Shockingly, the age limit designed to cut down the options of young basketball players is succeeding wildly in cutting down the options of young basketball players. According to Tracy Pierson of Scout.com, blue-chip prospect Shabazz Muhammad may not be eligible to play for UCLA this season. With the age limit in place, Muhammad faces the possibility of being denied the ability to compete in either the NCAA or the NBA for the coming season.
That's a ridiculous gray area to be caught in for a likely top pick in the 2013 NBA draft, and yet so long as the NBA's age limit exists, such extreme cases will be inevitable. Low test scores and "improper benefits" are not singular occurrences on the prep basketball scene; they run rampant throughout the culture of amateur hoops. In cases like this one, prospects like Muhammad are unfairly cast in a negative light and denied any true agency.
There is an entirely different conversation to be had on the fairness of holding "gifts" against high school athletes in terms of their collegiate eligibility, not to mention the ridiculousness of barring them from the NBA for the sake of protecting pro-level decision-makers. But this particular discussion should stick to Muhammad himself, who will have some difficult decisions to make in the months to come regarding his basketball future.
Should Muhammad's ineligibility hold, he'll have three legitimate options for the next year of his basketball life. He could take the season off from organized play entirely and focus solely on his development with a choice trainer. He could take the Brandon Jennings route and play for a professional team overseas against some talented competition. Or, luck permitting: Muhammad just might join the D-League and give the NBA's minor league an expanded value beyond assignment, call-up potential and rehabilitation.
Muhammad wouldn't be the first player to go straight from high school into the D-League system, but he would be the first of the too-good-to-flame-out variety. He could very well turn out to be the influential trail blazer that Latavious Williams—the last player to follow the prep-to-D-League path—never could be, and in the process give the minor league path the legitimacy it deserves. It takes an exemplary case and an exemplary talent to really set a new standard, and though a pre-NBA career in the D-League wouldn't be ideal for every prospect, it's currently a track that's far more rare than it should be.
The D-League doesn't pay as well as many other professional leagues, but as Scott Schroeder noted on SB Nation, it provides a much closer NBA congruent in terms of language and style. It's a learning experience without departing too far from a player's comfort zone, and in the process keeps NBA teams posted on the precise growth of a player's game over the course of a season. It's local and inescapably NBA-relevant, as a growing percentage of teams are owned and operated directly by NBA franchises.
There's a chance in Muhammad's bit of misfortune for a mutually beneficial relationship between a top prospect and a league hungry for one. In Muhammad, the D-League gets a marketable young star, a high-profile innovator and a chance to prove what it has to offer to up-and-coming players. In the D-League, Muhammad can find a paying gig with ample NBA exposure, an easier transition into a professional lifestyle and a stylistic stepping stone to the specifics of a basketball culture he'll soon call home. There's a lot to gain for all parties involved, but it starts with Muhammad taking a first step on faith, and looking to succeed on a path that few have even attempted.