The Best Argument Against the NBA’s Age Requirement Is Emmanuel Mudiay

The Congo-born prep point guard is going to China to get paid because that was really his only choice.

It’s not easy to find an overseas basketball player who every single NBA team would love to have on its roster. If such a player existed, he’d be in the NBA. Come November though, there will be an exception to that rule. His name is Emmanuel Mudiay.

The 6’5″, Congo-born Texas prep point guard, who was committed to play for Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown at Southern Methodist University until last week, signed a $1.2 million deal yesterday with the Guangdong South Tigers in the China Basketball Association. Mudiay’s plan, according to Yahoo’s super reporter Adrian Wojnarowski, is to ply his trade in China for a year before returning to the U.S. and preparing for next year’s NBA Draft. If his form holds, he’ll be taken at the top of the lottery.

Mudiay is, according to most ranking services, the best guard in the 2014 class. He’s a big, athletic, score-first point guard who would have been one of the college basketball’s most exciting players in 2015. Instead, he’ll spend a year in a foreign land doing the thing he’s wanted to do since it became clear he could do it: getting paid to play basketball. He could only do that overseas because he’s 18 years old and the NBA has a playing age of 19.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said he would like to see the mandatory age upped to 20. Silver, and those who agree with him (like new Warriors head coach Steve Kerr), argue that a higher age limit would ensure mature rookies would be less likely to spend their careers on the end of the bench. What they conveniently leave out is that players from different backgrounds will make different sort of choices if they have to decide between going to college, the NBA’s lackluster development league, or playing for cash overseas.

Going to China is a risk, but for a poor kid born in Kinshasha, it’s a risk that makes sense. Mudiay has attempted to insulate himself with an insurance policy that protects him in case he’s injured in China. But why not let the young man apply for a job in the NBA? He’s good enough and he’s big enough. What about the league is too adult for him? The answer to that question can be found in a letter written by NBA president Joel Litvin in 2009.

In a letter to a congressman, Litvin wrote that the age requirement is good for the NBA because it increases “the chances that incoming players will have the requisite ability, experience, maturity and life skills.” This is transparently silly. There is no such thing as “players”; there are only individuals. And there is absolutely no reason why teams couldn’t assess the maturity of potential rookies and factor that into their hiring process. All that aside, it isn’t even clear that maturity is a good trait for professional athletes to have. Studies based on the Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test required of NFL players show that mentally acute players have similar career outcomes to unusually dense players. There is such a thing as too mature.

Emmanual Mudiay’s is going to China because he wants to support his family. He sees an opportunity and he’s taking it. Good for him; bad for American basketball fans. When talent starts leaving the country for greener pastures, you’ve got to wonder about the guy in charge of the grass.

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