In March of 2015, NBA Players Association lawyer Gary Kohlman was on a panel about college athletics in Boston and had this to say about the 19-year-old age limit on the NBA Draft:
That sentiment surprised some people, but in order to get a clearer view of the issue, we have to look at how the age limit came to be.
In 1995, Kevin Garnett declared for the NBA Draft. There were teams and writers hesitant about Garnett and his chances for success in the NBA, but Minnesota drafted him at No. 5 and the rest is history. KG was the first high school player to be selected in the Draft since Bill Willoughby in 1975. The players were able to enter the league out of high school thanks to Spencer Haywood. Haywood was barred from entering the NBA in 1967 due to a rule that stated players could only join the NBA after four years of college. Haywood challenged the rule and after a court settlement, players could enter the league early.
Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O’Neal followed in Garnett’s footsteps and declared in 1996 (Taj McDavid also declared, but he went undrafted and never played professionally). There were questions about Bryant adapting, but then Washington Bullets General Manager John Nash made the following observation:
"You could put him in the NBA right now and he's not going to hurt you. In two or three years, with maturity, he could be a legitimate star."
Thanks to the superior depth of the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trailblazers, Bryant and O’Neal didn’t see a lot of minutes or start, but they did provide solid contributions in their on-court appearances. The same can be said of 1997's top High School draft selection, Tracy McGrady. McGrady wasn’t well known in draft circles prior to 1997, but a star making appearance in a national camp and a great senior year after moving from Florida to North Carolina led to him being selected ninth overall in the Draft. McGrady’s game drew comparisons to Scottie Pippen and like Pippen, blossomed into a superstar player by his fourth year.
As the years progressed, players drafted straight out of high school like Tyson Chandler, Amar’e Stoudemire, Dwight Howard, and LeBron James came in to the league and became All Star caliber players. Along the way, fellow high school draftees Jonathan Bender, Kwame Brown, Desagana Diop and Eddy Curry came into the league and were lottery picks but failed to live up to expectations. In the case of Brown, being under Michael Jordan and Doug Collins made things worse for him. It may not have made him an All Star, but being in a more positive environment might have helped Brown’s early development. And for what it’s worth, Brown did play parts of 12 seasons in the NBA.
A lockout and a push for change
Following the six month lockout of players following the 1998 Finals, David Stern began to make rumblings about instituting an age limit on players looking to enter the NBA. Stern and others cited the decline in scoring in 1999 compared to the 1997–1998 season, but left a few things out. Stern didn’t note the effects of the dramatic roster changes post lockout, playing one half of basketball in a shorter time period (The first half of the 1997–1998 season was 14 weeks long. In 1999, it was 12 weeks), players coming in to camp out of shape, and the decline of the Bulls following the breakup of their Championship team. The 1999 Draft only had two high school players taken after three were selected in 1998.
By 2005, Stern sought to implement an age limit of 20 years old. In addition to his complaints about the style of the game, he wanted to get pro scouts out of high school gyms. Stern managed to find some unlikely allies in his pursuit of the age limit. The man who sued the league and opened the door for high school players to enter the league, Spencer Haywood, came out in favor of an age limit in the early 2000s. Haywood wanted young players to develop their skills as well focus on their education. Rasheed Wallace (kind of) made a similar point in late 2003, but as is his wont, got himself in trouble:
It didn’t appear likely that the Billy Hunter and the NBA Players Union would agree to an age limit. Some of the league’s best players entered the league straight out of high school and Hunter himself voiced opposition to it. Wallace's former Blazers teammate and high school draftee Jermaine O'Neal was the leading voice against the proposed age limit. In April 2005, O'Neal said:
On the other side of the players' union, veteran players made the case for the age limit based on the benefits it would provide players already in the league. Grant Hill laid it out in an interview with the New York Times:
"I always thought that it was the purpose of the union to protect its members, not potential members. I think if anyone gets left out, it’s the older players, guys who put equity into this league, card-carrying members paying their dues to the union. I would hope they would be protected."
As it turned out, that logic won out in the end. The league and Player’s Association compromised and agreed to an age limit of 19 years old in June 2005 as part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Hunter and the union framed the new CBA as a win-win, but as Bill Rhoden of the New York Times warned, the owners came away with victories that had long-term implications.
Was the age limit a success?
It depends on your point of view. For teams, it represented one more win in a string of victories over the last 16 years. Since 1999, owners have gotten shorter max contracts, shorter max salaries, a favorable rookie wage scale, and more of the revenue. In an interview with Myles Brown of GQ Magazine, Sonny Vaccaro breaks down one of the major benefits of the age limit from the owners’ perspective:
They keep them extra years from earning their second contract. The second contract is the big contract. When they were coming out at seventeen years old, they were getting their second contract at 22 years old. Now they'll get it at 25. Now they've saved three years on maximizing their ability. It's a financial thing. Stern knew what he was doing. It wasn't that they were afraid to go in high school gyms. They were in there from 1993 to 2005. These guys talk in riddles and the public is blinded by it.
Vaccaro expanded on this in an interview (around the 17 minute mark) on "The Right Time with Bomani Jones."
The league has taken great pains to prevent teams from making foolish choices with their draft picks and free agent contracts. Owners have won the last three CBA negotiations and have every mechanism in place to make sound personnel and financial decisions. However, teams have still made terrible choices even with the built in advantages provided by the CBA. Penalizing players for managerial missteps distracts from where the blame should be: on management teams that make poor choices.
For the players effected by the age limit, not entirely. When we look at the high school players that entered the league, the overwhelming majority of them turned out to be solid players with a few busts sprinkled in. As for the players that declared after only one year of college, most of them (so far at least) have played well. There hasn’t been much of a difference in the amount of busts taken since the age limit was implemented as compared to the previous system.
We’ve heard countless arguments over the years about why an age limit is better for the league. Former executives and players have spoken about how the age limit leads to more player maturity, fewer cautionary tales about the youngsters that didn’t make it, better financial benefits for teams and long term bonds among generations of players based upon where they attended college. There is some merit in those arguments, but not enough to warrant closing off an avenue for players ready to compete in the NBA. Denying players the right to enter the NBA when they feel they’re ready is unfair and having them play for free in the NCAA under the guise of getting future endorsements is completely disingenuous.
There’s also a bit of fine print in the age limit that bears mentioning. Players won’t be able to enter the NBA until they’re 19 and one year removed from high school, but they can join the Developmental League at 18 years old. In theory that sounds great. You get a chance to develop your skills against other professional (or close enough) players while making some money for your efforts. In a perfect world, the D-League would serve as a minor league system for the NBA. However, only 17 teams own their own D-League affiliate and 13 teams share one team (the Fort Wayne Mad Ants). Without a true minor league system, young players don’t have an opportunity to receive consistent coaching and training from teams along with the time and space to build on their skills in a low-pressure environment. It’s why you haven’t seen players take that route and it’s unlikely anyone will do so in the future. Players also have the option of playing internationally coming out of high school, but only Brandon Jennings and Emmanuel Mudiay have done it and gone on to be drafted.
It’s worth noting that the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft, Kentucky’s Karl Anthony Towns, would have had to wait one more year to enter the league if the Commissioner got his way and the age limit was 20 years old. Towns is clearly ready for the league and appears to be the next step in the evolution of the modern NBA big man. Keeping a player like him that’s ready for elite competition out is unfair and places him at greater risk for suffering an injury and losing out on millions of dollars like UK alum Nerlens Noel did following his ACL tear in February of 2013. The same could be said for another top five pick, Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell.
What the future holds
It’s been ten years since the league and the union agreed to the age limit. Commissioner Adam Silver is on record stating he wants to raise the current age limit to 20 years old and considers it to be a high priority issue. There are reports that Silver is willing to raise pay in the D-League in exchange for more stringent Draft restrictions. He’s won universal acclaim since taking over for Stern in 2014 and will have the public on his side should there be a dispute between the league and players. The NBA is in great shape and Silver will do what he can to make sure the league continues to grow.
One of the major changes from 2005 to today is the composition and leadership of the Player’s Union. Billy Hunter was removed from his position as director of the Players’ Union in February of 2013. Over a year later, Michele Roberts was named the new director and she has earned rave reviews all across the league and outside of the sports bubble. Along with Kohlman, Roberts is opposed to the age limit rule that is in place. In addition to the changes at the top, star players like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Chris Paul have taken on leadership positions within the Union (Paul is the union President, James is the First Vice President and Curry is one of six Vice Presidents).
The new leadership in the Players’ Association signals a change in how the Union has previously done business. In previous years, star players didn’t take on key leadership positions. Now that major players are filling those roles, Roberts and James have publicly stated that negotiations will be very different than last time and have challenged conceptions surrounding the owners. The NBPA appears to be united and will need to work overtime to help change some of the misconceptions about NBA players. With issues like the age limit, max salaries, and dividing up the money the league will be getting from their new television and apparel deals, all signs point to a lockout coming up. The players have lost a lot from previous CBA negotiations, so look for them to fight hard on every issue.
One similarity among players of all stripes is patience. Whether you’re a four year senior or player fresh out of high school, organizations have to take their time and give them the opportunity to develop. Look at someone like Hassan Whiteside, who was a one-and-done player and seen as a flop as recently as last year. Now? He’s on the right team and was one of the biggest surprises of the 2014–2015 season.
With the age limit turning ten years old and it being 20 years since Kevin Garnett reopened the door for players coming out of high school, it’s time to reevaluate the effectiveness of the rule. The newly aggressive NBPA can be expected to push for an end to one-and-done, along with a lot of other changes that their new executive director, Michele Roberts, feel needs correction. Make no mistake, this is no longer Billy Hunter's NBPA.