NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said on multiple occasions that raising the minimum age for entry into the annual NBA draft from 19 to 20 years old, effectively eliminating the "one-and-done" rule, ranks at the top of his list of priorities. Many people think that's a bad idea. Julius Randle, it seems, agrees with them.
Despite a reported foot injury that has raised concerns, the 6-foot-9-inch, 250-pound lefty — who earned first-team All-SEC honors and a third-team All-America selection for his play at power forward as a freshman at the University of Kentucky — is considered a surefire lottery selection in next Thursday's 2014 NBA draft. Many draft prognosticators, including Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress and our own Marc J. Spears, have Randle coming off the board with the seventh overall pick and heading west to California to join the reportedly 100 percent Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.
If Silver had his druthers, though, Randle wouldn't be eight days away from a guaranteed multimillion-dollar contract; he'd be five months away from the start of his sophomore season. As Randle told ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin after a Tuesday pre-draft workout at the Lakers' facility in El Segundo, Calif., this is better:
"I think everybody should have free choice, whether it's [going to the NBA after] high school, college, four years of college," Randle said after his pre-draft workout with the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday. "Who is going to tell the kid when he's ready? So I think everybody should have a free choice, but I know the commissioner and he's done a great job so far, and I think he'll do what's best for the league." [...]
Randle said he did not plan on attending Kentucky for only one year before making the jump to the pros. However, the opportunity was too good to pass up, he said.
"My biggest thing was I wanted to be a college student and enjoy college," Randle said. "I loved Kentucky. Of course, you're going to love the basketball, but just the state, the people, my academics. I loved it. I miss it, of course, seeing everybody go back to school, and I just kind of miss that brotherhood that I had with those guys. But I knew that the next step was what's best for me and my family."
At the heart of the age debate is the tension between what prospects like Randle view as the best thing for themselves and their families, and what Silver and his adherents view as the best thing for the NBA (and, to some degree, for its "partner" organization, the NCAA).
The NBA draft age limit — or, more accurately, age minimum, since it sets the age before which a player can't be eligible to enter the draft — was introduced in the 2005 collective bargaining agreement between the league and the National Basketball Players Association. According to the rule, you can't play in the NBA until you've been eligible for at least one draft. To be eligible for the draft, you have to be at least 19 during the calendar year in which that draft takes place. If you were born in the United States, you also have to be at least one year removed from high school.
Interest in increasing the minimum age to 20 goes back, at least, to 2009, when former commissioner David Stern began saber-rattling for turning one-and-done players into two-and-dones, claiming that doing so would increase the maturity level of incoming pros, provide young players more opportunities to hone their skills at the NCAA level, and afford NBA teams more time to scout prospects. This, in theory, would reduce the incidence of draft busts, especially among high-lottery selections.
Lots of people have called bull on these arguments. Research makes a very loud and very compelling case that, even when considering those high schoolers and college freshmen who have washed out in the bigs, prep and one-and-done stars have been safer bets than NCAA veterans, and that, at best, it's unclear whether prospects develop more effectively as collegians than as professionals. (It's also probably worth noting that, by at least one draft analyst's estimation, 16 of the 25 best draft prospects of the past 15 years were American-born players who played one or fewer years of college basketball.)
Some folks support the abolition of one-and-done, or at least oppose the increase of the age limit, not because of that research, but because they believe young men of legal age to do stuff like vote and get deployed to a forward operating base should have the opportunity to seek gainful employment in the field of their choosing. Or that the owners of NBA teams should be able to hire them if they want. Or that a money-printing organization like the NCAA shouldn't get to keep reaping the benefits of unpaid skilled labor. Or that the NBA's desire to maintain a cost-free development system isn't a compelling enough reason to keep players earning the kind of money that could change their families' lives for generations. (These folks include several members of the Los Angeles Clippers, including Chris Paul, the president of the players' union.)
Still, Stern and plenty of former players (and at least one current player), among others, have continued trumpeting the age-minimum increase as something that would make the league better. The players and owners discussed the topic during the last lockout but declined to make any changes, electing to table it in the interest of working out bigger issues like the division of basketball-related income — the players took a major loss there — and finish an agreement that would facilitate the start of the 2011-12 season.
In his public comments since taking over for Stern in February, Silver's shown himself to be just as, if not more, zealous for an age-minimum increase than his predecessor. He has repeatedly claimed that the NBA bears some responsibility for maintaining the health of NCAA basketball, that forcing prospects to wait two years to join the NBA will lead to a stronger pro game, that the extra year of scouting will create a "more competitive" draft, and so on.
Silver won't be able to move ahead with any age-minimum increase for at least a couple of years; the issue is subject to collective bargaining by the players and owners, and neither side can opt out of the 2011 CBA until after the 2016-17 season. Beyond that, preliminary discussions on the matter have been complicated by the absence of leadership atop the players' union in the aftermath of former NBPA Executive Director Billy Hunter's ouster in February 2013. Still, in a recent media session prior to Game 2 of the 2014 NBA Finals in San Antonio, Silver told reporters he sensed "there is a little bit of movement" toward eliminating the one-and-done rule.
"Ron Klempner, who is the [acting] executive director of the union, said at a sports forum recently that it was something that the union was willing to discuss," Silver said. "And certainly in individual, one‑on‑one conversations I have had with players as I travel around the league, my sense is that they're willing to discuss it as well. The ongoing issue is that until we have a new executive director of the union, we're not going to sit down and have any real serious discussions on the topic."
Whether those "real serious discussions," however, will consider positions like Randle's — let alone those of the prep stars still to come — remains very much an open question.
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