Adjusting the NBA's age limit is one of Adam Silver's first priorities as commissioner. (Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images)
While no conclusive discussion on the subject can take place until the National Basketball Players Association selects a new executive director, it's already been made quite clear that an adjustment of the NBA's age limit is one of Adam Silver's first priorities as league commissioner.
As it stands, the NBA requires players be at least 19 years of age (or one year removed from the graduation of their high school class) before entering the draft -- a limitation that essentially created the "one-and-done" trend in college basketball.
Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Derrick Rose, DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Kyrie Irving and Andre Drummond are just a few of the players who would have had legitimate NBA prospects were it not for the existing age limit, but instead played one year of college. Under Silver's proposed change, such players would be forced to wait another year before becoming NBA-eligible. He offered this in justification to Sam Amick of USA Today:
It has been our belief that we have a better chance to grow the (financial) pie that gets divided 50-50 if we increase the age and create, in essence, a more competitive league. And it has been our sense for a long time that our draft would be more competitive if our teams had an opportunity to see these players play an additional year, whether it be in college or professionally in the Development League or overseas.
We believe the additional year of maturity would be meaningful. And increasingly, I've been told by many NBA coaches that one of the issues with the younger guys coming into the league is they've never had an opportunity to lead. By having come directly out of their first year of college, those are the moments in their lives where…they were put in positions as upper classmen, where they first learned how to lead teammates.
By extension, requiring players to wait another year before entering the draft gives general managers more film and a deeper pool of competitive games from which to draw conclusions. One issue with this proposal? The data over the past few years doesn't really support the idea that a year's worth of scouting dramatically improves drafting performance.
In assessing how NBA GMs performed both immediately before and after the institution of the current age limit, Tom Ziller of SB Nation found that teams were roughly as likely to select a "disappointment" or an outright bust regardless of the limit. There will always be basketball decision makers who overreach, misjudge or prioritize the wrong scouting criteria. To date, we don't really have much evidence to suggest the age limit helps GMs make better decisions.
It's also difficult to understand how more process restrictions would in any way make the NBA draft more "competitive," as Silver claims. However, the age limit increase would certainly make NCAA basketball more competitive by keeping talented players in the system for an additional year. That's where the logic of the age limit gets especially fuzzy. College basketball, after all, isn't just a funnel of prospects to the NBA but an active competitor in the same entertainment market. Both the NBA and and the NCAA are vying for customers and viewers during the same months of the year while marketing the same game, and thus any effort that bolsters the NCAA would seem to undercut the NBA on some level. Silver clearly doesn't seem too worried by that prospect, though at the very least it's a factor worth considering.
Silver also notes elsewhere in his interview with Amick that he has "never quite understood" opposition to a higher age limit from the NBPA, though the reason for their resistance seems obvious. By hypothetically forcing players to enter the NBA a year later, the league would delay the signing of a players' second and third contracts -- their first opportunities to really cash in. Their big paydays are then not only delayed, but mitigated by the fact that players will have one less season with which to maximize their career earnings. Raising the age limit to 20, then, both slightly compromises a player's potential to earn longterm and postpones his first crack at free agency -- two shifts the NBPA would oppose for obvious reasons. Add in the fact that the additional year in question only provides added opportunity for a player to suffer serious injury before securing a larger contract and there's little reason for a players' union to be in favor of such a policy.
That said, there's always a possibility the NBPA consents to a higher age limit as a negotiating tradeoff, especially since no current NBA player would really be affected. Silver has made a point of mentioning his desire for movement on this particular point, and for that reason alone it will be on the docket for the foreseeable future. Yet when it's not serving NBA general managers, future NBA players, or the league at large (to say nothing of the complexities of depriving very employable and sometimes underprivileged workers an ability to earn), what would really be the point?