December 18, 2018
It is time for American basketball to develop what it has always needed - a true minor league.

In his state of the union address during All-Star Weekend, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver reiterated his desire to increase the league’s age limit from 19-years old to 20. The rebuttal from the NBA Player’s Association was succinct and to the point:

“Be happy with one-and-done, it’s not going to be two-and-done.”

-Union Executive Director Michele Roberts

It is Silver’s contention that delaying young men’s eligibility in the draft would mature them, and therefore improve the NBA’s entry-level talent base. Mostly, though, it is just another measure to protect owners and front offices from themselves, providing another year of evaluation to filter out potential busts. For the NBAPA, and specifically the type of star prodigies like LeBron James or Kobe Bryant that were taken high in the draft out of high school, it represents the loss of another year of potential career earnings already capped below value by artificial thresholds on individual salaries.

There are a number of moral and impassioned arguments to be made against the age limit, from the NCAA exploiting an unpaid and unrepresented labor force to the tune of billions of dollars, to the right of young Americans in a capitalist society being allowed to ply their trade. Likewise, the NBA will provide a number of sound business reasons in favor of the limit. Ultimately the issue will have to be collectively bargained by two sides serving their own best interests, so in breaking down this issue and coming up with a compromise for this impasse, let’s keep the focus on what’s best for basketball itself.

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The Myth of NCAA Basketball and America’s Player Development System

“…our view is that it would make for a better league. You’d have more skilled players, more mature players. The draft would be better. It would be better for basketball in general. Strong college basketball is great for the NBA. And we know those players are eventually going to come to the NBA, whether they are 19 or 20 or 21.”

-Adam Silver in a November interview with GQ Magazine

Strong talent is great for the NBA regardless of where that talent comes from. What’s best for basketball is to put that talent through the best developmental processes possible, and it’s wrong to assume the NCAA is the best venue for that in terms of skills, health, or maturity.

ESPN’s Kevin Pelton crunched the numbers from the 2008-2012 draft classes, comparing the rate of improvement from those with one year of college to those with two. The study also looked at how those that returned for a second year of college improved at the NCAA level, showing only miniscule growth as players. There are a number of factors to account for, but the results show that players improve at a faster rate once they’re in the NBA than they do from their first college year to the next:

“Although this group rated slightly better as NCAA freshmen, which makes sense given their perceived higher upside, 15 of the 21 improved as NBA rookies relative to their translated NCAA performance. On average, their win percentage went up by 10.5 percent, better even than we’d expect from players of this age.

Now, this study could be picking up on the superior potential of one-and-done prospects, a possible factor in why they generally were more coveted after one year in college. However, the development advantage disappears by the time both groups are in the NBA. In their third year out of high school — the rookie season for the sophomores and second year for the freshmen — the sophomores actually improve slightly more. But this difference isn’t nearly enough to make up the development they missed out on between their two years of college.”

It makes sense that playing against the best competition in the world would force players to improve, adapt, and evolve their games through sheer necessity in a way that the NCAA, with its uneven talent base and inferior basketball simply can’t.

The dynamics of NCAA basketball are not the most optimal for player development. Coaches are paid outrageously lucrative contracts to oversee a disposable, unpaid workforce with a mandate to win, and to keep this workforce unpaid, the NCAA must uphold its contrived illusion as an academic institution first and foremost, providing athletes with opportunities for the future in exchange for their services representing these schools. And while there is value in this for the thousands of student athletes who will eventually have to earn a living outside of their sports, it’s a huge disservice for those whose future clearly resides on the field or court of play.

I mention these issues with the NCAA not to drum up a conversation about the morality of the institution, but to point out how it affects the development of professional grade talent. Some programs and coaches, such as Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, have enough security to look beyond their immediate won-loss records in regards to how they handle the young men that enter their campus. But the majority of college coaches do feel the imperative to win and win now.

To be fair, this fact shouldn’t lead an assumption that coaches don’t care about their players. However, it does influence their player development. With only four years at best, a limited amount of practices to comply with academic requirements, and a mandate to win every year, coaches must prioritize how to best leverage their players’ immediate talents rather than develop their long-term prospects.

On the court, this could mean an offense where a point guard dribbles, with his back to his teammates, for 30 seconds while standing 30 feet from the basket. Or big men that have learned how to utilize their size and athleticism to dominate inferior talents, but not given instruction or reps in the finer arts of post play or shooting because it’s not an efficient use of a coach’s budgeted time.

It can often play out in two extremes; one, where coaches unleash superior talent in a frantic full court press and trapping defense that won’t hold water at the highest professional levels; or two, where coaches remove all freedom, dictating players move from point A to point B like pawns on a chessboard. One only needs to see how a talent like Andrew Wiggins has blossomed freed from the constraints of college basketball to realise how such micromanagement, rather than being developing, could in fact be inhibiting.

In the NBA, because the players are so highly compensated, the best players are more long-term investments than disposable labor. The priority is still to win, but dropping all other pretenses and viewing the player/team relationship as more than just a four-year commitment allows for long term thinking towards the player’s development.

For example, had Anthony Davis stayed at Kentucky for another year or two, he would have improved some simply through adding yet another year of experience. But on a team stacked with talent relative to its competition, how many reps would he have received in the post, or for his jumpshooting? How many hours would be dedicated to his individual skill set versus his functions within that loaded Kentucky team?

Davis came into the NBA supremely talented but raw, especially on the offensive end. In his short tenure in the NBA, however, he has already evolved into one of the five best players in the NBA. At Grantland, Kirk Goldsberry chronicled the development of Anthony Davis’ offensive game, crediting his work with player development coach Kevin Hanson:

Davis spent hours in the gym, learning and relearning how to release the ball higher. It was all about the hands, according to Hanson: “We really focused on one-hand shooting. Shooting 101 is really just shooting with one hand and focusing on the release.”

Davis says his old form was obscuring his view of the target. “When you shoot from your chest and in front of your face, you lose sight of the rim.” One goal of the adjustment was to simply enable Davis to keep his eyes on the prize. “I kind of moved it up to the right side of my right ear, above my head,” he recalls. “Which helps me see the rim a lot easier.”

The nearly limitless time and resources available in the NBA allow for players to hone in on the smallest of details; to not just instruct on correcting flaws, but to provide countless hours of supervised repetitions enforcing the correct habits. Practice only matters if you’re practicing the correct form.

So if the best talents develop quicker in the NBA than they do in college, what does the NBA gain from routing young players through this pipeline? Can a case be made that the draft has been less of a crapshoot in the years since implementing the current age limit, and has thus diluted the number of busts?

No. The popularity of NCAA basketball and its tournament does help build brands, providing some marketing heading into the draft. But the remaining players from the prep-to-pros era were wildly successful establishing their own before ever stepping foot on an NBA court. Ditto for foreign players.

An NCAA reputation doesn’t inherently provide better information about a player, but it does give players something they drastically need in the NBA: time. If the Memphis Grizzlies had not invested so much in Mike Conley based on his performance at Ohio State, would they have chosen him over Kyle Lowry, thus allowing him to thrive as a late blooming point guard? That reputation is not nothing, but it’s also not enough to justify increasing the age limit.

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The value of the age limit for NBA teams instead lies in the rookie contract, the most prized tool for rebuilding in the modern salary cap era. While players do develop quicker in the NBA, those jumping straight from high school or a year of college do come in less developed. This really doesn’t factor into their ultimate success or failure in the NBA, but if a team needs a year or two primarily developing this talent, it’s a year or two of wasted value on that rookie contract. When players have to spend that first development year elsewhere, NBA teams receive more developed players for the same fixed low prices as if they had had to do that development themselves.

So how do we square the need to get the best talent into the best development processes with the NBA’s desire to to keep the tribulations of its learning curve away from its national spotlight? Given the early shots fired, it’s not going to be a simple task, but perhaps an answer lies in the most contentious remarks given to date on the subject:

“If they were white and hockey players they would be out there playing. If they were white and baseball players they would be out there playing. Because most of them are actually African-American and are in a sport and precluded from doing it, they have to go into this absurd world of playing for one year. That’s just total complete hypocrisy.”

– NBAPA Attorney Gary Kohlman, via the Associated Press

The NBA’s thought processes behind the age limit aren’t steeped in race. They are steeped in business. But there is perhaps truth in Kohlman’s assertion.

Some of the groundswell of popular support for the age limit comes from the thought that professional NBA players need some type of instruction, education, and authority to conduct themselves as professionals worth investing millions in. That alone does not necessarily touch on race, but there’s a noticeable lack of proportionate outcry for teenagers turning pro straight out of high school in sports like hockey, baseball, tennis, golf, soccer–essentially any sport not comprised of a majority of African-Americans. Those teenagers are essentially given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to making decisions that determine their future in comparison to young basketball players.

One can attempt remove race from the equation by pointing out that other professional leagues have established minor leagues to house their young talents until they are more fully prepared. The lack of comparable infrastructure in basketball doesn’t speak to today’s views on race, but it does reflect how a previous era’s views on the topic unwittingly informs our truths today.

The development of Minor Leagues are more investment than profit-driven. Decades of tradition and time to craft a working business model have allowed other sports minor leagues to pass the money-centered cost benefit analysis prevalent in today’s society. Similar infrastructure was never developed in African-American prominent sports, in part because there was a time when such investment was limited only to what immediate value could be extracted from them, and even then reluctantly so.

To provoke change, then, the NBA must given reason to abandon its current convenience. The NBA stands as the most progressive professional sports league in this country, something Adam Silver has only enhanced in his short time as commissioner. A serious charge has been levied against this, which could provide an opportunity to get the ball rolling on what USA basketball sorely lacks: A true minor league.

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The Development League 30-Team Initiative and the NBA Red Shirt

In exchange for an option to delay entrance into the NBA at the age of 18 or 19, the NBA could present a viable alternative to the NCAA system with a revamped and reinforced D-League. It would start with expanding the league from its current 18 teams to 30, providing each team with a one-to-one correlation with a parent NBA franchise, ideally each located no more than a few hours drive from their parent club–drawing in regional interest from a business perspective and allowing for they type of optimal farm system utilized by the San Antonio Spurs and their affiliate Austin Spurs.

In order to fortify the D-League with better talent, its athletes should receive a raise from the $25,000 base salary it tops out at now. Financially, there might not be a viable way to compete with what foreign clubs might offer, but the money should be substantial enough so that fringe rotation players can (financially) responsibly choose to stay closer to the NBA’s radar rather than bleeding talent to an overseas market.

The key part of this deal for NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is to give back a year on the age limit in order to gain one by implementing something the NCAA has used for decades: the redshirt year. Reinstate draft eligibility for 18-year olds fresh out of high school, but give teams two optional redshirt seasons for players age 18 and 19.

During these redshirt seasons, players will remain in the D-League, learning their parent clubs’ system, their development overseen by those that will eventually cash in on it. Players will be paid in full according to the current rookie salary scale (an incentive for the players), but the clock on each contract does not kick in until a player’s redshirt status is discarded (an incentive for owners), nor do contracts in redshirt status count against the salary cap (an incentive for both). As a nod to player development, during a redshirt season players could be allowed training camp, preseason, and two 10-day call-ups to the NBA during the regular season, allowing players to better integrate with their teammates and get a feel for NBA basketball. These short stints obviously would not change their rookie status for the following year.

Because there are generational talents who can thrive at the NBA level immediately out of high school (LeBron James) or one year of college (Anthony Davis), these redshirt years are optional and can be voided by keeping a player with the parent club beyond the two 10-day stints or adding them to the playoff roster.

This arrangement gives NBA players back a year of earning potential and the option to stay out of the NCAA’s system while maximizing the value of the rookie contract for NBA teams, giving them two years of player development without worrying about the free agency clock.

Because the D-League is a shorter, 50-game season with games played predominantly on the weekends, there is time to mandate that 18 and 19-year olds participate in a hopefully souped up version of the D-League’s current educational and career services programs:

The NBA D-League Player Development Department has the role of promoting personal, professional and social development of D-League players. Players participate in comprehensive educational programming and services to maximize their potential. These programs and services include seminars regarding off-court professional development, college degree completion, and life skills programs such as the Summer Apprenticeship Program (SAP). Players may also participate in a one-on-one Mentor Program, which matches accomplished NBA players with NBA D-League players who share similar career goals and aspirations.

The NCAA model will always exist, and the NBA will always draft players from its talent pool. But not every kid has the luxury of viewing college as an experience. Some need it simply to get a job that will support their present or future family.

In a revamped D-League, players would have time to acclimate themselves to their communities free of the pressure of performing in NBA game, working alongside veterans indoctrinated in the standards of professionalism and accountability demanded in the NBA. In short, there is no better preparation for professional basketball than being a professional basketball player.

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Jesse Blanchard

Jesse Blanchard is the author of Dynasty: the San Antonio Spurs Timeless 2013-2014 Championship, author/illustrator of the unpublished #LetBonnerShoot, A Dr. Seuss Story, and former contributor for 48 Minutes of Hell, Project Spurs, and Boris Diaw is his pickup game spirit animal.

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