Earlier this month, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made a series of comments regarding the NBA’s eligibility rules, which presently require that a player be both at least 19 years old and one year removed from the player’s high school graduation. Cuban stated his preference to require that players be at least three years removed from their high school graduation before being NBA-eligible; commissioner Stern advocated for two years.
Cuban’s rationale for adopting his position outwardly lies in protecting the purportedly fragile and naive youth that are young basketball players. He said: "I just think there's a lot more kids that get ruined coming out early or going to school trying to be developed to come out early than actually make it. For every Kobe (Bryant) or (Kevin) Garnett or Carmelo (Anthony) or LeBron (James), there's 100 Lenny Cookes."
Then added: "I just don't think [the current eligibility rule] takes into consideration the kids enough. Obviously, I think there's significant benefit for the NBA. It's not my decision to make, but that's my opinion on it."
Cuban undeniably and grossly misrepresents the facts when he claims that for every superstar there are 100 high schoolers who declare for the NBA draft, do not get drafted, and then miss the chance at a free college education. Here are the facts: in NBA history, there have been 42 high school players drafted. While they were not all superstars, the vast majority (nearly 80 percent) went on to play many more years in the NBA than the average player, who only plays about five years.
These 42 players include the likes of Daryl Dawkins*, Kevin Garnett*, Kobe Bryant*, Jermaine O’Neal*, Tracy McGrady*, Al Harrington, Rashard Lewis*, Jonathan Bender, Darius Miles, DeShawn Stevenson, Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry, DeSagana Diop, Amare Stoudemire*, LeBron James*, Travis Outlaw, Kendrick Perkins, Dwight Howard*, Shaun Livingston, Sebastian Telfair, Al Jefferson, Josh Smith*, JR Smith, Dorell Wright, Martell Webster, Andrew Bynum*, Gerald Green, CJ Miles, Monta Ellis, Lou Williams, Andray Blatche and Amir Johnson. Of this list, the 11 with an asterisk have been All-Stars.
Nonetheless, and as Cuban asserted, there have indeed been Lenny Cookes, players who entered the draft but were not chosen (and then lost out on a free ride to college). However, according to TrueHoop, between 1995-2004, the heyday of draft eligible high school players, only six high schoolers declared for the draft but were not chosen. So, more accurately, for every one Lenny Cooke there are about three Al Harringtons (NBA vets with long and lucrative careers) and two LeBron James (multiple-time All-Stars, if not superstars).
If, by the numbers, the average player drafted straight out of high school is destined for a long and lucrative NBA career, then why does Cuban adopt a paternalistic argument, stating that the NBA is inadequately concerned about these young men? One possible reason is to serve the NBA’s goals of a draft lottery system whereby talent is distributed inversely with respect to prior season success so to create greater long-run parity. With a wealth of young talent but a dearth of information about that talent, the chance that players will artificially rise or fall in draft stock is increased.
For example, if Greg Oden were to have stayed through his junior year, Portland might have had additional information about his penchant for injury that might have better informed its decision making. If Kobe Bryant were to have played a couple years under Coach K at Duke, he undoubtedly would have been drafted ahead of the likes of Samaki Walker, Todd Fuller and Vitaly Potapenko. If Avery Bradley played for a few years at Texas, he would likely have been drafted higher than 19th overall. If parity is important to the NBA’s owners, as it seemed to have been during this past summer’s CBA talks, then having additional time to evaluate potential draftees would certainly seem to increase the chances of greater draft accuracy and league parity.
In addition to concerns of parity (in a system that already skirts parity via its lottery system, which is designed to prevent tanking), small market and/or small money owners might prefer that college players stay in school longer in order to avoid investing heavily in their young players the best of whom, upon hitting their peaks, often bail for larger-market teams.
But what about Cuban’s Mavericks, who are a large market team with a large-money and famously free-spending owner, a team that likely has far more scouting resources than the average NBA team and who, one would think, would benefit relative to other franchises from the insufficient information as to NBA draftees NBA potential? Why might Cuban want to delay all young players’ emergence into the NBA? He said that there would be “obvious benefit for the NBA.”
What is that benefit?
Most 18- and 19-year olds are not polished to the degree that they can immediately be relied upon as a starter in the NBA. For example, Kobe Bryant started in only seven games during his first two years in the NBA. If Kobe had entered the league at age 20 or 21, he would have been closer to his prime, he would have been more immediately ready to contribute, and he still would be getting paid the same rookie wage scale. This latter point is key. While it’s true that Amare Stoudemire, LeBron, and Dwight Howard were all able to start immediately, even for these players, NBA teams would enjoy better values per dollar if these players were closer to their primes when they entered the league. If he’s as smart as we think, this would seem to be Cuban’s ulterior motive.
Specifically, the NBA clearly has a desire to get the most value out of its players for each dollar spent on its players. And while superstar, franchise players are likely to deliver great value at any age, the majority of high school early entry players wind up being solid, long-term players but not superstars. So, for these players, NBA teams would particularly desire that they come into the league more polished and ready to contribute since they are not going to be adding significant value from a marketing perspective as the future face of the franchise.
What’s more, if the threshold 30-40 players are 34-40 year olds with a proven NBA tenure and identity as opposed to 18-20 year olds who get few minutes and who few people know about, then the NBA is likely to be more exciting for its fans. This is especially true because when the rookies do come into the league, they will do so with a greater following due to greater exposure during their public and lengthy college careers (e.g. think Magic-Bird).
But what about the NCAA’s noble goal of making its student athletes better, more well-rounded people? Certainly, this concept is a farce as it pertains to players who enter a highly visible basketball program, stay for a year, and then leave. Such “one-and-done” players would be foolish to make their predominant investment in the classroom, as the difference between a 2.5, 3.5, or 4.0 GPA through one year of higher education is unlikely to matter as to their draft stock or to future employers. What will matter is their actions on the hardwood.
Being exposed to the excesses of college life, including drinking, smoking, and partying, is arguably more of a frustration to one’s maturity than the NBA lifestyle. After all, players will have to work harder and longer to keep up in the NBA (relative to the college game), and, if their franchise is smart, they will be mentored by older veteran role models, who have families, homes, and other adult responsibilities. While one could make a case that the NBA lifestyle and the money that comes with it are more likely to promote a “young and wild and free” lifestyle, one or two years of college are not equivalent to finishing school for one’s maturity.
Even if the NBA did institute a “two-and-done” rule, as Stern prefers, there is no reason to believe that players would graduate in two years (especially with hefty basketball obligations to contend with). And if players do not graduate, are they really markedly better off in the marketplace having attended college for two years versus none? In this economy, when even individuals with advanced degrees cannot find good jobs, is two years of undergrad really going to make a difference in the players’ lives?
While the NBPA has a duty to its future members (e.g. 18-21 year olds seeking to play in the NBA), its greatest constituents are its current players. While many of these players benefitted from the current regime (or the former regime which allowed high school seniors to go pro), many late in their career might seek self-preservation and vote for increasing the age of eligibility in order to prevent more talent from entering the NBA more quickly, which could shorten these veterans’ shelf lives.
I am of the opinion that the NBA should allow graduating high school seniors to turn pro. After all, baseball and soccer players often elect to forego college to become professionals. Many of America’s soldiers enlist beginning at the age of 18 (or 17 with parental consent). Child actors often have little in the way of formal high school education while they work at their craft. And many entrepreneurs have started successful businesses without ever setting foot in a college classroom.
It’s not that a free ride to college isn’t a valuable thing. It is certainly valuable to all of the student athletes whose prospects of a lucrative professional sports career in are dim. But for individuals whose talents are worth millions of dollars straight out of high school, individuals who possess rare talents which have a limited shelf life, they should be able to cash in. And penalizing dozens of eye-poppingly talented youths just because a few individuals err in trying to jump into the NBA too soon is morally dubious.
Agents and parents are supposed to be responsible for guiding players’ futures, especially at younger ages. To state that an 18-20 year old with an agent is ill-prepared to make choices regarding the player’s professional career casts severe doubt into the need for and value of agents. And at the end of the day, if the player does not get drafted, he still has the option to apply to college and potentially go for free based on academic ability or a demonstrated need.
Allowing younger players to play in the NBA will benefit these players’ development, as they will hone their skills and learn habits from the very best in the world (versus being more able to coast in college where their talents are vastly superior). While most players will be better and more mature by the age of 21 than they are at 18, many still have clear NBA value and sufficient NBA maturity at 18. If an NBA team doesn’t think a player is worth the investment, then they simply should not draft the player. Rather than supporting the NCAA’s financial exploitation of basketball players, the NBA should give players a way to be compensated for their talents, beginning at the very employable age of 18 (most states allow employment by age 15 or 16 at the latest).
If the concern really is about the handful of kids who will forego scholarships to great basketball schools and then bust in the NBA, then a less onerous restriction could be to let 18 year olds get drafted but withhold $75,000 in their salaries each year until they sign their second NBA contract. This money will be kept in a trust for their benefit, and they will have access to it in order to pursue college if they cannot play professionally. If they sign a second contract to play basketball or elect not to pursue college as of a certain age (say 25), they can take full ownership of these trust funds.
And if the concern is about the even smaller handful kids who will declare for the NBA and then not get drafted (and who will have exhausted their NCAA eligibility), the NBA should identify and earmark funds (maybe the nebulous “league purposes” funds collected via the luxury tax) for college scholarships for these individuals. If the NBA is really concerned about these kids, the hundreds of thousands of dollars that would be required to put them through college is negligible compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars that NBA-ready 18-21 year olds would be forced to sacrifice by waiting 2-3 years post-high school graduation to collect NBA paychecks.
And let’s not forget the NBA fan. With an age requirement of 18, the NBA fan benefits by seeing more, better top-tier talent in the league. If the NBA were to move to a “two-and-done” or “three-and-done” regime, then colleges might lose talent to international leagues and teams. If a player enjoys his time abroad enough, at least in the rare case, he might indefinitely delay his return to the NBA, leading to a further erosion of NBA talent.
If an American male can fight and die for his country at age 17 (with parental consent), he should be able to play basketball for the NBA at age 18. The decision to (possibly only temporarily) forego college to pursue a dream of doing what one loves in one’s own country and getting paid handsomely for it certainly requires less maturity than agreeing to fight and die (and watch other young men do the same) in wars.
Truthfully, the NBA is not trying to protect the fewer than one kid per year who mistakenly declares for the NBA and then doesn’t get drafted. There’s much more at stake, and that’s giving guaranteed seven-figure salaries to players who the NBA could have a couple or a few years later, once their value per dollar improves and once their draft stock becomes more certain. Just like most things in this world, if you’re looking for the truth, you have to follow the money trail.