20-Year-Old Age Limit in the NBA: Should it be done?

When Kentucky won John Calipari’s first national championship earlier this year, it spawned a fierce debate in basketball circles about the NBA’s age requirement. Some believe the league should raise it from 19 to 20 years old; others believe it should remain the same; a third faction wants to restore the old rule, which allowed prospects to jump from high school straight to the NBA. And some people are even thinking about adopting the MLB ruling, which allows high schoolers to enter the draft right away OR commit to three years of college before becoming draft-eligible again. Any of these ways could work but I would not hate to see the age limit raised to 20 years old.

There are valid reasons for any of the above courses, but I believe the NBA would best be served by raising its age requirement to 20 years old. Fans, critics, and even NBA players have argued over fairness, education, morals and ethics, but none of those seem to be the biggest issue. I feel the biggest issue is this: Would the NBA benefit more from the raised age limit, or would it suffer? There are many reasons I believe it could help benefit the NBA, and I plan on discussing them here.

One major reason has to be the maturity of players. As we have seen with many players who jumped straight from high school, or came out right after their freshman year, they were not ready mentally. They may have had all of the physical tools and make up, but they were not ready for the everyday grind of the NBA. That level of immaturity naturally leads to growing pains; it’s why so many young players struggle for a season or two as they adjust to the workload, schedule, travel, stress, and media scrutiny, and especially, with seemingly basic off-the-court stuff like managing money, paying bills, and dealing with pressures from their extended family and friends. The league would obviously benefit by its rookies arriving with a little more seasoning, both on and off the court, armed with a little more life experience to prepare them for the oncoming challenge. A more mature workforce means a stronger league. Even one extra year of college would help. Players who have come out after two or three years of school have had visibly less problems when they entered the league. They became used to the everyday grind of college, athletically and academically, and it helped them transition onward.

Another big reason for me has to be player development. Players who are age 19 or less have struggled as players because they have been able to succeed on natural ability. They have never had to truly work on their skills or their game because everything came so easily to them at such a young age. The problem with these players is that every single player in the NBA is like that. The ones who work hard and try to improve their skills are the ones who become superstars in the league. Think about the 1980s, when the best college players usually played at least two or three years before entering the draft. Stars like Michael Jordan (three years in college), Larry Bird (four years), and Magic Johnson (two years) used their college time to hone their leadership skills, improve their games, and deal with real pressure (all three played for national championships). Bird and Magic won eight of the league’s next nine championships after they entered the league in 1979; Jordan won seven scoring titles and three NBA titles in his first nine seasons. All three thrived immediately as rookies.

Larry Bird, 1979-80: 38.0 MPG, 21.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 4.5 apg, 47% FG, 20.5 PER, 11.2 win shares, 61 Celtic wins (lost in Eastern Finals).

Magic Johnson, 1979-80: 18 ppg, 36.3 MPG, 7.7 rpg, 7.3 apg, 2.4 spg, 53% FG, 20.6 PER, 10.5 win shares, 60 Laker wins (Finals MVP).

Michael Jordan, 1984-85: 38.3 MPG, 28 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 5.9 apg, 2.4 spg, 52% FG, 25.8 PER, 14 win shares, 38 Chicago wins (lost in Round 1).

Compare those numbers to the rookie stats/records of four of today’s best players (all of whom arrived straight from high school):

Kevin Garnett, 1995-96: 28.7 MPG, 10.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 49% FG, 15.8 PER, 4.4 win shares, 26 wins (Minnesota missed playoffs).

Kobe Bryant, 1996-97: 15.5 MPG, 7.6 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 1.3 apg, 42% FG, 14.4 PER, 1.8 win shares, 56 wins (Lakers lost in second round, with Kobe famously firing two air balls in the last minute of the final loss).

Dwight Howard, 2004-05: 32.6 MPG, 12 ppg, 10 rpg, 52% FG, 17.2 PER, 7.3 win shares, 36 wins (Orlando missed playoffs).

LeBron James, 2003-04: 39.5 MPG, 20.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.9 apg, 42% FG, 18.3 PER, 5.1 win shares, 35 wins (Cleveland missed playoffs).

As great as those players are now, they realized they needed to work on their game and develop as players to become successful. All of them have and that is why they are successful today.

Another reason I believe they should move up the age is because of the mentoring a player could and can receive while they attend college. Whether it is a professor or coach, a player can learn so much about not just basketball but life. A mentor would even help connect the development of a player, they could help the player become a great person on and off the court. Think about the impact Dean Smith had on Jordan. The joke back in the day was that the only person on earth who could hold MJ under 20 points was Dean Smith. (And it was true: MJ averaged 17.7 points per game in three seasons at Carolina.) But what was Smith really doing while making Jordan pay his dues and share the ball? Teaching him how to be a good teammate, how to work, and most important, how to deal with success and adversity. Do you think this helped MJ? Of course it did. He learned how to play with his teammates and it made him realize he didn’t have to do it himself. He could trust his teammates, learn from them, and it ultimately made Jordan the player he was.

So why hasn’t the age limit been raised when David Stern is already on record saying he’d like to add a year? The problem within the NBA is that both Stern and the NBA Players Association must agree on the same terms. The players association does not want to see the age raised because that makes it seem as if they are taking the rights away from athletes to make their own decision. But Stern has a great point trying to move the age up. It’s a shame, because both sides would have been helped by that age limit bumping to 20. The league would be stronger for every reason discussed above. The union would benefit because veterans would hold their jobs for an extra season and be able to get another year under their belt before a younger player took his job. And fans would win because the game would be better — we’d see a mass of elite young talent arriving into the league more prepared, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. We will see what the NBA does but I’d like to see what they do.

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