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One and Only
An antiquated rule still rules the day
I was an English major — sorry Dad — but even I can do this math.
Four of the top five picks in this year’s NBA Draft never played college basketball. By golly, that’s almost all of them!
The top pick, Victor Wembanyama, played professionally in his home country of France.
Numbers three through five — Scoot Henderson and the Thompson twins — played semi-professionally in what might best be termed the emerging minor leagues here in America: the NBA’s G League Ignite, and an even newer upstart called Overtime Elite.
What’s more, the second pick — Alabama’s Brandon Miller — played just one year in Tuscaloosa, as is true of most college players going in the lottery these days.
For the most talented, college ball has become a way station.
And it's not even the default stop anymore, as the top two prospects in next year’s draft opt for Ignite too.
Across sports, the pathways to professional success are widening all the time, but they seem to be changing the fastest in basketball.
Which makes one thing that is not changing all the more striking.
Since 2006, the rule has mandated that a given player cannot enter the league unless they’re 19 years old on draft night. It also stipulates, hence the name:
“NCAA players are considered eligible after playing at least one year at their respective college/university or school.”
In other words, if you graduate high school at 18, as most do, then you can’t come straight to the NBA.
You’ve gotta take a gap year, and for most of the league’s history, that meant playing college basketball. Think Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Zion Williamson; guys who were always going pro, but made a brief pit stop on the way.
The 41 Club
The rule has always fascinated me, probably in part because I started watching basketball when it didn’t exist.
Now, with the retirement of Sweet Lou Williams — who, with a gift for retaking the narrative, also trademarked the nickname “Lemon Pepper Lou” — LeBron is the sole remaining straight-outta-high-school guy still doing it in the NBA.
Going back through the history of the league, the list of such players is not all that long. There have only been 41 ever, and the roster is stacked.
It’s got Hall of Famers that even non-fans might recognize, from KG and Kobe to T-Mac and Dwight.
Then you’ve got the Hall of Very Good guys — like Amar’e Stoudemire, Jermaine O’Neal, and Tyson Chandler — and a bunch of Hall of Pretty Good dudes too, like Al Jefferson, Monta Ellis, and Shaun Livingston.
And let us not forget the people’s champion, the perpetually shirtless J.R. Smith. Fore!
That’s a lot of mid-aughts name dropping, but the point is: the list is very good.
On average, the group is better and more successful than the pool of drafted players as a whole, the statistical case for which was made clear a while ago.
Considering the supposed rationale for the rule — making sure players weren’t entering the league before they were ready, and flaming out as a result — that begs the question: why is this a thing?
Here at Cross Streets, we’ve been working on a podcast documentary covering the upheaval in college sports these days: stay tuned for The Option, dropping this fall.
And in the course of those interviews, I’ve gotten the chance to ask a lot of people who either closely cover or directly work in college basketball for their feelings on one-and-done, from which I’ve gleaned the following:
A.) It’s probably good for some players, who get access to coaching, training, resources, and competition closer to the pro game than is available in really any high-school program;
B.) It’s probably good for many NBA teams, who have an easier job scouting and then drafting players out of college, and NBA scouts themselves, whose job gets more palatable when it doesn’t involve high-school gyms;
C.) But it definitely isn’t good for players’ rights and agency as a whole, given they’re delayed in profiting off of their athleticism: as fleeting a marketable skill as exists when you’re only ever one injury away from losing it;
D.) And it’s a mixed bag for the sport of college basketball, which obviously benefits as a product from even single years of these megawatt talents;
E.) But the product is also harmed in terms of basketball the team sport, wherein roster turnover is now so dramatic and frequent that it surpasses more than just prior versions of college basketball — it’s gone beyond any pro sport that I’m familiar with, which makes it awfully hard to, you know, build a team.
That’s a lot to consider! I know.
And I’m sure many of those factors and more were weighed in coming to a decision, which — we have to stress — was arrived at by collective bargaining, meaning the players’ union agreed to this too.
So really, this gets at bigger questions about the very presence of a draft-based system in any sport. While very fun to follow, it’s a strange — and, were it not for union assent, illegal — state of affairs.
But that’s not a priority for the unions to address, and none of the pro leagues have any interest in doing away with drafts.
They exist to their benefit. The leagues get to make the rules, streamline the process, and cut some bottom-line costs in so doing.
For the better part of their history, both the NBA and NFL have had a good thing going with the college ranks. They didn’t need a minor league system of their own, à la baseball, because the NCAA was running development for them.
In football today, it’s more of a three-and-done rule, which has its own pitfalls and contradictions, some of which have been contested in years past, if you remember the Maurice Clarett case from twenty years ago now.
Basketball used to be four-and-done until Spencer Haywood brought the NBA to the Supreme Court back in 1971, so it’s not as if the league decided to change of its own accord.
Always Be Diversifying
What they have done is figure out how to diversify the sport’s talent pipeline, in ways football hasn’t and may be unable — or unwilling — to replicate.
An NBA player today can arrive there by a number of different paths, and though college remains a good one — the advent of NIL has made it feasible, even advantageous, for college stars to attend and stay in school longer than they would have even three years ago — it isn’t the only one.
For a football player, college is about it. There is no Ignite, there are no minor league affiliates, and there’s no comparable international league. There isn’t even an Overtime Elite.
And there are arguably some positives to making kids attend college. There’s the obvious case to be made about the educational experience, though it’s a particularly flawed one at the FBS level, from which most players are drafted.
From my vantage point, though, the problem is the bottleneck: the absence of competition, which means a lack of alternatives, which ultimately means the deprivation of choice.
I’m for creating as many routes to success as possible, because we should want as much talent to make it to the league as possible.
We noted last week how the globalization of basketball has given the sport so many of its top players today. Opening doors has bettered the sport.
At the same time, the NBA is investing more in the G League and Ignite as consumer products all their own, and though we shouldn’t expect them to pull in big-time TV ratings, the ticket sales alone are a real revenue stream. Ask baseball, and then ask Vegas while you’re at it.
The NFL has been taking baby steps toward internationalizing, but they’re behind, and with college football in profound flux, they might want to start future-proofing in similar fashion.
Again, I may not be a math guy, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard this advice before from the quants out there.
When you diversify your portfolio, you protect your returns.
That math checks out.
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