Is It Time Again To Allow High School Basketball Players To Go Pro?
By: Anthony Studnicka
Last Wednesday Jonathan Kuminga announced he officially elected to forgo college and go straight into the NBA G-League. Kuminga is currently ranked as the number 4 overall prospect in the 2020 class. He was originally the number the 1 prospect in the 2021 class before graduating high school in June and reclassifying to 2020. In other words, if you don’t know who Kuminga is now, you likely will soon because he’s very good at basketball. The ESPN 2021 NBA mock draft currently has him projected to be the number 4 overall pick.
Kuminga is now the fifth ESPN Top 100 prospect to bypass college and join the G-League joining the likes of Kai Sotta, Daishen Nix, Isaiah Todd, and number 1 prospect Jalen Green. Kuminga reasoned this decision was best for him because he believes his basketball potential is an NBA player and the G-league will help him a lot more on and off the court than college would.
Combined with the, as some may phrase it, “minor league” level of talent and fewer distractions than college may potentially present, the G-league also has one more enticing proponent to offer to young players. Money; and this financial incentive is twofold. First, for example, top prospect Jalen Green will reportedly be paid more than $500,000 for taking the year to train and compete on a Southern California team. Second, with name, image, and likeness legislation and rule adaptation still pending, the G-league path provides an opportunity for athletes graduating now to become eligible for lucrative endorsement deals.
While the path of forgoing college and going straight to the G-league for athletes who are seeking financial benefits may be favorable to the NBA compared to losing basketball players who elect to take their talents overseas, is this option the best option for the players?
The best option for players may be for the NBA to allow players to enter the draft straight out of high school. Many fans may recall players like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant coming straight to the NBA out of high school, while more recently athletes like Zion Williamson attended one year of college. This is because in 2006 the NBA eliminated the ability for athletes to enter the draft straight out of high school. Former commissioner David Stern referred to this as a “business decision.” And current NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in 2014 that “more mature” players were better for the league.
It’s true, having this rule may be better for the NBA. It may protect teams against drafting young raw prospects with unclear potential. Further teams are not forced into scouting high school players which would likely be a significant cost and yield unclear results due to the uneven levels of competition.
However, it is likely this rule is not beneficial to the players. Yes, there may be players who enter the draft who are not ultimately ready. And yes, that can result in either a franchise drafting a player who never amounts to their desired role, or a player falling to a later selection in the draft over fear of the prospects uncertainty. But ultimately, isn’t that a part of the game? Isn’t that what makes the draft so exciting? Every year, the draft is full of hits and misses. And shouldn’t a young 18-year-old prospect have the ability to pursue a career without having to put it on hold for one year due to a controversial rule? Former Commissioner Stern once compared the NBA’s rule to Congress, remarking about the age requirements, “I don’t know why our founders decided that age 25 was good for Congress, but I guess they thought that was about maturity.” This seems outlandish to compare elected officials serving constituents who most likely learn more in their years, to a basketball player who is self-sufficient and could potentially be at their peak of athleticism in their early career.
Additionally, statistical evidence supports this notion. NBA draftees are getting younger every year. The average age of a first-round pick in 1995 was 21.7, in 2005 20.8, in 2015 20.1 and in 2018 was 19.9.
Ultimately it is unclear whether or not the NBA intends to change this rule. Despite his 2014 comments, in 2018 Adam Silver claimed there was growing support for a rule change to allow younger players to enter the draft. Yet, since then, it appears the NBA has increased their focus on growing the G-league, rather than implementing a rule change which would allow athletes graduating from high school to be drafted.
For this rule change to occur, it will likely have to be presented in an upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiation. The current NBA CBA runs through the 2023-24 season but includes a mutual opt-out after the 2022-23 season. However, there may be some turbulence before this rule change has a chance to happen. On “The Woj Pod,” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski explained:
“It is not on the horizon, largely because the union and the league, as part of letting the high school players back into the draft, the league has wanted players to have to make available their physicals and medical evaluations to all teams ... The union, backed very hard by the agents, had said, “That's not something we're gonna give in on. We're not going to give you full access medically. That's the one advantage that we feel we have as agents and players to control the process.”
A reason for this stance is that allowing this may potentially be used contrary to the players positions in future negotiations. When it comes to negotiating the CBA, it remains important to not only keep in mind how the negotiation will impact the current agreement, but also the impact it may have in the future.
The reality of this situation for high school athletes is quite convoluted. They forfeit their amateur status when they hire an agent, rendering them unable to play college basketball. Hence, high school athletes do not have an agent or similarly situated fiduciary helping advocate for their interests. From a legal remedial standpoint, high school athletes may not have standing to sue the NBA over this rule, since they may not have a legally protected interest and their injury they are suffering may also be construed as hypothetical and not actual or imminent. Regardless if standing would or would not be granted, persuasive authority may be cited from Maurice Clarett v. NFL where the U.S. Court of Appeals for Second Circuit held that the NFL and the NFLPA could collectively bargain an eligibility restriction that prevented players from draft eligibility. This, of course, would cut strongly against the athletes standpoint. Athletes also do not have a seat at the table in CBA discussions, and in theory may not have anyone advocating for their position. Essentially, athletes must hope that either the NBA or the Players Association (or ideally both) see the value in implementing a rule change. But until that happens the options are the G-league, overseas, or one-year of college basketball, no matter the level of basketball talent a high school athlete has.
Anthony is a third year student at Arizona State University pursuing a J.D. and a Master of Sports Law & Business. He is the creator of Long Run Sports.
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