A Young Man’s View.

By Jerold Wells Jr.
Updated: April 17, 2005

L to R: Nene & Tony Parker

MINNESOTA,—Jermaine O’Neal leveled a shot at David Stern this past week that, without a doubt, hit harder than the right cross he threw at a fan during the mêlée in Detroit earlier this year. NBA All-Star O’Neal accused NBA Commissioner David Stern of harboring racism and showing it by suggesting that a 20-year age minimum be apart of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players union and the owners. Encarta Dictionary defines racism, very simply, as “animosity towards other races.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary more thoroughly defines it as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” According to these definitions, I do not believe Commissioner Stern is practicing racism. In fact, there is no hint of racism in the assertion that an age limit be set. African American men are not the only early entrants into the NBA. While they do make up the overwhelming majority of High School candidates, an age limit would affect more than young, Black men. The call for an age limit does however show a few things about the NBA that are just as unattractive as racism.

Jermaine O’Neal’s comments regarding racism, while a little misguided, do have credence. Since 2000, there have been 23 early entrants into the NBA from High School, and only one has been Caucasian (Robert Swift of the Seattle Sonics, 2004). Conversely, race is not pertinent when it comes to players born in America. The situation surrounding American born players and their foreign-born counterparts is exploding with racial overtones. Of those 23 American-born early entrants since 2000, 16 are currently on NBA rosters. Now consider the number of foreign-born entrants during half that period. From 2000 to 2002 there have been 20 foreign entrants into the NBA draft, most also under the proposed 20 year threshold. Of those 20, 9 are on NBA rosters and only five (Nene, Tony Parker, Hedo Turkoglu, Pau Gasol and Nenad Krstic) contribute anything significant to their teams. I would like to see Mr. Stern address this issue. Most entrants into the NBA draft are already professionals, some as early as the age of 15. While the ability to live life as a professional athlete and the realization that basketball is their job may not be foreign to them, the speed and strength needed compete at the NBA level is often lacking. If the talent in the NBA is watered down I would suggest it is due to a large number of poorly qualified foreign prospects, not high school players here in the United States, that are negatively affecting the quality of the league. NBA GM’s and scouts searching for the next Peja Stojackovic or Dirk Nowitzki are instead flooding the league with washouts and benchwarmers.

Another part of the 20-year-age minimum is that college players would be forced to complete two years of schooling before entering the NBA draft. When drafting a player with college experience you are getting a player with the ability to contend at the closest level of competition there is to the NBA in the United States. Colleges and universities across the nation have players that are every bit as motivated to be NBA players as those who skip college all together. Sadly, there are players who leave that proving ground prematurely to follow riches and fail miserably. For every Carmelo Anthony who was ready to play at an NBA level without completing two years in college, there is a Joseph Forte who was not. Omar Cook, Marcus Taylor, and Rodney White could have all benefited from staying in school until the end of their sophomore year and gaining the seasoning and experience that college provides before entering the NBA. If you study the history of the draft as well as the hundreds of early entrants into the NBA Draft, you will see that the young men who suffer the most from the absence of an age limit are players who actually go to school and leave too early. Perhaps this is my inner fan speaking, but I would have loved to watch Donnell Harvey mature another year at Florida under the tutelage of Billy Donovan before making the leap into the NBA. The same goes for DeMarr Johnson (Cincinnati & Bob Huggins) and Dajuan Wagner (Memphis and John Calipari). Their lack of success in relation to their obvious talents should tell us that talent alone is not what makes you an NBA success. Make no mistake, the NBA is a league run on talented individuals. Ideally, a talented player would go to college in order to refine that talent and put together a skill set suitable for his desired employer, the NBA in this case. Just as a nuclear power plant is not the place to test your knowledge of engineering; the NBA is not the place to learn if you can play basketball at the highest level.

I personally do not oppose a 20-year old age limit. Lebron James or Amare Stoudamire as well as Darryl Dawkins or Moses Malone would not have been any less effective at 20 than they were at 18. The issue that needs to be addressed is that for every Kevin Garnett there is a Taj McDavid, (look him up basically, he didn’t make it) and for every Kobe Bryant there is a Korleone Young (he didn’t make it either). Way too many misinformed and ill-prepared players come into the NBA and rot away on the bench instead of playing in college, overseas, or the NBDL to improve themselves as players. The line between failure and success is so thin that a whole class of high school draftees is still struggling to establish themselves in this league.

The draft class of 2001 is a wonderful test case for those who suggest an age limit is necessary. The draft was a complete disaster for high school players. Kwame Brown, Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler, Ousmane Cisse and DeSagana Diop are still struggling to justify being lottery picks (in the cases of Brown, Curry, and Chandler) or draft selections at all (Cisse and Diop). It has been four years now and both the Bulls and the Wizards, the teams with the rights to Curry, Chandler, and Brown, are wondering when the players’ obvious upside will convert into on the court performance. The bottom line is that their strengths as players did not allow them to compete in the NBA immediately. Instead of playing against physically and mentally superior professionals, they could have developed in college and mastered their craft so that they could compete at the next level. The raw power and explosiveness of an Amare Stoudamire or the prodigical skills of a LeBron James were simply not present in that draft. Perhaps college would have helped them, but the larger issue is that as they struggled to adjust in the NBA the viewer suffered. As a Minnesota Timberwolves fan I have witnessed Ndubi Ebi flash the “deer in the headlights” look as the speed and complexity of an NBA contest surrounded him. I cringe when I see a young player get lost in a defensive rotation, or foul up a pick and roll opportunity. It is hard on the eyes to see a young player commit a charge on the fast break rather than complete a fundamental give and go play for the easy two. While the NBA loves to flaunt the success of its superstars, some of whom happen to be straight from High School, it must maintain the quality of the competition within the League. The way to do that is to sustain the eminence of its players, coaches, and in doing so the game as a whole. The excellence of the product known as the NBA is the responsibility of David Stern to upkeep so blaming him for a poor product is the right thing to do. As any good executive would do, Mr. Stern is taking that criticism and instigating change.

Basketball, in my opinion, is the sweet science (sorry boxing fans). The intricacies of a quality basketball game take a special aptitude to comprehend entirely. In turn, the players of such a beautiful sport should take due diligence and learn how to play the game correctly. When people ask where a player should learn those finer points, college is the answer given most often but the reality is that the fundamentals of basketball can be learned worldwide. The standards of what a basketball player entering the NBA, no matter where he is from, should possess are simple; he should be able to contribute to his team immediately. These contributions should come offensively and defensively, in the half court and in transition. History tells us that with the exception of a few shining stars such contributions to do not occur. Perhaps the age limit will help remedy that: as a true fan, I hope it does.