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The NBA’s Age Limit Is Broken

Could the NBA’s age limit be on its way out? In October, during an appearance on ESPN’s Mike & Mike, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said that “it’s clear a change will come.” Silver indicated that he was open to working with the players’ union to potentially eliminate or at the least revise the age restriction. It was a reversal for Silver, who, as recently as 2014, made raising the league’s age minimum from 19 to 20 years old his top priority.

The commissioner cited three reasons for his change of tune: recent NCAA scandals; that the two most recent No. 1 overall picks came from programs that didn’t make the the NCAA tournament;1 and an increase in one-and-done college players declaring for the draft.

Silver’s comments suggest that the league is ready to acknowledge that the age restriction is broken. In fact, the recent draft cycles indicate the draft is trending in the opposite direction of the age policy’s intended effect: Prospects are getting younger, not older.

In 1995, Kevin Garnett was the fourth player ever drafted straight out of high school. His selection that year led the way for the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwight Howard and other high school phenoms to make the leap. But since 2006, players have had to be at least 19 years old, or one year removed from high school for international players, in order to be eligible for the draft.

Initially, the age limit worked like anyone would have expected. The players who were taken in the 2006 draft were, on average, older and more experienced than the year before. In the first year under the age restriction, only two one-and-done players were drafted.

Fast forward to 2015, when a record-breaking 13 freshmen were taken in the draft. The next year, that number increased to 14, and in the most recent draft, 18 one-and-done players were selected. That upswing in the number of freshmen in the draft has led to an overall decrease in the average age of draftees.

Twenty players under the age of 20 were drafted this summer. In fact, more teenagers were drafted this year than in 2005, when 17- and 18-year-olds were eligible. Not many could have predicted that when the age limit was introduced.

Below is a distribution of the ages of each player drafted each year since 1995. The past two draft classes were among the three youngest on average since the prep-to-pro era.

Who or what is responsible for the sudden change?

For starters, we can look at NBA organizations, which are increasingly valuing youth. In recent years, the difference in the age between the earliest and the last draft picks has increased.

In 2017, the youngest players were selected early and often. Nine of the top 10 picks were one-and-done players,2 and eight of the top 10 were under 20 years old. Meanwhile, the last picks of the draft were used on some of the oldest, most experienced college players. The only seniors drafted in the first round this year, Derrick White and Josh Hart, were taken with the last two picks by the San Antonio Spurs and the Utah Jazz.

This makes sense from a talent development perspective. Why draft a 22-year-old prospect when you can take a 19-year-old and spend those three additional years on developing him? The counterargument is that upperclassmen may be more NBA-ready their first year in the league. Malcolm Brogdon, last year’s 36th overall pick at 23 years old, was a fifth-year senior at the University of Virginia and later became the 2016-17 Rookie of the Year for the Milwaukee Bucks.

With so much demand for the youngest players in the draft, you’d think organizations would be the most vocal supporter of eliminating the age restriction. But when GMs were polled this month about which NBA rule they believed needed to be changed the most, the age minimum received fewer votes than revisions to playoff seeding, the draft lottery/odds system, the timing of the draft combine and the advance-the-ball rule.

The NBA itself is also partially to blame for the increase in one-and-done players. That’s because the incentives to leave school early are becoming harder to resist.

Under the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, rookies are offered a base salary that’s scaled according to when they’re taken in the draft3 and is far below their true market value. That base that has increased sharply in recent years, with this year’s No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz at a base of $5,855,200, 36.6 percent more than the base salary five years ago for Anthony Davis, the No. 1 overall pick from 2012, and 56.1 percent more than the base 10 years ago for Andrea Bargnani, the No. 1 overall pick from 2006.

But higher base salaries aren’t the only motivation for young players to enter the draft as early as possible: It also starts the clock on the rookie scale. Talented young players on a rookie contract are the most underpaid group in the league, and they remain that way for the duration of their deal. For a first-round pick, that means four seasons, with a massive bump in pay in their fifth season. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s salary leaped from a little under $3 million in 2016-17 to more than $22 million this season. The sooner a player enters the league, the sooner he has access to that second contract.

In the end, it’s difficult to say what brought the influx of one-and-done players because of the inherent chicken-and-egg nature of the question. Did the demand for young talent drive up the supply? Or did the supply of young players increase because the incentive to leave college early became irresistible?

Regardless, barring opposition from the players’ union, which has supported dropping the age minimum to 18, we’re likely to see a change that will send shockwaves through the NCAA, future drafts and the league as whole.

Footnotes

  1. Markelle Fultz at the University of Washington and Ben Simmons at Louisiana State University.

  2. Frank Ntilikina, a 19-year-old international player, was the lone exception.

  3. Rookies can sign to a team for as little as 80 percent and as much as 120 percent of that base salary.

Owen Phillips is a data analyst and writer living in Brooklyn. His work can be found on NPR, The Outline and The Awl.

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