Aussies in NBA: The NBA system behind Ben Simmons’ anger

On Tuesday, we recapped Ben Simmons’ ground-breaking documentary One & Done. Today we look over the NBA’s ‘one and done’ system: a rule that benefits everyone but the players.

In 2006, the door officially closed on talented high schoolers jumping directly into the NBA. Nineteen became the age that boys become men, the age of infinite wisdom within an NBA context.

The NBA implemented a rule legislating that prospects must be at least 19 years old and a year removed from high school, before declaring for the NBA Draft.

In other words, high school graduates must generally attend college for one year before playing in the NBA, hence the ‘one and done’ moniker. There are some alternatives to college, Terrance Ferguson choosing to spend the Australian summer in Adelaide being the foremost example.

Ferguson wasn’t the first well known prospect to choose the overseas route. Brandon Jennings chose Europe over college, Emmanuel Mudiay went to China and there have been others. But for the most part, prospects choose college because, in reality, it is the only option (we will have more on this tomorrow).

International leagues like the NBL offer immediate dollars to those looking for financial security – receiving income and being able to take care of his family were key reasons in Ferguson’s decision to come to the NBL. Australia is a palatable alternative to college in the occasional circumstance.

But the majority of teenagers coming out of high school are simply not ready for professional basketball, and Ferguson’s pedestrian impact with the 36ers this season is the latest example. Funnelling kids to college allows them to gain more experience and grow their skills. This is the angelic thought, and maybe a naive one. Spending 12 months touring around the college circuit also makes each prospect more marketable.

Ben Simmons and a disappointing LSU basketball program garnered unwarranted levels of global attention last season. For casual basketball fans, Simmons going to college put him on display for the NBA’s benefit. The league’s next potential star has been marketed and it cost the NBA nothing.

Feature articles in major American publications. ESPN spending an inordinate amount of time covering an LSU basketball program which has done nothing since Shaquille O’Neal left two decades earlier. Ben Simmons was the sole reason for all of this.

Every foray into the media was done within the context of ‘Ben Simmons, NCAA athlete’. In reality, there is a bigger end game. ‘Ben Simmons, NBA superstar’ is what we all become disillusioned with. It’s the hook for 21st century sports fans, the reason why every nugget from Simmons’ one year in college was profitable business. For LSU, for the NBA and for media organisations.

Whether the NCAA like actually dislike the rule is a conversation for another day. It is technically an NBA edict, something NCAA president Mark Emmert will reinforce at every turn.

“The one-and-done rule is something I’ve made no secret about how much I dislike it,” Emmert told the Baton Rouge Advocate. “It makes a farce of going to school. But if you just want to play in the NBA, you can do that. You can go to Europe or play at a prep school until you’re 19.

“I’d love nothing more than for the NBA to get rid of that rule. We’ve made it really clear to the (NBA) players union and the leadership of the NBA that we very much would like it changed.”

Make no mistake, the ‘one and done’ rule significantly boosts the NCAA and its flagship March Madness event every year. The NCAA buries its head in the sand and attempts to run away from the issue, but they are a major benefactor from the current system.

The NBA age rule is here, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. A new collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and Players Association is currently being negotiated. From all indications, the age restriction will remain. There are too many self-interest threats to avoid it.

Kyle Korver, a 14 year NBA veteran and member of the Players Association’s executive committee, told USA Today Sports that removing the age limit is not high on the players agenda. “This is not about making as much as you can, as fast as you can. We need to make sure guys can handle the social and financial pressures.” Korver added.

The current batch of NBA players have no incentive help out high schoolers; why would they increase competition for jobs? As Grant Hill so frankly told the New York Times in 2005, "I always thought that it was the purpose of the union to protect its members, not potential members." Current NBA players want to protect themselves, which makes them analogous with their bosses.

The current system is also a security blanket for NBA owners, it protects them from their biggest fear. Themselves.

For every prospect who skipped college and became an NBA superstar – LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett being the most publicised – there is a countless collection of horror stories.

Jonathan Abrams book Boy’s Among Men, an oral history that covers many high school players who went straight to the NBA, offers example after example of why an age restriction makes conceptual sense. High school players were arriving in the NBA without basic life skills. Many were handed life-changing riches and couldn’t cope.

They often rode the bench once drafted and never had the chance to improve. A year in college offers this chance to develop, and it offers a safe place to experience necessary growing pains. More importantly, it offers a chance for the NBA to avoid horror stories like Korleone Young. Franchises no longer have the temptation of falling in love with high schoolers that can't handle the NBA.

For some owners, the current restrictions aren’t enough, they never were. Mark Cuban declared he wants the age limit raised to 22 in 2008, and his opinion hasn’t changed since. “ If a kid is NBA ready to play at 18 or 19, he will be NBA ready at 22,” Cuban argues. “What does change considerably between the ages of 18 and 22 is the maturity level of the kids.”

Maturity is the catchphrase thrown around by all involved, and in this context it is synonymous with money. For all the hyperbole and semantics from those involved, the true reason for an NBA age limit is selfish financial desires. This is true for NBA owners, the current generation of NBA players and the NCAA cartel hiding away in the background. But the NBA owners have the power. They decided to implement the statute in 2005, and it will remain as long as they see fit. The nature of basketball makes it so.

One revolutionary player can singlehandedly raise franchise values by hundreds of millions of dollars, while one overpaid draft bust can prove catalyst for a drop to irrelevance. The NBA has decided to restrict a certain class of people entering its league, nothing new here. There are plenty of industries that will only hire college graduates. It is impossible to measure ‘maturity’ and the closest tangible gauge is age.

As Cuban so dramatically puts it “The younger the player the greater the maturity risk. The greater the maturity risk, the greater the risk to the entire future of the NBA.”

Time in college allows each prospect to grow their resume. It also exposes them to better competition, which theoretically should make it easier for NBA franchises to avoid paying millions to those who doesn’t deserve it.

With this all occurring in a universe parallel to NCAA exposure and personal brands like ‘Ben Simmons’ being established through a global digital network, the NBA has a perfect feeder system that it doesn’t have to pay for.

The ‘one and done’ system will remain, and kids like Simmons will continue being forced into the NCAA system. More on this tomorrow.