MLS Has Solved NBA and NCAA Age Debate
When should a basketball player enter the NBA draft? The short answer is when he is ready. The NBA has decided that for an American basketball player, it is impossible for him to be ready prior to the year he turns 19 and is one year out of high school. Or at least it is so unlikely he’ll be ready that it’s not worth wasting time and energy to find out.
Clearly that’s not the case. We have good evidence that draft prospects who decided that they were ready straight out of high school did a pretty good job. And for proponents of an age limit, we likely will never know how many careers did not pan out because players did not have access to NBA training and game experience at an earlier age.
One of basketball’s core values is individuality. Part of that individuality is that players develop at wildly different rates. But if the NBA simply allows them to self-select, the value teams put on “potential” pushes players to enter the draft as soon as possible. An age limit though delays players that would be better off in the pros than college. Luckily Major League Soccer has come up with a solution to both problems.
Generation Adidas is MLS’s early entry system. The key difference between MLS and other American leagues is that early entry candidates sign contracts before the draft rather than after they are drafted. The contracts are normally for significantly more than a minimum salary but below the average salary (probably somewhere near the median). Contracts are normally guaranteed for 3–4 years and might include one or two options.
In addition to the basics, Generation Adidas players have part of their compensation held in escrow and designated for their education. League rules also make them very attractive to teams in the draft, by exempting their salaries from the salary cap and exempting them from roster limits. At some point, either when their initial contract expires or the player reaches a threshold of starts, appearances and/or minutes played, the player “graduates” from Generation Adidas and his contract is treated like any other.
It would only take a few tweaks for this type of system to be implemented in the NBA. The contract value would obviously be much greater. The NBA does not have MLS’s single-entity structure, but the league could still sign players to the initial contract, then assign the contract to the team that drafts the player, with the compensation changing based on where the player falls on the rookie scale. A player would still be entitled to guaranteed compensation even if he is not drafted, and the NBA would have to develop a mechanism for assigning undrafted players to teams or send them to the D-League.
But that would almost never happen. All rookie contracts are exempt from the salary cap, but with a roster exemption, they would become even more attractive. In MLS, Generation Adidas players rarely go undrafted. The last time it happened was in 2006, and that was an exceptionally large class of 14.
The biggest change is that it would drastically reduce the number of early entry candidates in the NBA draft. MLS creates the Generation Adidas class by having teams nominate players, then circulating the list amongst teams and doing some of their own scouting to whittle the class down to the 8–12 it normally is. In 2011 NBA Draft, 18 underclassmen were taken in the first round, with 10 going in the lottery. A draft where the NBA selects the early entry candidates would include only those underclassmen and high schoolers who were first round locks and projected to go in or near the lottery.
So what does this mean for college basketball? It means that in 2011–12, we’d have a season where Anthony Davis, Austin Rivers, and/or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are not part of college basketball. But we’d also have a season where Jordan Hamilton, Chris Singleton, Shelvin Mack, Darius Morris, and Josh Shelby are probably still in college, along with at least 20 others (unless they went to Europe). Maybe the stronger guarantee lures Jared Sullinger or Harrison Barnes out of college. A season that already promises so much with just a few more very talented players staying in school than normal would have even more great players with a year or three of college basketball under their belt.
While players did a pretty good job self-selecting when they entered the draft during the prep-to-pros era, the NBA could remove a lot of uncertainty and create a fairer system, one based on merit rather than age. While Europe and the D-League are options for players who want to get paid immediately, they are not perfect options. But by offering a road straight to the NBA or with only a short trip to college to the best players, needing to take those options would be based on how good you are as a player, just like it is for every other pro.