Information and Risk: Discussing why the NBA wants a higher age limit

Friday’s decision in O’Bannon et al v. NCAA is sure to bring another round to the debate over the NBA’s proposed age limit rules. While much of this discussion focuses on the cartelized and exploitative nature of the NCAA’s amateurism rules and the unfairness that would be visited on top talents like LeBron James or Kevin Durant if higher age limit were in place when they were finishing high school, often lost is discussion of reasons why the NBA and teams themselves would want to raise the minimum age.

Among stakeholders in the debate, it’s perfectly clear why the NCAA itself is in favor of increased age limit. Member schools would be able to continue and the practice of employing free labor for it’s moneymaking events. Players forced to stay in school additional seasons might even enhance NCAA revenue by creating more familiarity with bankable stars, not to mention raising the standard of play. Meanwhile, the NBA players union represents players currently in the NBA, not future players. Current players would certainly benefit from a delay in top talents coming into the league at a young age – that delay might save a few jobs per season and delay large free agent contracts down the road, with the difference being made up in higher wages paid to current vets.

But why do the NBA teams care so much? The notion that college is the best place for talent to develop is at best unproven. For every John Calipari focused rather explicitly on getting his players ready for a pro-style game, there are many more coaches who are far more focused on winning games at the college level than creating NBA prospects. And rightly so. Bill Self’s job wasn’t to make Andrew Wiggins a top pro prospect, it was to get as much from Wiggins as he could while the phenom was still at Kansas. Still, the NBA wouldn’t at all mind an additional (if imperfect) year of development to come on someone else’s dime. Even if an NCAA season is worth only half a pro year, that’s an additional half-season the NBA franchise can make use of during the players’ extremely affordable rookie contract.

Further, the NBA as a professional organization would probably prefer it’s employees to be as mature as possible. It’s hard to imagine any NBA coach or front office enjoys dealing with post-adolescent behavior and would prefer players to have aged out of that phase to a degree (as most people do when they matriculate through college).

While those are two fairly venal rationales, there is another reason why the NBA desires an increased age limit. The answer is twofold; information and risk. In the best of circumstances, drafting basketball prospects is a dicey business. Projecting high school talent onto the NBA is extremely difficult, both due to the age of the participants and the vast gulf in quality of opposition between high school games and the NBA game. Height and size are pretty important in the NBA, and there is no real telling who is done growing at 17, and who might add a couple more inches in the next few years. More important would be determining the true level of talent from play against vastly over-matched high school kids.

While certain super-elite prospects such as the James, Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant would be easy to spot even at the high school level, these top prospects are the ones for whom the system matters least. Top stars will find a way to become top stars almost regardless of the system. Would a year in college have really done much to dim LeBron’s star? A seminal talent such as Durant would have been perfectly fine entering the league straight out of high school. Basing the entire system around what is best for these players is shortsighted because their ability will win out under any plausible regime. The stated worry in the case of those players is often about injuries which might derail a career before it begins. This is certainly a risk born by the players, and is one of the major reasons why the NCAA’s system remains inequitable. But from the standpoint of the top pro league, it’s immaterial. In fact, the NBA would prefer those injuries which are going to occur to 18-year olds to happen in college, when they aren’t on guaranteed contracts. Beyond that, injuries happen, they can and will happen in the NBA just as they can in college or even in international competition, and they will screw up a career just as badly in a player’s second year in the league as they might the year before he is drafted.

Moving beyond the inarguable superstar talents, for the vast majority of prospects figuring out from their performance at 17 which will be the best players at 25 is a fool’s errand. Think of recent examples of maximally hyped high school prospects such as Harrison Barnes or Shabazz Muhammad. These players might well have been number 1 overall picks in their respective drafts had they been allowed into the NBA straight from high school. However, even a year exposed to the higher level of structure and competition in college illuminated holes in their games potential, greatly lowering their draft stock.

Given the value of rookie contracts in the NBA, missing on a high lotto pick can subject a franchise to many years of purgatory. Allowing teams a year or two or more to gather this information on prospects in a highly competitive environment can only help the exactitude of the draft process, thus lowering the risk and theoretically allowing better decisions.

This has some other positive effects as well. If the luck factor is lessened in the draft through more information being available on prospects, perhaps teams will be able to identify issues in talent evaluation earlier, possibly increasing the  quality of front office decision-making overall.

None of this is to say that raising the age limit is a desirable thing all told; the present system whereby prospects generate but do not receive revenue remains untenable. But it is important to understand the reasons behind this being one of Adam Silver’s stated priorities. It’s not just about paternalism and cost-savings, and addressing the more legitimate concerns for the NBA product is an important aspect of the ongoing discussion.

Seth Partnow

Seth Partnow lives in Anchorage, Alaska. He writes about basketball at places like Washington Post's #FancyStats Blog, TrueHoop Network's ClipperBlog. Follow him @SethPartnow and sethpartnow.tumblr.com