As Adam Silver and the NBA have continued to clash with the NBPA over the minimum age limit, it seems like a common ground cannot be reached. The current influx of 19 year olds year after year who obviously still need more college experience to develop their skills, bodies, and minds to adapt to the difficulty of the pro game does not help either the NBA or NCAA product. Not only does this dilute the pro game, as 1st round picks with guaranteed contracts take the jobs of veterans who always seem to round out NBA rosters, it hurts the college game because very few great players stay and build legacies for themselves and the schools program.
The lack of leadership and polished players does not help either product. Student-athletes, smartly, want to cash in on their talents as soon as possible since an athlete’s earning window is so small compared other professions. Agents want their young clients in the league as soon as possible to get them through the rookie contract and into free agency for their first, of hopefully many, big pay days, which an agent would profit quite gratuitously from. There should be a middle ground that can appease everyone in this dilemma – players, agents, and the league (owners).
What if college athletes could be incentivized into staying in school by decreasing the number of years on their rookie contract?
Picks 1-30 have set pay scales that decrease as a player falls in the draft (i.e. 1st pick salary > 2nd pick salary > 3rd pick salary > …) As it stands, a current 1st round pick has a four year deal with the 3rd and 4th year team options. The increase in pay from the 1st to 2nd year is about 4.5% and the increase from the 2nd to 3rd year is about 4.1%. The team options depend on the position the player was drafted in the 1st round (higher pick, higher % increase for 3rd and 4th year). Commissioner Silver should pitch the idea of allowing college athletes who play for three years in school to be able to hit the FA market after two years if the player desires. No team option, but retaining restricted free agency, allows teams to keep young potential stars for up to two more years on team friendly deals. If anything, it should be a player option allowing the player to choose if he wants to pick up the 3rd and 4th years on his contract.
Suppose a college athlete stays all four years in school, they should have the option of hitting the market after one year if he desires. A three year college player would have the option of opting out after two years. A sophomore should have the option of hitting the market after the third year and a freshman’s options would be as they are now, with the rookie deal ending after four years in the league. It would not punish young professionals who want to come out after only one year, as many of these kids want to change their own and their family’s financial circumstances as quickly as possible. This system would fiscally reward someone like Damian Lillard who stayed in school for all four years, developed his game, comes into the league and is an instant impact player and star. Why shouldn’t we reward someone like that, who has 10-15 years of capitalizing on his all-world basketball talent?
This system would allow for someone of Damian’s caliber to sign a 5 year extension at the max after his rookie year if the team that drafted him deemed that player worthy. (This is where it’s important for restricted free agency to remain in tact, allowing the team to hold on to their budding star, but rewarding the player for staying in school for four years and having a stellar rookie season.) And those guys would still be the exception, not the rule. You would still see a three or four year college player come in, be content with the pay scale and length of the contract before testing the free agent market. This would improve both the NBA and college game product because we would start to see less undeveloped players come in to the league. The NCAA would (hopefully) start to see great college players staying for two, three and four years knowing that those extra years in college spent improving their game won’t hurt their ability to profit as players.
There is no easy answer for solving this problem. The MLB has an ‘either-or’ policy, where everyone is available to be drafted out of high school, but if the player chooses to play college, they must stay for at least three years, then can choose to sign with a professional team after their junior, or senior year depending if they are satisfied with their draft selection. The NFL has a three years removed from high school minimum rule for players to be eligible for the draft, but once you declare, there is no going back, the player has lost their amateur status. The biggest difference between these three sports is the size of the league and individual rosters.
There are 1,696 players in the NFL, 1,280 players on active 40 man rosters in the MLB, and only 446 players in the NBA. The impact of one star can change the entire fortunes of one franchise, therefore highly incentivizing these top prospects to immediately jump from the NCAA to the NBA. The writing is on the wall that there must be a change in the monetary motivation before there will be any tangible changes about the ‘one and done’ rule.
(We must note that these rules could not apply to international prospects because, depending on the country they come from, they have the ability to start playing professionally as young as 14. This article focuses on improving the broken system by which domestic, American prospects must abide by in order to reach the NBA. There will always be high-upside 18 year international prospects coming from Europe, but because they already have earning potential much earlier in life, none of these rules laid out above could apply to them.)