NBA Eligibility Rule Helps College & Pro Basketball

September 21st, 2006
Dwight Howard, fresh off representing his country in the FIBA World Championships, and following a season in which he led the NBA in total rebounds, is still almost three months shy of his 21st birthday. LeBron James, who seemingly has been the NBA’s marquee star for years, will turn 22 in December.  Even 8-time All Star Kobe Bryant, a veteran by comparison, is two years shy of 30. Judging by that, it certainly appears that the NBA is getting younger. But thanks to a new NBA rule, the days of teenage NBA success may be a thing of the past.


As part of the new collective bargaining agreement, the NBA announced that players would no longer be eligible to apply for the draft directly out of high school. Players would now have to be at least one year removed from high school, and at least 19 years of age, before they could apply, meaning projected stars such as Kevin Durant and Greg Oden would be settling into campus life rather than cashing their rookie checks. Despite the success of players such as LeBron and Kobe, NBA rosters were becoming overcrowded with too many Ndudi Ebis, Robert Swifts, and Kendrick Perkins, all high school studs who likely would have been better served playing in college. With the influx of younger players entering the league, combined with the image hit the NBA took from the 2004 Olympics, the league and the owners decided to start taking steps toward improving the quality of play on the floor, as well as the behavior and image off it.


The decision drew some ire from players and fans, who wondered why the NBA would try to delay the entry of the next young star in the league. They pointed to the success of prep stars in the NBA, where more than a few of the league’s stars having bypassed the dorms and midterms for shoe contracts and Escalades. Tracy McGrady, Amare Stoudamire, Jermaine O’Neal and Kevin Garnett all have multiple All-Star appearances, and are among the most recognizable faces in the league. Even those who haven’t necessarily become stars, like Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler and Al Harrington, have parlayed success into big contracts. 


But for every success story, there have been twice as many failures. For every LeBron who comes in and puts up 20 points per game as a rookie, there’s a Taj McDavid, or Lenny Cooke, who goes undrafted. Evens those who have made it into the league have found some rough times, like Darius Miles, who appears well on the way to wearing out his welcome with his third team in seven seasons.


So maybe this rule will work out for the best. Players will now be able to develop their games in college, which will theoretically leave them more NBA-ready. College ball, even just one year, will help bridge the gap for players who have to adjust to not being the most talented player on the floor every night. Players might even be encouraged to stay more than one year, once the holes in their games are exposed and their stock takes a hit. Once a foregone conclusion to turn pro early, Kentucky’s Randolph Morris now vows he will spend four years in Lexington, after two inconsistent seasons and one failed attempt to declare have left lingering questions about his talent and desire. Similarly, Duke’s Josh McRoberts was thought to be a one-and-done player, until he found his touches and shots limited by a pair of All-Americans in JJ Redick and Shelden Williams. Now, he will use his sophomore season to show that he can carry a team, and in the process, become a better player than he would have been sitting on a bench in Toronto or New York.


While the true success of the rule won’t be able to be seen for a few years, it seems on the surface to make sense. NBA teams will (theoretically) be able to better judge a player’s talent by watching him play against Division I athletes, not a smattering of high school kids who are destined for college intramurals. Players will get the chance to expand their game, and grow up, before taking on the nightly challenges of the NBA. Both the NBA and college game will get a boost from having better players available to them, and players will hopefully become more mature after spending a year or two fending for themselves on a college campus.


A perfect example of what can happen is found in former Washington guard Brandon Roy, the 6th overall pick in the 2006 draft. In 2002, Roy initially thought about jumping from Garfield High (Seattle) to the pros, where he likely would have gone undrafted. Even when he joined the Huskies, it was thought he would only spend a year or two on campus because he had his eyes on the league. Instead, he became a four-year player for Washington, ultimately developing into an All-American with a complete game. Now, instead of bouncing around the minor leagues or overseas as he likely would have been had he stayed in the draft in 2002, he is one of the early favorites for NBA Rookie of the Year. As the saying goes, good things happen to those who wait.