As many as 10 players taken in Thursday's National Basketball Assn. draft could be picked straight from high school. They'll join a couple dozen other prep-to-pro phenoms in the league -- and try to avoid the fate of a handful of flame-outs, who weren't able to make the adjustment. If NBA Commissioner David Stern had his way, this could be the last time the league will have to worry about the conundrum of helping teens -- most of whom haven't lived outside of their mother's house -- cope with instant fame and fortune.
Stern recently spoke with BusinessWeek's Brian Hindo about why he's pushing for a 20-year-old minimum-age limit (see BW Online, 6/24/04, "The NBA's Youth Squad"). Below are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: Under the rules of the current collective-bargaining agreement, a player's high school class must graduate before he can join the league. That basically translates to an 18-year-old age limit. But you'd like to see it raised?
A: I would like to see it raised to 20. There are three main reasons. No. 1: Because of the iconic stature of our players, there are 10-year-olds out there who think that their basketball skills will lead them right to the NBA and that they don't have to do anything else but play basketball. That's simply a fantasy. Arthur Ashe called it a "false promise." The opportunity for rocket scientists and brain surgeons is considerably higher than it is for NBA players.
No. 2: Because of the success of such players in our league -- and that's the irony -- we're now going to be faced with a record number of kids taking great chances with their futures. And they're going to wash out, and that's going to be sad. And No. 3, I would say that as a business matter it would be better for our teams to be able to have more time to evaluate the prospects of players.
Q: In other words, it's a riskier investment for teams to draft a kid with less playing history?
A: That's a risk, and there's the possibility that by throwing them in at such an early age, they actually don't reach the potential they might otherwise reach.
Q: But the high school draftees are a self-selecting bunch, the cream of the crop -- isn't this a group that's predisposed to success? We've seen that most of the high schoolers who have joined the league have been successes, by and large.
A: Time will tell whether the trickle turns into a flood that we're not able to contain. I think that reasonable people can have very divergent views here. But I think it's going to get worse. To me, it's becoming a mindset, which necessarily is going to cause more kids to declare. As that net gets wider, it's going to capture young men who don't have the skills of a Lebron James. But you're right, there has been a certain amount of self-selection. My observation is -- why 18? Why not no limit? What would you say to that? It's really just a matter of placing the line someplace.
Q: Has the influx of teens affected the play on the court? And will it eventually?
A: It's interesting. I think that given 12-man rosters, it probably hasn't affected play as much as the critics would like to say. I don't agree with the observation that shooting or play has gone down because of the youngsters -- because the very good ones get to play and improve the game. The ones who aren't that developed sit on the bench.
Q: Because there's a mandated rookie salary scale and further salary restrictions on players over 35 years old, players have a real financial incentive to come out early. They can sign a seven-year, maximum-value contract twice, while a college grad only gets one chance at the maximum deal.
A: That's a strawman. That can be dealt with in another way. If I said to you that teams could sign players to no more that five-year contracts.... I don't want to negotiate with my players' union through you, but the reality is that's just an agent ploy to get them out.
Q: Have you thought about building into the rookie salary structure any financial incentives for players who stay in college?
A: That's a subject that has been broached in prior negotiations as well as this one. There are multiple ways to do that.
Q: What plans do you have for the National Basketball Development League? Will that develop into a full-fledged minor league system for the NBA?
A: I want to have it on the side percolating. So Omar Cook, who came out of St. John's University after his freshman year because people were saying things to him that weren't true -- he spent three years in the D-League and now he's under contract with Portland for next year. We have a 20-year-old rule in the D-League as well, except for players who have been drafted in the NBA and fail. Then we will take them in. We've tried to be as proactive as we could on that side.
We're raising the possibility that players under a certain age could be assigned to a minor league. So any time spent would count against the contract -- we're not looking for an edge there -- but they could get the minutes against competition that the NBA approves of.
Q: That sounds a little like Major League Baseball's system.
A: Yes, but something much more modest than that. In baseball, all of the players on minor league teams are under contract to a major league team as well. Here, we're just looking for the opportunity for players to be assigned. We don't want to sign players just for the purpose of sending them to the minor league.