The NBA Might Just Pay Future Stars Real Money to Skip College

Since he took over as commissioner of the National Basketball Association in February, Adam Silver has made raising the minimum age for players a top priority. Now the league and the players’ union are reportedly considering not only increasing the minimum by two years—from 19 to 21—but also allowing players to be drafted out of high school and spend the intervening years playing in the NBA Development League.

The idea, laid out by anonymous sources in a Sporting News report and loaded with potential complications, is a welcome sign that the interests of young players are a genuine part of the NBA’s negotiations. It’s also a warning shot aimed at the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The NBA has so far attempted to work with big-time college basketball to make the span between high school and the NBA more rewarding for top players. Under the current system, young stars spend one year as unpaid—and shoddily educated—performers in the NCAA’s college basketball show. In this newly proposed scenario, however, the NBA Development League would pay young draftees more than the current standard of $25,000, making the D-League an appealing alternative for NCAA talent.

Here’s a highlight from Sporting News:

“The NCAA are a bunch of horses’ asses,” one source said. “If they don’t get their heads out of the sand and help these kids who come from nothing, then you will see the NBA make a move toward salaries way more attractive than they are now at the D-League level. Why not invest $100,000 or $200,000 in a player, put him in the D-League and let him stay there? At that age, you need to get them away from home and you need to get them on the court.”

When the league set the age limit at 19 in 2005, then-Commissioner David Stern talked about his desire to keep NBA general managers and scouts out of high school gyms. Silver has also sounded like a concerned parent while arguing for a one-year increase: “I think that the extra year in college will be a benefit for these young men to grow and develop as people and basketball players,” he told reporters in April.

For players, the benefits of more time in college are fuzzy at best. For the NBA and its owners, however, they’re more tangible. Under the league’s collective bargaining agreement, draft picks are paid on a set scale for their first four seasons. During that window, young players have essentially no control over where they work or how much they are paid. With the current age limit of 19, players have to wait until they turn 22 to negotiate on a (sort of) open market. Moving the age limit up moves the window of controlled wages more squarely over players’ prime years, keeping them away from free agency until they’re 23 or 24. By then, teams have captured more of their value at a discount rate and have a better sense of their future worth.

As it stands, the NCAA is a no-cost venue for talent evaluation and skills development, as well as an invaluable marketing service for the NBA. Raising the age limit without changing anything else only lengthens the exploitation. What players most want is the chance to capitalize on their talents as soon as possible. The league has been able to prevent this—and protect itself from legal challenges over its labor practices—only because current NBA players have been willing to sell out future generations, who don’t have a place at the negotiating table alongside the union.

The players’ union elected Michele Roberts as its new executive director earlier this week. Pushing back on age limits should be at the top of her agenda. The good news for Roberts is that at least some in the NBA are beginning to question the quality of the services the NCAA provides. In March, for instance, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban advocated for making the D-League a more attractive option for top high school recruits. “We can get rid of all the hypocrisy and improve the education,” he told ESPN. “We don’t have to pretend. A major college has to pretend that they’re treating them like a student-athlete, and it’s a big lie and we all know it’s a big lie.”

A D-League that paid NBA draftees decent money and prepared them for careers inside or outside the league would be a huge improvement for young players. And it would bring the interests of those players into closer alignment with the league. Owners would have greater control over their most valuable assets as well as the chance to recoup some of their investment by offering a pretty attractive new product.

Joel Embiid playing for the Delaware 87ers or Andrew Wiggins for the Canton Charge would sell tickets this year—and they might have done so last year, if given the chance, instead of playing for free at the University of Kansas.

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