Brandon Jennings and the NBA’s age-limit rule

Until a friend mentioned his name to me a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t heard of Brandon Jennings or his unique situation. He is the top point guard of the high school class of 2008, and he recently announced that he would be signing with Pallacanestro Virtus Roma (in Italy) instead of going to play for Lute Olson at Arizona. Jennings has had trouble with the SAT; he failed to become eligible after taking it once, and when his second score was suspiciously higher, the NCAA flagged it and made him take it a third time. It was then (with advice from hoops marketer Sonny Vaccaro) that he started to contemplate the possibility of playing in Europe for a season as an alternative to playing in college. Even before his third test score became public, Jennings announced that he would indeed play overseas next season.

So now, the basketball punditry is predictably on fire debating the merits of the NBA’s age-limit rule. It states that a player must be 19 and a year removed from high school to be eligible for the NBA Draft. Commissioner David Stern originally wanted the age-limit to be set at 20, but relented as part of the negotiations during the last Collective Bargaining Agreement.

For his part, NBA Player’s Union executive director, Billy Hunter, says that he is against the rule.

“It’s a questionable and suspect rule . . . you now have the NBA and NCAA partnering . . . and those [opinions] about going to college being more important than being able to earn an income are neanderthal,” Hunter said. “The [NBA] owners get the benefit of the kids’ college celebrity without having to pay them a year.”

The rule does make a mockery of the idea of these players being student-athletes while in college, but that’s the case in a lot of programs, with or without the age-limit rule. When I examined the relative success of high school draftees versus their college and international counterparts, I found that players drafted straight out of high school fared much better in the NBA.

But that doesn’t mean that the rule is a bad one. It’s designed to improve the NBA game by allowing franchises to get a better feel for the talent of these prospects, making them less likely to make a mistake. (Of course, that argument is undercut by the NBA’s relative inability to pluck stars out of the college and international game when compared to its success with high schoolers.) The other, more tangible benefit is that the rule, by nature, makes the league more mature. Of all the high school players I examined in that year-old column, only LeBron James had a big impact in his first season. A vast majority of high schoolers either struggle or are only able to put up modest numbers in their rookie seasons as they get acclimated to the NBA.

There is one very important thing to consider – every year that an incoming class is delayed effectively extends the career of the same number of veterans, which is probably why you don’t hear too many NBA players speaking out on the subject. If the rule stays (or an additional year is added) these veterans will be able to stay in the NBA an extra season. This is why I find Hunter’s rhetoric so surprising – my guess is that if the union were polled on this issue, veterans would generally support the age-limit because it means more money for them in the long run.

I don’t believe that the NCAA is in cahoots with the NBA on this issue, though there are obvious benefits (and drawbacks) for the college game. On one hand, it’s nice to have guys like Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, Derrick Rose and Greg Oden play at the college level for a year. There’s the excitement of having all of the best players from a certain class compete on the same stage for a season. The downside is the inherent turnover of such a system. The recruiting process has been tipped on its head; as soon as a coaching staff lands a player of this caliber, they have to turn around and start recruiting the next guy. Due to this revolving door, there is little continuity at the bigger college programs.

But back to Brandon Jennings and his decision to go play internationally. Most of the pundits are saying he’s doing the right thing by going to Europe and that the NBA rule is hypocritical. (Mind you, they don’t say why it’s hypocritical, they just say it is, assuming everyone agrees with them.) They scream and beat their chests about how it’s unfair to keep these kids from earning a living.

Only the rule doesn’t stop them from earning a living. They have the option of playing for peanuts in the NBDL or, like Jennings, going overseas and playing internationally for big dollars. The conventional thinking is that between a shoe contract and his salary, Jennings will net at least $1 million this season. Not bad, but that’s not nearly what he would make in his rookie season in the NBA. Jennings will miss out on the national attention (and “celebrity,” as Hunter puts it) that he would have received had he played at Arizona, though that is unlikely to have much of a negative impact on his draft position.

In the end, the NBA has a right to set whatever limitations it sees fit on becoming eligible to enter the league. Some companies require that potential candidates have a college degree. Others require that a new-hire have experience in one field or another. How is the age-limit any different? In essence, the league is saying that an 18 year-old doesn’t have enough life experience to handle the rigors of playing in the NBA. If they like, pundits can call the rule stupid or hypocritical while debating the benefits and drawbacks, but they can’t call it unfair. The NBA is not restricting 18 year-old players from making a living playing basketball.

Brandon Jennings is proof of that.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

Related Posts

  • No Related Post