Yesterday, one of college basketball's best writers, Mike DeCourcy, listed his top 10 most defining moments of the past decade. Here's his choice for at No. 6:
July 30, 2005: The draft comes of age. As part of its collective bargaining agreement with players, the NBA announced prospects would need to be 19 and a year removed from high school graduation to enter the draft.
OK, I agree. For better or worse, this rule is awfully "defining," given the way it's affected college basketball thus far and the way it will continue to affect the game in years to come. I'm with DeCourcy here. But then comes the justification. Ruh roh:
After years of prep stars largely crashing as NBA draft picks—most remember Kobe and LeBron and forget the dozens of failures—players would need to gain some training before becoming pros. Most chose college. This might have been David Stern's best moment as NBA commissioner. The age minimum has legions of loud, misguided critics who continue to gripe. This many people haven't been this wrong about a single subject since Out of Africa won the Best Picture Oscar in 1985.
Oh, dear. First of all, how dare DeCourcy drag the good names of Sydney Pollack, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep through the mud like this. How dare he! I watched the first hour of "Out of Africa" on Starz once. It looked at least nominally entertaining. Not cool, Mike.
Second, DeCourcy's on one side of this issue, and he's not coming back. He's written about this before. He seems pretty well-entrenched here. But his reasons for keeping the age limit -- that it's better for future NBA All-Stars as well as those whose pro futures would likely flame out if they didn't have a year or two of college in front of them -- is a bold claim to make.
Usually age limit proponents just argue the latter: That it's worth keeping a few future stars in college for a year if it means preventing the sort of first-round disasters that supposedly characterized the pre-age limit draft. But DeCourcy, and broadcaster/lawyer Len Elmore, don't concede even that much. Take this bit from a DeCourcy story earlier this summer, which relies heavily on Elmore's quotes throughout:
"As far as realizing full potential, it's the college game that does it -- for even the prodigy players," said ESPN basketball analyst Len Elmore, who played 10 years in the NBA after completing a stellar career at Maryland. "You can make a point about Kobe and Dwight Howard not going to college and what they've been able to do -- but I look at Dwight Howard in particular and, as good as he is, he could probably be better. He's not nearly as proficient at demanding the ball, establishing position, as he needs to be as a big man.
"The same can be said about LeBron, who's probably the best athlete in the world. His footwork -- he's off-balance, he's got a lot of problems in the midrange. That's probably nit-picking, but he could be better."
Really? That's what we want to argue? That LeBron James -- quite possibly on his way to being the best basketball player of all-time -- could be better? That Dwight Howard, a 7-foot freak with a comical frame, needed a year of college? Really?
There are better arguments for the age limit, like the tricky one about race, which says, rather paternalistically, that because so many of the young athletes aiming for pro basketball careers are black, they need a touch of paternalism to ensure they stop by an institution of higher learning on their way to whatever future awaits them. Elmore makes that argument as well, and it's much more valid. There's also the simple greed of the college basketball fan: every year, we get to watch some of the best basketball players in the world challenge the paradigm of the college game. I'll be honest. I like the age limit merely for this reason. I'm selfish, and I'm cool with that.
But arguing that LeBron James, who averaged like 20 points in his rookie season in the NBA at the age of 18, needed a year at Ohio State to iron out the kinks? That's just silly.
The age limit sure was defining. Thankfully, it wasn't that defining. But it will be for the next LeBron, and while I might enjoy that ecstatic, skillful year of college basketball, I'm betting that player (cough, Derrick Rose, cough) might not feel the same.