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Christopher L. Gasper

NBA must take mature approach with age limit

New NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said earlier this month that the league wants to eliminate the trend of one-year-and-done college players.

Paul Buck/EPA

New NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said earlier this month that the league wants to eliminate the trend of one-year-and-done college players.

The NBA wants a more mature product coming to an arena near you. If the league gets its way, the influx of one-and-done players from college will be done.

New NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who took over for autocratic and iconic commissioner David Stern on Feb. 1, said in his State of the League address last Saturday during All-Star Weekend that the NBA is interested in raising the age limit from 19 to 20.

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The current age limit, which went into effect for the 2006 draft, requires US players to be 19 and one year removed from their high school graduating class to be eligible for the draft. It was enacted to prevent players from jumping straight from high school to the NBA, the preps-to-pros trend popularized by Kevin Garnett in 1995.

It has turned college basketball into a one-season way station on the road to NBA riches and created college teams full of sneaker-wearing mercenaries (I’m looking at you Lexington, Ky.) that barely know each other’s names, never mind how to play cohesive team basketball.

An increase in the age limit to 20 would reform a basketball development system that is eating its young and destabilizing the college game. But this is America, and someone who is talented enough to pursue a career no matter the age should have that opportunity. An increase in the NBA’s age limit should come with the readmission of high school players into the draft.

The NBA should adopt a model similar to Major League League. In MLB, players are eligible to be drafted out of high school. But if they elect to go to a four-year college, they’re not eligible to be drafted until after their junior year. The NBA could amend that to two years. Call it two-and-through.

It might seem antithetical, raising and lowering the age limit at the same time. But it’s a chance for the NBA to get it right. A special talent such as LeBron James should have the opportunity to come into the league right out of high school. No one told Mark Zuckerberg he couldn’t found Facebook until he completed a certain number of years of college. If you have the skills and the talent, you should be able to start your career when you choose.

This is anathema to the NBA, which worked so hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube with high school players. But the reality is NBA executives still scout high school players. They have to because they represent the next class of one-and-dones.

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was at the Nike Hoop Summit, an event that matches the best US high school players against the best international players in the same age bracket, when I called him to ask about the Celtics’ playoff chances last April.

A year of college hasn’t guaranteed NBA-ready rookies. Even with a season at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Cleveland’s Anthony Bennett is the least impactful No. 1 overall pick in more than four decades. You have to go back to LaRue Martin in 1972 to find such a disappointing and de minimis NBA top pick.

The quick riches of the NBA are going to be alluring to some high school players, who will make an ill-advised jump. But the difference between the initial rush of high school talent into the league and now is the role of the NBA Development League, or D-League, as it’s known.

The NBA bargained in the last labor staredown with the union in 2011 for the right to send players in their first three years of NBA service to the D-League an unlimited amount of times without consent, making it more akin to a true minor league. Teams can assign two players at a time to the D-League. Those players still get their NBA salaries. There is no minimum or maximum length of assignment.

If you’re a hot-shot high school senior debating whether you should got into the NBA draft, you have to weigh whether you want to spend next season playing for the Sioux Falls Skyforce in obscurity or being fawned over by Dick Vitale on national television.

Of course, it’s hard for aspiring NBA players to take the D-League seriously, if the NBA doesn’t. The D-League fact sheet link on the league’s media website takes you to a document from the 2011-12 season.

The transience of the top players has become the great equalizer in college basketball. Watch Kansas or Kentucky. Those aren’t basketball teams. They’re group NBA auditions.

It’s why so many mid-major programs are thriving. It’s one of the reasons Brad Stevens went from coaching Butler to coaching the Celtics.

The blue-blood schools might have more talent, but their players don’t know how to play together. Conversely, mid-major schools might have less-gifted players, but they have better T-E-A-M-S.

There is not a freshman among the top nine scorers on Wichita State, which entered Saturday as the only undefeated team in Division 1 college basketball. The Shockers’ best player, Cleanthony Early, is a talented senior.

“I think ultimately this is a team sport, it’s not an individual sport,” said Silver. “Teams of players that have played together for a long time have an enormous advantage over teams comprised of superstars or players that come together over short periods of time.

“So, I think from a college standpoint if those teams could have an opportunity to jell, to come together, if those players had the benefit to play for some of these great college coaches for longer periods of time, I think it would lead to stronger college basketball and stronger NBA ball, as well.”

Silver is right, but it has to be a two-pronged approach.

The NBA’s age limit must be like an elevator. It must go up and down to help prospects reach their proper level.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and the host of Boston Sports Live. He can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.
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