When the NBA players and owners agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement before the 2005-06 season, one of the issues was the eligibility age for the NBA draft. Before the 2005 CBA, Americans were eligible upon graduating high school and international players were eligible the year they turned 18. The new CBA required Americans be a year out of high school and turn 19 the year they’re drafted, while international players had to be 19 to enter, which are still the rules today. At one point there was talk of making it two years out of high school and turning 20 for Americans, with international players not eligible until they turned 20. With a new collective bargaining agreement looming, the issue has been brought to the forefront again. I believe the rule is fine where it is, and doesn’t need to be altered in any direction.
People in favor of letting high school kids go to the NBA right from graduation point out players like Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, or Dwight Howard as examples of players who didn’t need college and put together Hall of Fame NBA careers. However, they are the exception, not the rule. The 2001 draft proves the merits of making high schoolers wait a year before entering the league. 3 of the top 4 picks in that draft were high school kids, in Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, and Eddy Curry. Kwame was supposed to be the first point forward before it was a thing in today’s position-less game. Curry was supposed to be the next Shaq. Chandler was supposed to be the next Garnett. None of them panned out as expected. Curry and Kwame were busts. While Chandler had a lengthy successful career including winning defensive player of the year, an Olympic gold medal, and was a major part of Dallas’s 2011 championship, he didn’t produce anywhere near the level of Garnett, and it took him many years to develop his game in the NBA.
Had this rule been in place then, they would have probably gone to college and realized they weren’t ready for the NBA after high school and they dominated in high school because they were bigger than everyone else and played inferior competition. If a player in this situation feels they’re ready for the NBA after their freshman year, they can go pro then. If not, they can stay. They have 3 more years to work on their game.
This isn’t about money, turning college basketball into a free development league, or forcing kids who don’t want to go to college to spend a year somewhere they don’t want to be. This is about protecting the quality of the product and putting the players in the best possible position to succeed in the NBA. The NBA isn’t the only major sports league with a requirement like this. The NFL requires players be 3 years out of high school before they can enter the draft. This time between high school and the pros allows for the players to get bigger faster and stronger to handle the rigors of the pros, and to improve and develop their game. It makes sense for the NBA to do the same.
Two of the top high school graduates from 2006, Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, had to wait a year before they could enter the NBA draft. They both said that the year in college better prepared them for the NBA and they contemplated coming back for their sophomore years. They both also spoke about wanting to get their degrees. Players can always come back and get their degrees, and if they’re intent on getting it, they’ll find a way to make it work, as players who have left early for the NBA such as Michael Jordan, Steph Curry, and Shaquille O’Neal still got their degrees.
And this isn’t about restricting players abilities to earn a living. College athletes can now make NIL money, and the players don’t have to go to college. It’s not their only option. They can play and earn money in the NBA Development League, or they can play overseas like LaMelo Ball did when he played in Australia for a year (regardless of his NCAA eligibility issues), or Brandon Jennings when he played in Italy for a year. Basketball is a global game, and the top talent will get noticed regardless of where in the world they’re playing, as evidenced by the likely #1 draft pick this year, Victor Wembanyama from France, or Hall of Famers Dirk Nowitzki from Germany, Pau Gasol from Spain, and Yao Ming from China.
As I wrote in my previous article about NIL, if a players mindset is about how much money can I get today with no regard for the future, that’s probably not someone you want to begin with. Especially now with NIL in college, players can get paid regardless of what path they take between high school and the NBA. The money you get in those years will keep you fed and the lights on and keep your family from losing their house, but the real money is in the NBA. Because just like in the NFL, the first NBA contract sets you up for life, and the second and third contracts give you the generational wealth. But you don’t get those second and third contracts unless you perform on the first contract. And in the NBA, the money is much greater than in the NFL, and unlike the NFL, NBA contracts are fully guaranteed. This is why the NBA should leave their draft eligibility rules the way they are.