The NBA's drive for an age limit on draft picks might be about many things - the league's image, its quality of play, the players' maturity - but it certainly seems to be about one thing: money.
The league wants to cut off the flow of high school graduates directly to the NBA by instituting a ban on drafting those under 20. The players union opposes the age limit.
"The reality is that the age limit is tied to economics," union executive Billy Hunter said. "It's not about [maturity of the players]."
In addition, the age limit is just one of the issues to be worked out in negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement this summer.
"I won't say it's a non-starter," Hunter said. "Everything has a price. I know that the owners would like to see an age limit. It depends on what else is on the table."
Commissioner David Stern had a similar sentiment on the issue.
"Nothing is a deal breaker," he said late last month. "We want to make a deal."
Economic issues aside, the time seems right to re-examine the teenage influx. The first high school player taken with the No. 1 overall pick, Kwame Brown, apparently has ended his disappointing run with the Washington Wizards by being suspended for skipping practices during the playoffs. And the 2006 and 2007 drafts could feature two highly touted youngsters, respectively, in 7-foot-1 center Greg Oden from Indianapolis and 6-4 point guard O.J. Mayo of Cincinnati.
Several successful high school draft picks - Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady - may have overshadowed others who weren't ready to make the jump, such as Leon Smith and Korleone Young.
But another teenage draft pick who became an All-Star, the Indiana Pacers' Jermaine O'Neal, doesn't see the benefit of the campus experience.
"What is it that college teaches you?" O'Neal told The New York Times. "College don't really teach you to be a great NBA player on and off the court. College teaches you about college. What can better teach you about dealing with the NBA than the NBA? There are a lot of Duke products who don't do well in the NBA."
The uneven results for the high school players aren't out of line with college or international draftees. However, NBA executives see less guesswork in evaluating older players than watching high school talent against inferior high school players.
"We would very much like to get general managers and scouts out of high schools," Stern said in March to The News-Press of Fort Myers, Fla. "If they chose not to go to college, they would still have someplace to go."
That someplace would be the National Basketball Development League. The NBDL intends to allow high school graduates if the NBA goes to the 20-year-old minimum. Expanding the league from six to 15 teams next season would open spots for a greater number of younger players.
Meanwhile, the NBA would be able to avoid having others follow in the monetary footsteps of Bryant. The Lakers' All-Star became the first player to earn $200 million on NBA contracts, having gone into his third contract since signing with Los Angeles at the age of 18.
In essence, the league would squeeze a player's career by starting it later.
"This [age limit] constricts how much a player can make over his career," Hunter said.
Michael McCann, an incoming professor at Mississippi College and member of the legal team that helped former Ohio State football player Maurice Clarett challenge the NFL on a similar issue, said he expected a lawsuit directed at the NBA if it institutes an age limit.
McCann said unlike Clarett, a player trying to jump to the NFL a year earlier than the league had ever allowed, the NBA has had experience with players fresh out of high school.
"[Clarett] had to argue a hypothetical," McCann said. "Here, you already have a nine-year track record. It's clear that the players know what they're doing. It's not like they're making terrible decisions."
But sentiment either way probably won't play much of a role, said Gary Roberts, former president of the Sports Lawyer Association.
If the league and the union agree to allow an age limit, Roberts said, higher courts will likely see it as a collective bargaining issue, not an antitrust issue, thus foiling any legal challenges.
However, he doesn't see the league backing down on luxury taxes for the sake of an age limit.
"There's a lot of saber-rattling, but there are greater issues," Roberts said. "Neither the league or the union will shut down the league over this."