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From Prep to Pro: The NBA and Age Restriction

From Prep to Pro: The NBA and Age Restrictions

            In the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court case, Haywood v. National Basketball Association (NBA), Spencer Haywood argued that he should be allowed to play in the NBA, even before waiting four years after his high school graduation.  The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Haywood, 7 – 2, holding that Haywood be allowed to play for the Seattle SuperSonics, as “he will suffer irreparable injury in that a substantial part of his playing career will have been dissipated, his physical condition, skills and coordination will deteriorate from lack of high – level competition, […] and a great injustice will be perpetrated on him” (Haywood v. NBA).  Haywood had already been playing in the American Basketball Association for one year after two years of college basketball at the University of Detroit.  He looked to make a jump to the more talented NBA the following season, having signed a lucrative contract with Seattle.  Since he had already played professionally in the ABA, not allowing him to continue his career was unjust, according to the Supreme Court (Haywood v. NBA).  Additionally, Haywood had led the ABA in points per game and rebounds in the one year he had played; he was an extremely skilled player (Basketball Reference).

The Haywood case opened the doors for players who thought they were good enough to compete at the professional level, before finishing college.  The NBA would subsequently allow players to leave college early for the NBA only in “hardship cases,” where players needed to prove financial hardship (NBA.com).  This would become more observed in the breach, with players Moses Malone and Darryl Dawkins entering the NBA straight out of high school a few years later.  Malone would become one of the best players in NBA history, totaling three Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards, 12 All – star appearances, and one NBA championship after a storied 19 year career (Basketball Reference).

Recent Prep to Pros (1995 – 2005)

It would be three decades before another player would declare for the NBA Draft immediately after his high school graduation.  However, once Kevin Garnett declared in 1995, it would spark a movement where dozens of players would follow suit and enter the draft in the decade that followed (See Exhibit 2).  Kevin Garnett would go on to win an MVP and an NBA Championship, and is widely considered to be one of the greatest players of all time (Basketball Reference).  A player who most believe is even better than him, maybe one of the top 5 players of all time, is Kobe Bryant – who would come out a year later directly after his high school graduation in 1996.  Bryant was drafted as the 13th overall pick, and required his parents to cosign his contract because he was only 17 years old (Complex).  He would go on to win five NBA championships, one MVP, 14 All – star nominations, among many other accolades.  Currently, he plays for the Lakers and as of April 4th, 2012, leads the league in scoring (points per game) for the season (Basketball Reference).  In the years that followed, it wasn’t uncommon to see five to ten high school players enter the NBA Draft (See Exhibit 2).  In the 2004 draft, 8 prep players would be drafted in the first round (Basketball Reference).

Perhaps the biggest name to be drafted out of high school is Lebron James.  By the time he was a junior in high school, he was already the undisputed best prep player in the country.  He even petitioned the NBA to be allowed to enter the draft before his senior season of high school, but was denied.  During his senior season, he would be featured on the covers of Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, and numerous other sports/basketball media publications.  A documentary would be made about him and his rise to fame as a high school basketball player.  Even before his entrance to the NBA, he was called “King James,” winning three state championships before being selected as the number one overall pick of the 2003 NBA Draft (More than a Game).  He did not disappoint professionally, where he has been named the MVP twice, made the All – star game eight times, along with numerous other awards during his career.  He is currently considered one of, if not the best player in the league as he vies for an NBA Championship on one of the best teams in the league (Basketball Reference).

It is important to note, however, while there are a handful of very successful players who have jumped from high school to the NBA, there are also players who have not panned out.  In addition, there are plenty of players who don’t pan out when making the transition from college to the NBA.

The NBA Age Restriction                                                         

Since this large influx of high school players entering the NBA Draft, Commissioner David Stern has been very critical of the decision to forgo college (See Exhibit 1).  In 2001, an interview shown live during the NBA All – star Weekend represented his sentiments.  He explained:

Well, [high school players] are physically mature enough to be part of the NBA, and they are great young players. But as you frame the issue, the question is whether a couple of years more of seasoning would increase their maturity, their skills, their collegiate programs and ultimately what it could do for sending messages to kids who are practicing their skills who should think about getting an education rather than coming right to [the] NBA (Blitzer 1).

By 2001, there was a sense that more and more high school players were considering the NBA as a real option.  Stern urged them to continue their playing careers into college, where they had a chance to better refine their skills, leading to a potentially higher spot in the draft (Blitzer 1).  In addition, the longer that a player stayed in college, the easier it was the see his potential and skill sets.  This would make things easier for NBA general managers who are forced to draft the youngest players almost purely based on potential.  By spending a few years in college, players will become closer to what they will be in the NBA, thereby decreasing the burden of risk on the NBA teams drafting them.  The NBA will get better, more marketable commodities in players who stay in college longer (Barra 3).

Of course, proponents of the age limit rule also explained how it was important for these high school players to get a quality education.  Michael Wilbon, a prominent sports personality, shares these sentiments and while many also believe this to be important, this view has been heavily criticized as being starkly naïve (Wilbon).  The NCAA, the governing body of Division I sports, has attempted to stress the success of student – athletes in the classroom but has been thwarted with players leaving early from school, and schools that have been concealing poor grades and even worse graduation rates (Lederman).

In 2005, the NBA and the National Basketball Player’s Association (NBPA) created a new Collective Bargaining Agreement that would govern the league for the next five years.  A clause was included that restricted some players to enter the league on the basis of age; any person attempting to enter the NBA Draft must wait until the calendar year of his 19th birthday, and must also be at least one year out of high school (National Basketball Player’s Association).

Opposition and Aftermath

            There was a large contingent within the NBA family that vehemently disagreed with the age restriction, citing a lack of freedom, financial struggles, and even racism as the main issues involved.  Michael McCann, a professor at the Mississippi College School of Law, explained:

In stark contrast to popular myth, players drafted straight out of high school are not only likely to do well in the NBA, but are likely to become better players than any other age group entering the league. […] Beyond excellence in performance, high school players can also earn substantially more over the course of their NBA careers  […] players who bypass college may earn as much as $100 million more over the course of their careers than had they earned a college diploma (McCann).

With regards to racism, former NBA player and TV personality Greg Anthony firmly believed that players should be able to make their own decisions with respect to going on to higher education or choosing to work.  Much of the quality talent that seemed to be ready for the NBA out of high school were kids from poor areas that did not do well in school.  The NBA was a job, and a way to pull one’s family out of financial turmoil (Hannas).  Jermaine O’Neal, a current NBA player who made the prep to pro jump agrees with Anthony:

As a black guy, you kind of think [race is] the reason why it’s coming up. You don’t hear about it in baseball or hockey. To say you have to be 20, 21 to get in the league, it’s unconstitutional. If I can go to the U.S. Army and fight the war at 18, why can’t you play basketball for 48 minutes and then go home? […] In the last two or three years, the Rookie of the Year has been a high school player. There were seven high school players in the All-Star game, so why we even talking [about] an age limit?  (Leonard­).

As a result of the age restriction rule, many players who would have previously gone directly to the NBA from high school choose to go to the NBA after only one year of college (See Exhibit 4).  These top talent players have also caused the stakes to rise; which college team can get the best recruits, but maintain excellence within their program when these great players leave after only one year?  Many universities have, illegally, used monetary and intrusive methods of landing that prized recruit.  The NCAA has stepped in and college basketball has seen an increase in NCAA violations regarding recruiting as well as other benefits given to top athletes (Lederman).

Both college basketball and the NBA have experienced decreased ratings in the past several years, and as Allen Barra explains, “It costs the NBA nothing to wait another year or two to get the players and works much to their advantage if they’re even more famous when they put on an NBA uniform” (Barra 3).  The NBA can only exist if college basketball exists, but not vice versa.  College basketball provides free player development, and primes future stars for becoming household names.  At the same time, college basketball wants players to stay for as long as possible, providing fans with the maximum amount of exposure while these top talents are still in college uniforms (Barra 3).

Apply Ethical Perspectives to the NBA Age Restriction

            The NBA has imposed an age restriction, in theory, to help protect teams and players.  Teams will be able to better evaluate players, making safer picks come draft time.  David Stern, the NBA Commissioner, claims that players may not be psychologically ready to play in the NBA, with intrusive media, distractions, and the added pressure of performing up to extremely high standards.  Not to mention passing up the opportunity to receive a college degree.  There are two sides to the story when applying ethical perspectives to the NBA’s age restriction; Milton Freidman would champion the NBA for finding a way to minimize risks and theoretically increasing profits whereas Thomas Donaldson and Edwin Hartman would demand an end to a rule that deprives and in some situations, helps to deprive players of their livelihood.

Milton Freidman is adamant about firms doing everything in their power to maximize profits.  His article in The New York Times, “The Social Responsibility Of Business Is To Increase Its Profits” explains that companies must view ethics separate from business.  He implores businesses to embrace the Separation Thesis, where ethical decisions are isolated from business decisions (Freeman).  In the case of the NBA, putting an age restriction on the league theoretically is making it more profitable.  The NBA can look at players, especially incoming players, as investments.  The longer you see a player play at a high level (i.e. college), the better you can determine how that player might perform as a professional.  Players coming straight out of high school to the NBA are often hard to evaluate because they are younger, and they are playing games against extremely varied skill levels.  Some players play for large schools where competition is much like that of college.  Other players, however, will go up against schools with small student populations, unfairly skewing results and statistics.  From an NBA team’s point of view, a player that has played college basketball for a few years can be evaluated based on skill, size, psychological makeup, among many other things.  High school basketball players must be evaluated on almost only potential, which in itself explains the problem.  There is a chance that these players don’t pan out, in fact a greater chance than other players who have been evaluated more stringently.  Adding an age restriction is allowing NBA teams to be safer in their investments; this rule allows them to better quantify a player’s talents and therefore make a more educated pick during the NBA Draft.

Freidman would agree with the NBA rule, and would add that one of its prime stakeholders, the NCAA, arguably is benefitting from the rule as well.  While there are certainly some drawbacks, the NCAA has the opportunity to showcase the most talented players in the nation – even if for only one year.  What’s more, some players who could go on to the draft after a year in college are choosing to continue to play college hoops for another year or so.  Of course much of the top talent tends to leave after one year, but this rule gives the NCAA a chance to retain top talent when previously there was little to no chance those players would even put on a college uniform.  The NBA and NCAA have an aligned agenda of persuading players to stay in college for as long as possible, but the NBPA is a large obstacle in the way (Exhibit 1).  Friedman, as Stern has, would push for the age restriction to be more restrictive in order for the NBA to further maximize profits.

On the other end of the ethical spectrum, businesses clearly have a universal right: “The duty to avoid depriving people of their rights,” as explained by Donaldson (Hartman 163).  Edwin Hartman explains that businesses have a fourth duty (in additional to Thomas Donaldson’s three correlative duties): “avoiding to help deprive” (Hartman 165).  This means that a firm “need only make sure that nothing it does helps the depriver get the job done” (Hartman 165).  In one situation, the NBA can be considered the depriver as it is not allowing players to begin a career.  Some talented high school players would appear to have all the qualifications for the job, but are being denied entrance into the league.  Regardless of financial standing, every player that is not allowed to come into the league, Donaldson would argue, is being deprived of their livelihood by the NBA.  Just by the virtue of existing in the professional sports industry, the NBA is a depriver.  It is universally agreed that players who play for professional sports leagues like the NBA endure great stresses to their bodies over an extended period of time.  Many players will undergo dozens of surgeries throughout their career (Basketball – Reference).  By restricting capable players from the league for a year, that is one year that could be part of a productive career.  Playing in college could result in career altering injuries that may affect the future career of a particular player.

In another perspective, the depriver(s) can be considered American society, and/or the external forces such as unemployment that contribute to poverty and financial hardship.  Many of the players who look to the NBA as a viable career hail from poor communities.  Even when attending college via full scholarships, players are often subject to people who offer them money and/or other benefits for signed merchandise, media time, etc.  These transactions, according to NCAA rules, are all illegal.  However, even though players don’t have to pay for tuition and board, they tend to still be deprived of simple things because they have little to no spending money.  Their lives consist of practice and media appearances related to their team, with little time left over.  After a grueling schedule, they deserve to be able to pay for simple entertainments, such as movies, or perhaps something as simple as going out to a restaurant. With limited funds, many of these players are unable to pay for such things and resort to violating NCAA rules to obtain extra money.  The consequences are grave for both them and their teams; these players become ineligible while wins are vacated and impressive seasons are nullified.  The NBA rule of age restriction violates this fourth duty that Hartman presents.  The NBA is helping to deprive these prospective players of a career, and more importantly, their livelihood.  Michael McCann’s quotation in the case description above embodies the financial gains (up to “$100 million”) that players are missing out on because of the age restriction rule – some “high school players can also earn substantially more over the course of their NBA careers” (McCann).

Milton Friedman and Thomas Donaldson, along with Edwin Hartman, have opposing viewpoints when the NBA’s age restriction is put through their ethical perspectives.  Friedman argues that businesses need to maximize their profits while simultaneously acting in the best interests of their stakeholders.  The NBA’s age restriction allows NBA teams to draft players who are more mature, both physically and mentally.  Whereas before NBA teams would be forced to draft high school players solely based on potential, players are now exposed to greater competition in college and many of their true playing tendencies are revealed.  This way, NBA teams have a greater chance of choosing someone who will play well in order to maximize their return on that investment (read: player).  In addition, the NCAA – one of the NBA’s chief stakeholders – benefits from top talent players playing college basketball.  There may be some consequences as a result of “one and done” players, but the not having these top tier players risks plummeting TV ratings.  Conversely, Donaldson and Hartman believe that a firm must not deprive as well as avoid helping to deprive – a firm does not have to provide protection for anyone, but must not help to contribute to that deprivation.  The NBA is helping to deprive young players of their livelihood, forcing them to go to college where they are heavily scrutinized by the media and the NCAA in terms of what they can and cannot do when accepting monetary gifts and/or benefits.  Players coming from a poor background are not given the opportunity to become financially independent, cutting their careers short in an industry where youth is paramount.

Exhibit 1: David Stern and the NBA age restriction

Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Updated: April 4, 11:58 AM ET
David Stern wants change to age rule 

Associated Press

NEW YORK — David Stern would love a system in which Anthony Davis and the rest of Kentucky’s freshman stars were required to try to repeat.

Instead, the NBA commissioner could end up calling Davis’ name in June as the first pick in the draft.

“Our rule is that they won’t be eligible for the draft until they’re 19. They can play in Europe, they can play in the D-League, they can go to college. This is a not a social program, this is a business rule for us. The NFL has a rule which requires three years of college. So the focus is often on ours, but it’s really not what we require in college.

” — David Stern

The league wasn’t able to change its draft eligibility rules during collective bargaining last year. The rules require an American player to be 19 years old and a year out of high school.

“We would love to add a year, but that’s not something that the players’ association has been willing to agree to,” Stern said Tuesday.

The union would only agree to form a committee to discuss changes, and Stern knows the players are unlikely to consent to an increase without some concession from owners.

“They would probably say, ‘What would you give us?’ ” he said.

Stern spoke at a Sprint store to announce the opening of the NBA’s “Green Week.” The wireless company is the presenting partner of the week, during which time the league tries to generate awareness and funding to protect the environment. Players will wear shooting shirts made of 100 percent organic cotton, along with green headbands and wrist bands during games through April 11.

Stern watched some of Kentucky’s 67-59 victory over Kansas in the NCAA championship game Monday, when the Wildcats’ group of future NBA players raced to an 18-point lead in the first half.

“I think it was over a little early,” Stern said.

So will most of the Wildcats’ college careers.

Davis, the player of the year and Final Four’s most outstanding player, would likely be the No. 1 pick if he comes out, and fellow freshman Michael Kidd – Gilchrist could be right behind him. Players must declare this month if they are making themselves eligible for the draft.

The age limit was instituted in 2005, and Stern has often spoken since of his desire to increase it. But any realistic hope of pushing too hard during the lockout was scrapped when the league focused instead on the financial changes it sought.

If Davis is the top pick, he would be the fifth freshman in six years to go No. 1, following Greg Oden, Derrick Rose, John Wall and Kyrie Irving. Stern said the league’s draft requirement is often misreported as forcing players to spend a year in college.

“That’s not our rule,” he said. “Our rule is that they won’t be eligible for the draft until they’re 19. They can play in Europe, they can play in the D-League, they can go to college. This is a not a social program, this is a business rule for us. The NFL has a rule which requires three years of college. So the focus is often on ours, but it’s really not what we require in college. It’s that we say we would like a year to look at them and I think it’s been interesting to see how the players do against first-class competition in the NCAAs and then teams have the ability to judge and make judgments, because high-ranking draft picks are very, very valuable.”

The committee is just starting, so far only staff discussions that haven’t yet included players and owners. Stern said he expects the NCAA to join as well.

For now, he’s pleased with the impact the draft rule has had.

“We’re very happy to have improved from having our scouts all over the high school gymnasium,” he said. “That was an important policy part of what we did as well, so we’ll see what we can do. They have some ideas, we have some ideas, I’m sure the NCAA has some ideas.”

Source: Associated Press. “David Stern Wants Change to Age Rule.” ESPN.com. 3 Apr. 2012. Web. 3

Apr. 2012. <http://espn.go.com/nba/draft2012/story/_/id/7771454/nba-commissioner-david-stern-


Exhibit 2: High School Players Drafted by the NBA (1995 – 2005)

Source: Graph created by author with information from Basketball–Reference.com

Exhibit 3: Brandon Jennings to Play Overseas Instead of College

Brandon Jennings to Play Overseas in Preparation for NBA

Posted By Oak Hill Hoops On July 19, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

July 10, 2008 — Oak Hill Academy and National Player of the Year, Brandon Jennings, and his family have decided to pursue several professional opportunities for next year.

Over the course of the last two months I have consulted a number of people in basketball before coming to this decision.” Jennings said. “I would like to thank the University of Arizona for their interest and support throughout this process.”

Brandon Jennings and his family have informed me that they want to pursue professional opportunities in order to achieve his ultimate pursuit of the NBA.” Jeff Valle, who serves as the Jennings family attorney, stated. “He knows that it will be a challenge to play and live in another country, but if he is going to be a top-notch professional he will constantly be challenged and believes he is ready now. Several European teams have expressed an interest.”

In addition to Jeff Valle, the family has reached out to Sonny Vaccaro to act as an advisor.


Statement from Coach Steve Smith, Oak Hill
“Brandon is a proud member of the Oak Hill Family and a phenomenal talent. While we hope all of our graduates will further their education, we fully support Brandon in this tough decision and we wish him success in the pursuit of his dream.”

Source: “Brandon Jennings to Play Overseas in Preparation for NBA.” Oak Hill Hoops. Oak Hill

Academy, 10 July 2008. Web. 8 Apr. 2012. <http://www.oakhillhoops.com/2008/07/brandon-


Exhibit 4: Players Drafted After One Year in College (2006 – Present)

Source: Graph created by author with information from Basketball–Reference.com 


“Article X, Section 1(b)(i).” National Basketball Player’s Association. 16 Dec. 2009. Web. 4

Apr. 2012. <http://www.nbpa.org/cba/2005&gt;.

Barra, Allen. “Both the NBA and the NCAA Want to Keep Athletes in College for Too Long.” The

Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 6 Apr. 2012. Web. 6 Apr. 2012.



Blitzer, Wolf. “All Stars Too Soon: The NBA Age Dilemma.” CNN.com. Cable News Network

LP, 11 Feb. 2001. Web. 4 Apr. 2012. <http://transcipts.cnn.com/&gt;.

Freeman, R. Edward. “Business Ethics at the Millenium.” Business Ethics Quarterly 10.1 (2000): 169-80.

Friedman, Milton. “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits.” New York Times 13 Sept. 1970.

Hannas, Chris. “Stern Picks Wrong Fight.” The Crusader [Selinsgrove, PA] 15 Apr. 2005, Sports

sec. The Crusader Online. Susquehanna University. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.



Hartman, Edwin M. “Donaldson on Rights and Corporate Obligations.” The Ruffin Series in

Business Ethics. Oxford UP, 1991. 163-72. Print.

Haywood v. National Basketball Association. U.S. Supreme Court. 1 Mar. 1971. FindLaw. Web.

4 Apr. 2012. <http://laws.findlaw.com/us/401/1204.html&gt;.

“Kobe Bryant.” Complex 28 Jan. 2009. Complex.com. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.


Lederman, Doug. “Half of Big-time NCAA Programs Had Major Violations.” USA Today.

Gannett Company, 2 July 2011. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.


Leonard, David J. “The Real Color of Money: Controlling Black Bodies in the NBA.” Journal of

Sports and Social Issues 30.2 (2006): 158-79. Web. 4 Apr. 2012. <http://daveknot.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/black-bodies-nba.pdf&gt;.

McCann, Michael. “NBA Age Restriction.” Web log post. Sports Law Blog. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.


More than a Game. Dir. Kristopher Belman. Perf. Lebron James, Dru Joyce, and Romeo Travis.

Harvey Mason Media, 2008. DVD.

“NBA Player Statistics.” Basketball Reference. Sports Reference LLC, 2012. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.


“Spencer Haywood Bio.” NBA.com. Turner Sports Interactive LLC. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.


Wilbon, Michael. “Taking a Stern Stance Against Child Labor.” The Washington Post

[Washington D.C.] 12 May 2001, Final ed., Sports D sec.: D.01. Web. 4 Apr. 2012. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/&gt;.

About Ben K.

I'm a senior management major at Bucknell University, hailing from Westchester, NY. Upon graduation, I will begin work as a management consultant.


3 thoughts on “From Prep to Pro: The NBA and Age Restriction

  1. Why would the age restriction be in the interests of NBA? I don’t see that. If they are over-paying young players based “only on potential,” then stop doing that. Run your business better. Somehow I feel Friedman would look at that as if it were a computer manufacturer asking Congress for help to keep itself from overpaying for chips. I can’t shake the impression that this is economic collusion between some college programs and the NBA masquerading as a “social responsibility.” The idea that the teams need to “look out for the best interests of these players” would strike Friedman as the worst kind of “social responsibility” were it is not needed, wouldn’t he?

    Posted by Jordi | April 24, 2012, 5:49 pm
    • It might be some form of collusion between some college programs and the NBA, but “run your business better” isn’t as easy as you make it sound. There are NBA general managers who are stupid, and will overpay for players who are “consensus” highly touted players. If some general managers decide not to overpay, there will always be the GM who says “screw it, let’s pay him everything.” I think one of my points is that the NBA is NOT looking out for the players, and by keeping the restriction in place they are better able to assess the risk of potential investments (incoming players). The restriction is beneficial to the NBA, and can certainly be detrimental towards players. The NBA is making it seem like they are looking out for players’ best interests, but this is just a ploy to make people believe they care. The NBA is a business, and a highly lucrative business at that. At the end of the day they’re looking to maximize revenue while maintaining good relations with both the players and the public.

      Posted by Ben K. | April 24, 2012, 6:02 pm
  2. Another question is why the universities have become so dependent on TV revenue. Should the programs be more frugal to avoid these choices?

    Posted by Jordi | April 24, 2012, 5:51 pm

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