A Different Perspective on NBA Age Limit

Andrew Sharp of Grantland wrote last month about Marcus Smart and talked about him coming back to college:

And this is how the guy who was college basketball’s favorite superstar just four months ago turned into a symbol for what college basketball can do to superstars who stay too long. Saturday was the culmination of a few underwhelming months in general. Smart has struggled, his team is losing, and scouts have started to question where his game fits at the next level. It’s a familiar pattern for guys who turn down the NBA draft.

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There will still be mistakes and lessons, but instead of costing yourself money while that happens, you get paid to learn. If Saturday was a “teachable moment” for Smart, it was also a lesson for every superstar freshman who’s considering sticking around another year. College basketball works great for almost everyone who plays it, but for the guys who have the option of the NBA right now, there’s a lot more to lose than there is to gain.

Whenever anyone talks about players returning to school or age-limit rules it almost always comes back to the player, not the league or sport. When a guy goes back to school and drops in the draft, it’s perceived as a personal mistake, but few look at the relief some teams probably feel about having missed drafting someone who would not have worked out.

Draft bust lists in both the NBA and NFL are very topics of conversation for a lot of people. There are lists and lists of players who were taken in the top 5–10 who ended up not working out at all. Some get injured (Greg Oden) while others just can’t cut it (Kwame Brown). Maybe another season of college would have helped Oden get stronger, or maybe he would have gotten hurt and people would have learned sooner what an injury liability he was. Brown didn’t even go to college, but maybe one year would have been enough for people to evaluate him better.

It’s easy to feel for these kids, many who come from poorer backgrounds, who lose out on millions of dollars by making the wrong decision or being prevented from going pro because of rules that seem unfair. History shows though, that it’s incredibly difficult to evaluate future professional success, and any way to increase the sample size before millions of dollars are handed over is a good thing for the teams that most people root for.

Most of the time both college and sports teams are better off with these age limits. It makes the talent at both levels better. College teams get players to grow and mature and play together for a couple of years. Meanwhile it would give NBA teams more time to evaluate players and make better decisions. For every LeBron James there is, there are three Kwame Browns. It may suck for the players, but it’s better for the game.