Emmanuel Mudiay’s injury highlights the absurdity of the NBA age limit
The top 2015 NBA Draft prospect may lose his roster spot in China and have to sit out until the draft. How is this good for anyone?
In Philadelphia, the 76ers are 1-17. The players go hard and coach Brett Brown is doing everything he can to compete, but the franchise blueprint is to be completely non-competitive right now in order to boost the team’s odds of picking very high in the 2015 NBA Draft. The goal is to add another hot asset to a roster with only a few lights of hope and little realized talent.
Few are showing up to NBA games in Philadelphia because NBA games are not being played in Philadelphia, making the Sixers a well-produced farce.
Meanwhile in southern China, Emmanuel Mudiay, an 18-year-old who grew up in Dallas, is rehabbing an ankle injury as rumors swirl that he’ll be cut from his pro team. Guangdong wants to sign 31-year-old point guard Will Bynum to save its season; doing so would necessitate cutting Mudiay.
Mudiay is in China only because he is barred from playing in the NBA until he’s been out of high school for a year and because he allegedly couldn’t get eligible academically to play in the NCAA. Chances are he’ll end up playing nowhere for the rest of the season, spending the next six and a half months doing drills and workouts and drills and workouts to protect his draft status.
The Sixers are basically sitting out the season, waiting for the NBA Draft. Mudiay is likely to sit out the season, waiting for the NBA Draft. This is all so absurd.
The NBA tried to ruin the Sixers’ gameplan by implementing sane lottery reform, but they convinced enough of their brethren to block it. That reform would have dropped the odds of the worst team getting a top-3 pick considerably, in theory slashing the incentive for being abjectly terrible. The reform was hasty but reasonable: The NBA simply tried to prevent the next Philadelphia 76ers from happening with as little collateral damage as possible. They will try again, Basketball Gods willing.
Meanwhile, the NBA is actively trying to make it more difficult for young men in Mudiay’s situation to play basketball. Commissioner Adam Silver has loudly endorsed a plan to increase the league’s age minimum to 20. Imagine what that would do to Mudiay if it were already in place. He’d be ineligible to play in the NCAA forever because he played professionally for a month. He’d be out in China. European rosters are set and those clubs don’t seem amenable to renting 18-year-old Americans regardless. So Mudiay’s only real competitive option (other than international leagues) would be the NBA D-League, where he’d earn about $30,000 a season and have to hang out until June, 2016.
Brandon Jennings taught us that Europe is not a real option for kids denied the NBA experience. Mudiay is teaching us that China is out, too. He’s being replaced because of a two-week injury! With only two roster spots for American players, teams just can’t afford to fall behind too far.
There is still not a single case in which a highly-rated prospect spent his pre-draft year totally in the D-League and got picked in the first round. (Charlotte’s P.J. Hairston didn’t join the Texas Legends until January of last season.) So the only proven option is the NCAA … Which happens to be a place where you get paid in “exposure” and gear, where you might spend a night hungry while making your program millions simply because you are actively disallowed from making money.
And if you can’t make the NCAA due to grades, SAT scores or whatever, you’re out of luck for a year. If Silver has his way, make it two.
There are solutions for the draft mess, just as there are solutions for the Sixers mess. My friend Dan Shanoff has long been a proponent of allowing a sneaker company to subsidize fat D-League contracts for top prospects. Someone like Mudiay could have played for the Delaware 87ers, got paid $500,000 or $1 million by Under Armour and entered the next draft more prepared, with the NBA reaping the viewership benefit. But that might require D-League players on the whole getting more money, and that’s not going to happen without a serious fight.
There’s also the idea to make it work more like Major League Baseball, where you can be drafted out of high school but if you go to college, you’re committing to at least three years. This would end the one-and-done scourge almost every NCAA coach complains about, but it would just lead to every marginal prospect declaring, which is the reason the NBA Board of Governors fought to put the age minimum in place. This would be the NCAA’s dream result (other than an age minimum of 21), but it’s not going to happen.
The simplest solution, of course, is to simply abolish the age minimum and force NBA front offices to suck it up and draft wisely. The age minimum is just another in a long line of NBA policies created primarily to protect teams from making stupid decisions. (The rookie scale contract, max player contracts, the salary cap and the Stepien Rule all apply.)
The NBA would argue it has no obligation to make life easier for 18-year-old basketball players, it has an obligation to fans who would rather watch more polished action and teams who’d rather draft more proven prospects. That’s all accurate in a strict sense, until you remember that the NBA has a monopoly on professional basketball in the United States, that our country has historically frowned upon monopolistic abuses and that one kid with the right lawyer could put the league (and the complicit players’ union) on skates.
Until that happens (probably never), the cost to the NBA itself in implementing the age minimum is nil. The entire cost of the policy is borne by 18-year-olds. In that sense, the policy is as brilliant as it is disgusting.
The simplest solution to prevent future Philadelphia’s is to implement modest lottery reform, as was just on the table. But that was too much too fast for enough self-interested NBA franchise owners, because those NBA franchise owners would bear the costs of the policy in terms of one fewer option in rebuilding. (Reports suggested some teams voted against reform based on draft picks they currently owe or are owed. How myopic is that?)
Philadelphia waits for June, pretending to participate in the NBA. Emmanuel Mudiay waits for June, wishing he were allowed to participate in the NBA. It’s a crazy world out there.