By Ken Reed

Amazingly, NBA training camps will open in a little over a week. The professional leagues in the United States continue to bleed into each other.

One of the hot basketball topics this summer has been NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s stated wish to allow 18-year-olds to play in the NBA.

“I think there’s an opportunity [to change it],” said Silver.

“It’s [based on] larger conversations than just whether we go from 19 to 18, but I’m on record: When I balance all of these various considerations, I think that would be the right thing to do and I am hopeful that that’s a change we make in this next collective bargaining cycle, which will happen in the next couple years.”

In many ways, it makes sense. Forcing young men to go to college for a year in order to get to the NBA doesn’t seem right. Many of those athletes aren’t interested in college and end up only going to school for a semester. If they get the needed grades to stay eligible the first semester they simply don’t go to school during the spring semester. It’s a total charade. Moreover, 18-year-olds are considered adults in most quarters. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to start a career after high school in a field of their choice like the vast majority of 18-year-olds in this country?

It wouldn’t be something new for the NBA. The age limit once was 18 until it was changed to 19 in 2005. That’s how Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and others got to the NBA without going the college route.

But doesn’t the NBA, as the lead basketball organization in the country and the driver of USA Basketball, the national governing body for the sport (which is charged, in part, with growing the sport) have some responsibility in the holistic development of young basketball players in this country?

Tom Farrey, the founder and executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Soceity Program, recently wrote an excellent, in-depth piece about potential roles the NBA could play in developing young basketball players in the United States. Farrey points out that basketball development is a confusing mess in the United States.

“These efforts matter in improving both the quality of and the sustained access to the game,” says Farrey.

“But unlike in many European countries, the U.S. youth basketball landscape remains a highly disjointed space, with no real regulation and few mandates and incentives to compel adherence to best practices. Health and safety principles, are easily ignored, as are the more holistic needs of youth. Too often, players reach adulthood without the life skills to succeed.”

Farrey suggests three possible paths for basketball development in this country if the NBA moves forward and lowers the age limit to 18.

1) The Major League Soccer (MLS) Model — The MLS model is based off the European soccer club approach. Every MLS team has a youth academy. The NBA could do the same. NBA teams would pay for the cost of training. That would knock down economic barriers for low-income families and take power away from over-the-top parents who believe their financial investment allows them a significant measure of control in the process. MLS clubs limit the number of games in order to focus more on practices and skill development. This is counter to the AAU basketball approach currently in the United States, in which games take precedence over practice and skill development. In Europe, the ratio of practices to games is much higher and is one reason European players come to the NBA with a better set of skills.

2) An NBA-Owned Academy Model — The NBA has created league-owned residential academies in other countries, including Mexico, Australia and India. At these academies, players go to school and receive top-level coaching. This model could be applied in the United States, with say four regional academies across the country. The cost of the academies would be shared by all NBA teams. The academies should have a holistic model that provides a high-level of schooling, as well as career and education options for players that are ultimately deemed to not be of NBA caliber.

3) Bolstered Support Model — This would basically be the current model plus more NBA involvement. In other words, players would continue to play for their high school teams in the winter and club/AAU teams in the spring/summer, with the NBA involved to help ensure best practices are followed. The NHL went this path when they created the American Development Model, which provides regional managers to work with clubs and guide coaches in their areas.

The NBA, as the driver of USA Basketball, has a moral responsibility to do something positive in the area of youth basketball development in this country if it is going to tell young players that you no longer have to go to college to enter the league. The NBA historically has relied on the college system to feed basketball talent to its franchises.

Basketball is played by more young people in the United States than any other sport. Yet, the basketball development system in this country is terribly chaotic and dominated by youth sports entrepreneurs who often act as youth sports vultures who put their own interests above what’s best for young athletes.

As Farrey concludes, “Building a more coherent basketball ecosystem for all won’t be easy. But the opportunity is emerging to do so — and for the NBA, as the alpha in the room, to drive that conversation.”

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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