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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

It's time for the NBA to get rid of its draft-eligible age restriction

Duke's Zion Williamson falls to the floor with

Duke's Zion Williamson falls to the floor with an injury while chasing the ball with North Carolina's Luke Maye during the first half in Durham, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. Credit: AP/Gerry Broome

The timing was curious but coincidental.

The day after Zion Williamson slid to the floor — prompting all of the lottery-bound teams to suddenly reconsider their future plans — USA Today and ESPN broke stories that the NBA had submitted a formal proposal to the NBA Players Association to lower the draft-eligible age from 19 to 18.

The proposal, seeking to negotiate the age change for the 2022 draft, still leaves out the simple part of any plan regarding high school players’ path to the NBA — that it is ridiculous that there is any restriction at all.

While players once were eligible to move right from high school to the NBA, the change to the current rule of 19 years old and one year removed from a player’s high school graduating class has done nothing but create a number of solutions, leaving out the most important one.

A player can head to college and, like Williamson, enjoy a one-and-done season, helping to lead a big-money college program, promoting his public image and hoping to avoid either an injury or a struggle that diminishes his NBA draft stock.

Or a player can choose to sit out a season, as Mitchell Robinson did when he went from a highly regarded high school player to a second-round pick by the Knicks.

Or he can head overseas for a paycheck in a foreign land, as more players have opted to attempt.

“I think the rule should be changed, but we’ve been talking about this for how long now?” said Knicks guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who chose to spend a season in China. That hardly was an easy path to the draft, as he suffered an ankle injury and had to live with the jealousy of the local players, who resented the 18-year-old coming in and taking a spot.

Added Mudiay, “I think they’re trying to figure that out, but at the same time, everybody feels like they should get at least some type of money.”

The NBA has tried to find a way to utilize the G League. Beginning with the upcoming draft, there will be a path for a limited number of elite high school prospects to head to the developmental league for a $125,000 paycheck.

The simplest solution is the one already utilized by Major League Baseball, which allows a player to be drafted out of high school and sign immediately. Or the player can opt for college but cannot enter the draft again until after three years of college.

It certainly would improve the college game, allowing fans to follow a player for more than a brief flash of draft prep work.

If a player chooses college, good for him and for the school. But certainly the player, as in almost every other sport, should be able to choose whether to head for the pro ranks if he believes — and a team thinks — he’s ready.

The Knicks’ Dennis Smith Jr., who played one year of college ball, was asked if he would have opted for the NBA if he had been given the chance. “Of course,’’ he said. “And I love N.C. State. I’m grateful that I went there. I’ve got a big family, some people that are depending on me. I would have gone straight out of high school if the option was there.”

There never has been any huge influx of high school players when the gates were open. Were there failures? Sure, but isn’t that a problem for the scouts and general managers who made the wrong choice? The player got paid, which is the ultimate goal of any job — including that of a professional basketball player.

In a way, it’s better for the college programs, too, getting a chance to develop players as a part of their school. Will they miss out on the star power of the best high school players? Maybe, although Williamson has made it clear that he has no regrets about his year at Duke.

Of course, if it is just for the glory of the school and the chance to grow on a college campus, as is argued by so many proponents of the unpaid labor being locked in, maybe we can cut the salary for coaches down to the same level as college professors.

The long road

John Jenkins was rewarded for his play in his first two games with the Knicks by having his 10-day contract turned into a two-year deal for the veteran minimum. It’s not guaranteed, but it still is a far cry better than the basketball vagabond life Jenkins had found himself living.

With five NBA stops, a season in Spain and an assortment of G League assignments, the former first-round pick could not have been blamed if he had wondered if he would ever get back.

At 27 years old, he had just come off a 10-day contract with the Washington Wizards in which he got into four games and took only two shots in 14 minutes. He made both, a pair of three-pointers, but it wasn’t enough to allow him to hold on to a spot in Washington.

“I’ve learned to be very patient in this league,” Jenkins said. “I know there are younger guys that need to be developed. I’ve been on teams where that’s the case, so my job is to always stay ready and be in the best shape possible, be prepared mentally and just work hard.”

With the Knicks, the magic of a team in free fall is that there are opportunities. Hours after being signed to the 10-day contract, he got a chance to attempt a potential tying three-pointer at the end of his first game. After sitting out the next night, he scored 14 points in 26 minutes in Atlanta, earning his shot at playing with the Knicks for at least the remainder of the season (next year is non-guaranteed).

“It’s kind of nerve-wracking because you don’t know what to expect coming into a new team and only having 10 days to make it work,”Jenkins said. “You just stay in the moment, take every day as it is, work hard and go from there.

“It’s all I could ask for coming in on a 10-day and getting an opportunity to succeed. I’m thankful, grateful, extremely happy. All the hard work I’ve put in, and sacrifice, all paying off at the perfect time.” 

Growing louder

Knicks coach David Fizdale has compared rookie Mitchell Robinson to DeAndre Jordan — in Jordan’s early days. And one of the things he believes he is beginning to find in the usually soft-spoken Robinson is leadership.

“The cool part about this whole thing is I’m starting to realize this kid is a real student and he’s really, really diving into knowing his position, learning his job, getting better at it,” Fizdale said. “A couple games ago in the huddle, I was going to draw a play and the guys were kind of chatting amongst each other and he shut the whole huddle up, told them to pay attention. And I was like, ‘Mitchell?’ When you have a 20-year-old big guy and he’s already getting comfortable doing stuff like that and I think about where he’s going to be in five years as a leader, as a defender. The kid’s got a chance.”


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