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The Boston Globe

Sports

Christopher L. Gasper

NBA’s age limit doesn’t need repeal

Nerlens Noel’s knee injury should not hurt his prospective career in the NBA, but staying in school may make it better.

phil sandlin/associated press

Nerlens Noel’s knee injury should not hurt his prospective career in the NBA, but staying in school may make it better.

If you’re an 18-year-old American basketball player, you have freedom of expression, but not freedom of profession. You live in a country where you are old enough to vote, but too young to put on an NBA uniform. You can full-court press as the oppressed.

The NBA’s age limit — a player must be at least 19 years old and one year removed from high school — has come under scrutiny once again, after Everett’s Nerlens Noel, the starting center at the University of Kentucky and putative No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA draft, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee Tuesday in a loss to Florida.

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Noel has become a martyr for teenage hoopsters barred from swapping their mortar boards for NBA backboards. The logic is that Noel, the latest player to sit in John Calipari’s NBA waiting room, could have been in the NBA, already drawing a paycheck, when he got hurt.

Noel’s injury is certainly unfortunate, but the bigger tragedy would be repealing the NBA’s age limit because of it.

The 6-foot-10-inch Noel, who spent last season at Tilton School in New Hampshire, will benefit more from the 24 games of college basketball he played at Kentucky than he will suffer from the torn ACL. Knee injuries are not the death knell for athletic careers that they used to be, and, in a weak draft, Noel should still be a lottery pick.

What he would not have been without Kentucky is an NBA-ready player.

Maybe, the argument would have more merit if we were talking about LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. But Noel is a raw, unvarnished center whose best attribute is his ability to block shots. A preternaturally gifted swatter with Swiss watch timing, Noel led Division 1 in blocks per game at the time of his injury (4.5).

But his offensive game makes Kendrick Perkins look like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. If ever a highly touted big man needed a season of seasoning it is Noel. He is a case for the NBA’s age limit, not against it.

The real argument here isn’t about whether players such as Noel — who, according to ESPN’s Darren Rovell, took out a $10 million insurance policy to protect himself — should be allowed to go straight to David Stern’s playground. It’s whether college basketball players who line the pockets of megalomaniacal coaches and coffers of colleges and universities and put the entertainment in for-entertainment-purposes-only NCAA Tournament pools should be getting paid for doing so.

The answer is yes. You wouldn’t have folks railing about the NBA age limit if college basketball wasn’t the equivalent of a Nike-run sweatshop.

Regardless of your vocation, the college experience isn’t simply about preparing to make money. It’s about maturing as a young adult. It’s about growth, the kind you don’t measure in wingspans or verticals. You can’t put a price on that.

Since Kevin Garnett made skipping school cool in 1995, when he went straight from Farragut Career Academy to the League, to 2005, the last year high school players were eligible for the draft, high schoolers get high marks as pro players.

Some of the game’s most iconic players never played a second of college hoops.

KG, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Dwight Howard all went straight to the NBA. Tracy McGrady and Jermaine O’Neal had All-Star careers. Amar’e Stoudemire, Andrew Bynum, Tyson Chandler, and Josh Smith were preps-to-pros successes.

But is there anyone who doesn’t think Kwame Brown, the first high schooler to be drafted No. 1 overall in 2001, couldn’t have used a year of college? How about Robert Swift, Sebastian Telfair, or onetime Celtics No. 1 pick Gerald Green?

Overall, the NBA does a better job developing basketball players than colleges do, but college basketball is better at developing people skills.

It’s not a coincidence that Howard and LeBron have both drawn criticism during their careers for being petulant, self-obsessed, and incapable of handling criticism. It took years — and the Zen philosophy of Phil Jackson — for Bryant to drop his supercilious act and become a better teammate.

You don’t hear or see those same behavioral issues with players such as Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose or Kyrie Irving, who entered the league after the age limit was put in place in 2006.

As for the idea that the age limit is hampering the earning power of basketball Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, it’s dubious.

In the NBA, it’s not about the first contract. Teams can only sign first-round picks to two-year deals with two club options. It’s about the second contract, which is earned on your performance on your rookie deal.

The first pick in the 2013 draft can make a first-year maximum of about $5.3 million. By comparison, Durant, who is in the first year of his second contract, will pull down more than $17.5 million this year.

It behooves players to be as developed as they can before they enter a league that eats its young if they can’t play.

Durant, the second pick in the 2007 draft, and No. 1 picks Rose and Irving made instant NBA impacts as one-and-dones. Irving had a situation somewhat similar to Noel in that a toe injury limited him to only 11 games at Duke.

The only NBA player that has come straight out of high school since 1995 and been sublime from the first time he laced them up has been Le­Bron, who averaged 20.9 points per game as a rookie in 2003-04.

Kobe averaged 7.6 points per game as an 18-year-old rookie. Garnett averaged 10.4 points and 6.3 rebounds, as a 19-year-old NBA neophyte.

Other than legitimate intellectual prodigies, who among us was ready for the highest level of their profession after they got their high school yearbook?

The NBA has its limit, so does being advanced only in basketball.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.
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