With just more than eight minutes remaining on the clock, the University of Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel chased down Florida guard Mike Rosario and swatted away a fast-break layup attempt. It was Noel’s 106th block of his freshman season at Kentucky. It was also his last. As he returned to the floor, Noel bumped into the basket support, twisted his knee, and collapsed to the floor. His left anterior cruciate ligament was torn, his season — and likely his Kentucky career — ended on a block he never should have made in a game he never should have played.
Noel is only at Kentucky, and only in college, because the National Basketball Association instituted a rule in 2005 requiring all American-born players to be one year removed from high school before they can enter the league’s draft. Nevermind that Noel, the top-ranked player in the high school class of 2012, would have surely been a first-round pick were he eligible last year. Noel wanted to play in the NBA and an NBA team would have gladly accepted his services. He is in college not because he wanted to be, not because of some sense of amateurism or for an education. He is in college because he had to be.
Proponents of the NBA age limit (as well as those who think it should be stronger) argue that it is a good policy because it allows players to mature and improve their games before they jump to the pros. This is nonsense. The age limit exists because NBA teams, some burned by straight-from-high-school prospects that didn’t work out in the past, saw an opportunity to protect themselves against the possibility that the people they pay to scout and draft players aren’t very good at their jobs. Rather than risk millions of dollars on players who entered the draft right out of high school, the NBA now forces those players to perform a one-year trial run in the cost-free minor league that is college basketball.
It is entirely possible that Noel could have suffered the same injury at the professional level, but if he did, he would have already signed a contract and would have a guaranteed paycheck from his NBA team. Instead, he received a scholarship worth comparably little, and though he will still get drafted, the injury could cost him an untold amount of money if his draft stock drops. Even then, he is probably lucky, since an injury that was more likely to threaten his career entirely would have cost him even more.
But while Noel’s injury highlights problems with the limit, what makes it a bad rule is that it is another unnecessary form of restriction on young athletes that doesn’t exist for other workers. Replace Noel with a person with a different skill-set and basketball with a different industry, and no such policy would stand. An 18-year-old computer whizkid with an offer to join Apple is free to take the job. Someone of the same age with a talent for writing who had a job offer from the New York Times has the same opportunity. But because the NBA wants to protect itself from itself, no such chance exists for talented basketball players like Noel, who, even if an NBA team would be willing to pay them to play, are forced to spend one year as indentured servants in a system where everyone — the NCAA, the NBA, and their schools — makes money except them.