When NBA commissioner David Stern goes to bed, he dreams of a league full of high-energy offense, lockdown defense and rookies old enough to stroll into a bar without a fake I.D. Then the alarm rings. Reality is another matter, in part because teams eager to find the next LeBron James or Kevin Garnett keep drafting teenagers based on that elusive quality known as potential--and college experience be damned. The result is too many fundamentally challenged might-have-beens rotting on NBA benches and otherwise bogging down the game. Stern's solution? An age minimum of 20 by the 2006 draft. (Currently, Americans can enter the draft the year their high school class graduates; international players can enter at 18.)
The players' union is likely to buy Stern's idea when the new collective bargaining agreement is struck. After all, it cuts down on competition from young 'uns. But several players--including Jermaine O'Neal, who jumped to the NBA from high school in 1996--have spoken out against the age minimum, calling it racist because most of the teens who'd be forbidden from signing would be black.
Yet Stern's scheme could be useful and fair, if he adheres to his plan to overhaul the National Basketball Development League, the 10-team minor league the NBA started in 2001. One possible change: each NBDL team would become an affiliate of two NBA franchises, creating a farm system similar to baseball's. In exchange for signing off on an age limit, the players' union could negotiate a raise for NBDLers who now earn $12,000 to $24,000 a season.
Had such a system been in place five years ago, Cleveland's DeSegana Diop, Minnesota's Ndudi Ebi and Portland's Travis Outlaw would have spent their first two years out of high school playing and learning instead of warming the pro pine. Former prep phenoms such as Taj McDavid, who passed up college, then never got drafted, would have had a chance to hone their game--and gain a steady source of income. True, the system would delay the ascent of once-in-a-generation players like King James. But maybe once in a generation we could live with that, for the sake of so many others. --Chris Mannix