Young ballers: See the world

The N.Y. Times profiles a high school basketball star on the verge of a smart response to the NBA age limit.

Published June 24, 2008 10:00AM (EDT)

William C. Rhoden profiled a high school basketball star named Brandon Jennings in Monday's New York Times. Jennings is notable at the moment because he's considering doing something unusual that I thought would be commonplace by now.

Faced with the NBA rule that rookies must be 19 years old and a year removed from high school, Jennings is thinking about playing pro ball in Europe next season.

Jennings is an 18-year-old Angeleno who has been going to the basketball factory Oak Hill Academy in Virginia for two years. He's considering attending the University of Arizona if his test scores are good enough, but even if they're up to snuff, he says he might go to Europe. He sounds very mature and smart as he explains his thinking on the matter, which he traces to the day he heard youth basketball guru and former shoe executive Sonny Vaccaro talking about overseas ball on the radio.

"I think people just develop better over there," Rhoden quotes Jennings saying. "You're playing professional ball for a year, you're playing against guys who are older than you. I'll constantly be playing basketball 24-7. I don't have to worry about school and things like that."

For those of you rising out of your chairs to protest this callous dismissal of higher education, here's Rhoden: "On the surface, that sounds troubling. In reality, forcing talented players who otherwise would be drafted to spend a sham year in college does not advance higher education."

Going overseas to play pro ball against pro opposition with pro coaching and for a pro salary is such a no-brainer of an idea it's amazing to me that more kids haven't done it since the NBA instituted its age limit in the latest collective-bargaining agreement two years ago. Here's something I wrote in 2005, when commissioner David Stern was trying to sell the idea.

International basketball has grown by leaps and bounds, and European leagues are no longer the place where journeymen American players go to make a modest living playing ball for a few years after they fail to make the NBA. They're now leagues that produce multiple first-round draft picks, and often those guys aren't even good enough yet to play over there.

Sure, some elite kids would value the college experience, would want to be close to home or play for a certain coach, but I think the main result of an NBA age limit would be a flood of American teenage basketball players going to Europe.

Would you like to spend your winter in, say, Syracuse, N.Y., playing against other teenagers, not getting paid and not allowed to make money in other ways, living in a dorm room, forced to go to classes you may or may not be interested in? Or would you rather spend it in, oh, let's see, Milan, playing against men, making a few million, living in a villa and meeting supermodels?

So I was wrong. There hasn't been a flood of American teenage basketball players going to Europe. But I wouldn't bet against it happening eventually, once Jennings or someone else does it and succeeds.

Rhoden put it better than I did: "What'll it be: Spain or Paris, or Tucson? Being compensated half a million to a million Euros, or receiving room, board, tuition and a telephone book of N.C.A.A. regulations?"

The only thing keeping most of these kids from giving the obvious answer is inertia. That may be about to change.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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