In 2005, then-NBA commissioner David Stern celebrated a victory when he successfully created an age limit -- a player had to be 19 years old or one year removed from his high school class graduation to be drafted -- that accomplished his goal of removing pro scouts from high school gyms.
Now, though, there is turbulence, as the underbelly in the youth and college basketball systems is being exposed. The NBA has watched it unfold. Seeing both a responsibility as the world's leading basketball league and an opportunity to move in on valuable territory, the league is preparing to get involved again with elite high school basketball players, multiple sources told ESPN.
Current NBA commissioner Adam Silver and several of his top advisers have been engaged in listening tours and information-gathering missions with an array of stakeholders for months. That has included formal meetings with the National Basketball Players Association about adjusting the so-called "one-and-done" age-limit rule. But Silver's aim is much more comprehensive than simply re-opening the door for 18-year-olds to play in the NBA, sources said.
A plan is expected to include the NBA starting relationships with elite teenagers while they are in high school, providing skills to help them develop both on and off the court. It would ultimately open an alternate path to the NBA besides playing in college and a way 18-year-olds could earn a meaningful salary either from NBA teams or as part of an enhanced option in the developmental G League, sources said.
The NBA is focusing on getting involved in two important periods in which they currently have minimal contact with prospects: the high school years and the time between high school graduation and when a young player is physically and emotionally ready to join the NBA.
Silver could present a plan within the next few months, though the league is planning to wait until after the Commission on College Basketball presents its report this spring. Both Silver and NBPA executive director Michele Roberts have appeared before the commission, which is chaired by Condoleezza Rice.
"We are looking at changing the relationship we have with players before they reach the NBA," one high-ranking league official said. "This is a complex challenge, and there's still a lot of discussion about how it's going to happen, but we all see the need to step in."
In recent days, influential voices such as former President Barack Obama and LeBron James, a vice president of the players' union, have called for the NBA to expand its G League to give teenagers another option besides the NCAA route. NCAA president Mark Emmert has said repeatedly he doesn't believe players should come to college if only to use it as a pit stop toward being in the NBA.
These concerns have been on Silver's desk for some time, and he has been seeking input on the topic, reaching out to influential basketball minds across the sport to hear ideas. Recent events have convinced him that some concepts need to be accelerated, sources said.
"We're spending a lot of time on [youth basketball]. I think there is a big opportunity, on a global basis, focus on elite players in terms of better training, better fitness, so that they ultimately can be successful at the highest level," Silver said during All-Star Weekend. "That is something from a league standpoint, together with our teams, we're putting an enormous amount of energy and resources into."
Within the past year, league officials began canvassing teams on their ideas and interest in the NBA creating academies that would house and train dozens of the country's elite high school basketball players, sources said. This academy concept has been floated for years, notably by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
These academies would've been modeled after European-style operations that soccer and basketball franchises use and after the NBA's own international academies. The NBA currently operates three academies in China, one in India and one in Senegal and has a global academy with prospects from across the planet at the Australia Institute of Sport. They recently opened another academy in Mexico City to serve standout Latin American teens.
However, after discussions with teams and examining challenges and possible unintended consequences with establishing these operations in the U.S., the NBA has decided not to go down the academy path at this time, sources said.
Instead, the league might be looking at how it can get in touch with prospects while they're playing in high school with camps, tournaments and other connection points as they move through high school, with the summer being a focus point.
In this way, the league could bring in some of its experts to advise high-level prospects on training methods, recovery, nutrition and life skills. All this in addition to providing professional coaching and playing techniques that could better translate to the professional game and make the eventual transition to the NBA, G League or even high-level college basketball easier.
"We've talked a lot about youth development in terms of whether we should be getting involved in some of these young players even earlier than when they come into college," Silver said. "And from a league standpoint, on one hand, we think we have a better draft when we've had an opportunity to see these young players play an elite level before they come into the NBA. On the other hand, I think the question for the league is, in terms of their ultimate success, are we better off intersecting with them a little bit younger?"
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The league also has engaged in conversations with USA Basketball and the players' union, which each have operated camps for elite high school players for years. They also are expected to eventually seek partnerships with shoe companies, which have guided elite high school basketball for decades but are now under scrutiny after an Adidas executive was indicted as part of an FBI investigation in the fall.
"People have been saying we need to fix the AAU system for a long time," said one NBA general manager who has discussed these changes with the league office. "At least for some of the kids we may end up having on our roster one day, this may be our chance to start that process."
After the high school years, there is the issue of preparing prospects for the NBA. When high school players were allowed to immediately be drafted, there were high-profile success stories such as Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. But there were plenty of examples of players who made mistakes by turning pro too early, and the league wasn't as equipped to manage young, raw players.
A new plan could establish a way for the ultra-elite level of players such as Bryant or James to go to the NBA as 18-year-olds and also create a way for high school graduates who might not be ready to immediately go to the NBA to continue their development with NBA teams while enabling them to earn money that could help their families. This would be an alternative to college and perhaps the seedy and legally questionable world of looking for under-the-table payments.
The NBA currently permits 18-year-olds in the G League, but the salaries are not competitive. Currently, G League players can earn a maximum of $26,000 per season. In recent years, prospects such as Brandon Jennings, Emmanuel Mudiay and Terrance Ferguson played overseas and earned as much as $1 million while waiting to be eligible to be drafted -- which they all were in the first round.
The Australian National Basketball League, where Ferguson played last year before being drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder, has opened a window for players looking to go this route. Perhaps in an attempt to get ahead of the NBA, the NBL has just announced the "Next Stars" program, creating roster spots for players who want to develop in Australia starting next season. ESPN has reported it will come with a salary of 100,000 Australian dollars, or about $78,000 in U.S currency.
The NBA already has created an "in between" for the G League and NBA rosters with two-way contracts, in which players earn the equivalent of $75,000 when in the G League and then earn an NBA minimum salary when with the parent club. A plan to create another version of this could be launched for 18-year-olds that would make it more financially attractive for them to stay in the U.S. and get more NBA-level coaching and training as they prepare to eventually be formally drafted into the league.
All of these options and many more are on the table for the NBA now. These changes would require amendments to the collective bargaining agreement with players, and the current one isn't up until 2024. But Silver and Roberts are trying to work together on this so that amendments can be made in the short term and are trying to use the unrest in college basketball to find a way to make changes that can hopefully help the entire youth basketball environment.
"We realize that the whole issue of the one-and-done is that we don't operate in isolation, and where we choose to set with our players' association, the minimum age has a direct impact on college basketball as well," Silver said. "We're not by any means rushing through this. I think this is a case where, actually, outside of the cycle of collective bargaining, we can spend more time on it with the players' association, talking to the individual players, talking to the executive board and really trying to understand the pros and cons of potentially moving the age limit."