What does the NBA gain by lowering the draft age to 18?

Adam Silver (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Adam Silver (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) /

Back in December, when our minds were all occupied with holiday thoughts, the NBA announced that the league and the players’ union had agreed to extend their mutual deadline for opting out of the Collective Bargaining Agreement until February 8. In general, exercising an opt-out clause happens when talks are bogged down, so extending the deadline seems like a sign that talks are progressing.

What could that mean? There is talk of owners trying to impose a firmer salary cap, but that’s because a few teams can afford to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in luxury taxes in order to exceed the cap now in place. That’s an indication that the sport is awash in money, something neither side is likely to jeopardize by forcing a work stoppage.

What’s the impact of exercising an opt-out in the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement.

The most likely impact of the new CBA is that the minimum age for draft eligibility will be lowered from 19 to 18. There’s some irony here, because most of the justifications for lowering the age have disappeared. Top players can make money while attending college because of name, image, and likeness rules.

If a player doesn’t feel like going to college, there are professional options like Overtime Elite and G League Ignite where he can earn six figures in an atmosphere more geared toward developing his game. Top draft picks like Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga have already taken this path. The other “problem” with having the draft age at 19 was the mockery it made of the student-athlete model.

This is because most one-and-done players would take the bare minimum of courses their first semester in order to remain eligible, then skate by their second semester without attending any classes at all because the season would be over by the time their grades for those classes were posted. Fortunately, the NCAA has stopped trying to convince us that academics are a priority, so worrying about things like star players going to class seems quaint.

In the meantime, the main reason the age limit was raised is still there: most high school seniors aren’t playing at a level of competition that will give NBA scouts a good indication of whether their skills will translate to the league. With options available that will enable young players to make money without NBA teams risking lottery picks on untested talent, this feels a bit like solving a problem that didn’t need to be solved.

It’s hard to imagine that NBA general managers are stoked about this change. Not only does this mean they will have less game data on which to make draft decisions, but Draft Day also starts the clock on the second contract, which is where the big money is. Teams have to begin making decisions on exercising options for the player’s season as soon as the rookie season ends, and then they start negotiating on the long-term extension after the third season.

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If a player is drafted at age 18, that could mean the team has to decide whether to commit hundreds of millions of dollars, with all those salary cap implications, when the player is only 21. If the GM guesses wrong, he won’t be around to negotiate that player’s third deal.