanestro Virtus Roma rather than for a college team. He, too, will be eligible to be drafted in 2009 and it remains to be seen if he becomes an aberration or a trend-setter.
“I can tell you this,’’ said longtime high school advisor and shoe rep Sonny Vaccaro, who helped engineer the Jennings move, “I’ve had numerous conversations with parents of kids who are now in high school and they are seriously considering doing what Brandon Jennings did because of not being able to work in America. In my mind, it’s a very selfish mindset to do what David Stern is trying to do.”
Currently, an international player must simply be 19 – there is no high school provision – to declare for the draft. If he does not do so in that year, or at 20 or 21, he automatically becomes draft eligible at the age of 22. That was the case last year with Tiago Splitter, who for years put his name into the draft and then withdrew it. But he turns 22 in 2008, so he was eligible to be drafted and the Spurs took him. Splitter decided to remain in Europe anyway.
If Stern really wants to stop the younger kids from coming into the NBA at such a callow and tender age, there is another way he might go about it. He can revisit the whole concept of guaranteed contracts for rookies. It might not stop the influx of younger players, but it might make a kid think twice.
Back in 1995, when Kevin Garnett was thinking of applying for the draft out of Farragut Academy in Chicago, he called Vaccaro for advice. Vaccaro said, simply, “even if it doesn’t work out, David Stern is guaranteeing you three years of salary. How can you say no to that?”
How could anyone say no to $5 million, which is what Garnett was guaranteed.
Stern is still guaranteeing money to the untried, although now it’s only two years with a team option for a third. It’s ridiculous money for someone who has never proven himself in the league, starting with the more than $4.8 million-per that Derrick Rose will get from the Bulls this season.
“Hasn’t David Stern figured it out yet that it’s not about the age, it’s about the money? He has all these lawyers working for him and he still hasn’t figured that out yet,’’ Vaccaro said.
How could Stern find a way to not make it so attractive for these kids to come out by way of reconfiguring the salary structure? There are any number of options, ranging from making all rookie contracts non-guaranteed to grading them based on the number of years a player has stayed in college. Or, simply by age. A 22-year-old rookie would get more than a 21-year-old rookie, etc.
Would the union go along? Who knows? But the union also has to be concerned about players at the other end as well, and, with a redistribution of the wealth, it might be willing to at least consider a change.
But raising the age limit – and doing nothing to guaranteed deals – is only going to mean that instead of a lot of one-and-doners, there will now be a lot of two-and-doners. International players would simply stay with their team (or move to another) and wait for the proper time, which many of them already do.
Stern wanted NBA scouts out of high school gyms and he succeeded. If he’s really serious about making the NBA “older,” the best way to go about that might be through the wallet, not the birth certificate.