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It's time for NBA to rethink the freshman rule

Although the National Basketball Association and its players' union continued to quibble about the financial state of the league over the weekend, there was a glimmer of good news after the sides met to discuss their expiring collective bargaining agreement.

Although the National Basketball Association and its players' union continued to quibble about the financial state of the league over the weekend, there was a glimmer of good news after the sides met to discuss their expiring collective bargaining agreement.

"They indicated they're prepared to talk about everything, and we're prepared to talk about everything," union chief Billy Hunter told on Friday.

What the NBA and its union need to talk seriously about is revamping the age requirement to enter the league. The so-called freshman rule was an 11th-hour concession by the union during the last negotiations in 2005, and it requires a non-international player to be at least one year out of high school and 19 years old to enter the NBA draft. That rule is damaging basketball - the NBA, and the college game.

Look around college basketball. There are no truly dominant teams, because the special players leave after one year. Coaches don't have the luxury of time to develop team chemistry or to help the great players develop into better post players or sharper shooters.

It is why a team like Butler, a mid-major program without stars but with experience, could come within a jumper of winning the national championship last season. It is why Brigham Young's Jimmer Fredette is a leading candidate for player of the year.

If John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton or Eric Bledsoe had stayed at Kentucky instead of turning pro after their freshman seasons last year, they would be in the race for player of the year and the Wildcats would be better than 19-7.

As a result, the NBA, which held its All-Star Game on Sunday, is now populated with players with raw talent but not the extensive resumé more time in college would provide. The players are younger and less mature as basketball players and people. They have to develop a mid-range jumper while earning a big-time salary, and often they don't get the playing time to hone their skills.

"The NBA is not as mature as it used to be," Jay Bilas, ESPN's college basketball analyst, told me last week. "They've invested money in unproven commodities, and they're having to deal with it. . . . There are a lot of players who are unknowns that years ago had college backgrounds and everybody knew who they were. That's changed now. It's just totally different."

A couple of weeks ago, Bilas was in town for Villanova's game against Pittsburgh. The night before the game, he had dinner with Wildcats coach Jay Wright and former 76ers coach Larry Brown. Much of the conversation was about the impact of the freshman rule.

Bilas contends that when he played at Duke in the mid-1980s, college basketball teams were better than they had been in the 1960s. In the early 2000s, teams were better than when Bilas played.

But teams today are not better than teams in the early 2000s, even though the athletes are better trained, better conditioned, stronger and faster. That, according to Bilas, is directly related to the talent drain in college.

In 1995, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant bypassed college altogether to jump to the pros. In 2007, Greg Oden, Michael Conley, and Daequan Cook left Ohio State after their freshman year when they helped the Buckeyes to the national title game. In 2010, Kentucky's freshman four bolted for the pros after an early exit from the NCAA tournament.

Look at the 76ers' roster. Their top eight scorers either left college early or, in Lou Williams' case, skipped college altogether. Jrue Holiday, Spencer Hawes, and Thaddeus Young left after one year.

"To think a dozen or so early entries a year haven't affected the quality of this game is ridiculous. It has drastically," Bilas said. "There is no way I should say teams that played 20 years ago are superior to today, but I can and it's true, not because they are better players. It's because the players before were older, played together, and were junior and senior lottery picks. We don't have that anymore."

The solution, of course, is in the NBA's hands. Bilas has come around to favor the baseball model. If a high school player is talented enough to jump to the NBA, like a LeBron James or Dwight Howard, then so be it. But if a player commits to college, like a Kevin Durant or Kevin Love, then he has to stay through his junior year.

If the National Football League can keep players from declaring for the draft until the spring of their junior year, why can't the NBA? It would dramatically help the college game and the pro product and - imagine this - the players.

"I think we've reached a bad spot in our culture when staying in school is seen as a detriment to your career and your basketball development," Bilas said. "We've created this culture of skipping steps in basketball, and I don't think it's a good thing. . . . I've seen it affect the college game and it's affected it in a big way.

"I'm not a Pollyanna type, I just lament that it should be way better than it is. I think that people are missing out on something that could benefit everyone."

The NBA's CBA is set to expire on June 30. We will see if the league or the union agrees.

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