NBA commissioner David Stern is already discussing raising the league's minimum age from 19 years to 20, and you can hardly dismiss it as a nothing bit of saber-rattling because the question came up in a random Q&A with TIME Magazine two weeks ago.
The change won't happen anytime soon. The collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and Players' Association won't lapse until after the 2010-11 season. But it's safe to say Stern has already decided his expectations for the next round of bargaining.
The initial reaction is a sound one. Not only have a whole host of players (role players, stars and even future Hall of Famers) made a nearly seamless transition from high school to the NBA, but failures like Korleone Young and Leon Smith have been, almost exclusively, the exception.
On top of that, the current rule, which was established in 2005, forced high school players to wait at least one year after graduating – whether they stayed home, rocked off to Ohio State or took an overseas gig for a year – appears to be working quite well. The sporting fandom embraced players like Greg Oden and Kevin Durant as they worked through one year of college ball while the NBA received a free year of in-game training from the NCAA, which had no problem borrowing these talents on CBS' dime.
So why change, now? Well, to Stern, if a little of one thing is great, a little more has to be a lot better.
And, you know what? He's right.
It doesn't mean he's being fair, and it doesn't mean that the idea of denying someone gainful employment at a job he is more than qualified for isn't abhorrent to the very core, or a bit of an affront in the face of all that seems, well, American.
Stern is right, though. The first trial balloon was a complete success. Take Durant. Had he gone straight to the pros after high school, he would have become just another high-school star that rabid NBA fans would have to wait years to see the best from. General sports fans would take years to truly understand his gifts or even remember his name.
Instead, one year of hitting 18-foot jumpers for Texas changed that. While the NBA's devout followers will still have to wait for his prime, the fair-weather fans are going to check box scores and tune into the odd ESPN game just to "see how Durant's doing." That wouldn't be happening had he not spent that year in Texas.
Two years could not hurt any more than it could help. Ardent NBA observers aren't exactly waiting with baited breath for O.J. Mayo or DeAndre Jordan to go in the June draft and then spend next season strapped to a lousy team's bench. They don't mind waiting as either player develops in a December game against Stanford or Missouri, just as long as it doesn't have to be the second quarter of a game against the Grizzlies or Mavericks.
This rule change would not be designed for future Hall of Fame players. It would be for Mayo and Jordan, Shawne Williams-types who are just starting to come into their own at this level. It's for guys like Mike Conley Jr., an All-Star in waiting, but also a clueless rookie at the game's toughest position. Conley would have benefited more from another season at Ohio State than the 51-loss rebuilding campaign he's endured with the Grizzlies.
If this means a couple of Odens and Durants have to slug it out another year with Dick Vitale behind the microphone, so be it. Durant is a once-in-a-lifetime star, and yet he's still struggling mightily with any aspect of the NBA game beyond the hanging 19-foot jump shot.
So while the idea of limiting employment to those who have earned it makes our skin crawl, we also have to remember that this is a private league, and that its management and union get to choose who wears the uniform and who doesn't. There is nothing that's stopping a high-school senior from jetting off to join Tau Ceramica or Efes Pilsen for two years or hooking up with any one of this country's minor-league outfits.
Who wouldn't be the first in line to cheer a McDonald's All-American as he spurns the NCAA's money-making outfit in favor of playing better basketball for actual money in Europe? That would be fantastic.
In reality, Stern is essentially echoing the feelings of a whole host of people, from executives to coaches to scouts to fans, that he's charged with representing. He's telling these kids, "We don't want you here, yet. We don't need you here and you don't really need to be here this soon. We're doing just fine without you and we'll just have to see you in a few years."
This has nothing to do with the intellect, worldliness or maturity of these potential draftees. The 18- and 19 year-olds drafted over the last decade-plus, with a few exceptions, have proven to be sound in those areas.
This has everything to do with game.