One and Done. The phrase that causes college basketball fans to shake their head in dismay and simultaneously mutter about the good old days before “One and Dones” desecrated their beloved sport. Less than a decade into its existence, the one and done rule in college basketball is probably the most controversial and reviled rule in all of sports. It was born out of a change implemented by the NBA in 2005 in order to protect themselves against the onslaught of unready high school students flooding the draft after the initial success of Kevin Garnett and later Kobe Bryant. As more high school kids were drafted, the more turned into busts or proved unready for life in the NBA. For this reason the NBA decided they would no longer draft players unless they were one year removed from high school. While it was sound thinking to believe letting them have a short audition would help them separate the wheat from the chaff, ultimately has that really happened?
We all know college basketball fans don’t like it for endless reasons. The age of true household name college basketball stars is all but gone and the sport has become a way station for the best talents. Not many would argue that it has not been a step backwards for college basketball and unfortunately the ability to fix the problem is out of college basketball’s control. I often hear fans say the NCAA should force the players to stay longer, but that is not plausible. The only reason football players “stay” at least three years has nothing to do with college football, it is only because the NFL won’t draft them for three years. Some conferences are currently debating if freshmen should go back to not being eligible, but that is just going to cause more issues with conformity between conferences and scholarships. In order for this to be clean and truly fix the game, this is up to the NBA . My feeling is the one year rule has actually hurt the NBA more than helped it. They have missed out on players and money because of what has turned into an incredibly damaging rule. The reality is if this rule is ever going to change the only way it will happen is to convince the NBA that not only is it bad for the players, bad for college basketball, but most importantly bad for the NBA’s bottom line.
The good news is it is practically impossible to find somebody who supports it on either side of the pro or college game. Even the fans of the schools that supposedly benefit the most from one and done players hate the rule. You don’t think Kentucky fans would like to have these guys as juniors? If the NBA was governed by MLB’s amateur rules where you could choose to go straight from high school or you had to go to college for three years it would fix a lot of problems for college basketball. Even if the overall talent level drops because the best players have the option to go straight to the NBA, the talent would be down across the board making all things relative. Kentucky and the other top coaches would still get the best of the remaining players, so instead of having the most talented players in college basketball for one year they would have them for three. More importantly for the game, this would actually help the non blue blood schools even more by doing a better job of spreading out the top talent to more schools. For instance, how many 4 or 5 star high school seniors would go play the same position as current freshman Lebron James at Duke if they knew they would be backing him up for 2 years? So instead of a constant funneling of the best players like a sausage factory through the exact same schools because the position is vacated every year, it would create tons of more depth spread across a lot more teams because of positions being tied up for a guaranteed amount of time. The blue bloods would still get the best players, but now they would have experience again, while the rest would have a much deeper pool of talent to fill their rosters. The game would be stronger and better, even with less talent. Like I said, we don’t need to convince college basketball fans why one and dones are terrible for our sport, we get it. We just need to convince the NBA that the one and done is terrible for their sport.
So how could a system that protects the NBA from drafting high school busts by having college basketball give them a free demo period possibly be bad for the NBA? First let’s look at the problem mentioned above about how many of the one and dones funnel through the same schools. The unintended consequence of this system is it can create a logjam for the players at these schools that always land the one and dones. If they don’t shine in their first year they may get buried early on the bench and with the next wave of one and dones coming in they either end up in purgatory for the next couple years or transfer out, seriously damaging a once promising career. These are some of the very best players in the country and because they potentially could have chose the wrong college coach or system they never get playing time, all but eliminating the chance to be drafted. So you have an outrageous talent who picks the wrong place to do his audition, end up getting buried for academic reasons, personality clashes, homesickness, whatever could get a kid off their game for the first year and if they are at a one and done school they may not get a second year to adjust because the next one and done is coming in. So the NBA could be settling for less talented athletes who went to less high profile schools but had tons of room to figure it out. Forget that it may seem like an awfully punitive system for a choice you make at 17 years old as to where to play your freshman year, but how does having extremely gifted players being benched to irrelevancy to make room for the next one and done because they did not adjust quickly enough as a freshman help the NBA?
Furthermore, you may remember last year Kobe Bryant made some waves when he said he didn’t see how college basketball was helping the one and dones, and he was right. Virtually every one and done candidate is groomed on the AAU circuit which is much more in line with the NBA style of play than college basketball. It used to be the feeder league for high school kids who went straight to the NBA and still has ownership ties with former NBA players. So now not only are the most talented players getting pushed back in a logjam, the NBA is also forcing the players outside of their game for a 4 month audition in a game they won’t need that they will base their future employment on. Likewise, giving the coaches a four months window to teach these players, all while a season is ongoing is ludicrous to think they have time to make any real impact. The best they can do is not damage the goods. Why would the NBA take the most valuable resources they have and evaluate them on one year in a system they haven’t learned to play or will never have to play again. It is like one of those reality shows where they force somebody to be judged on something they aren’t groomed for. “Hey Country Dude, it’s Hip Hop Night, let’s see what you can do”. Why? Who cares if he can do hip hop or disco? So basically you are judging a bunch of AAU players on a very limited 4 month view of how they adjust to a system they are unfamiliar with. How many would-be talented NBA players have been passed over because they never adjusted to college basketball? How many guys would have been top 5 picks in the draft, but flamed out in college? If they were a top five pick, they would have been given years to figure it out, but after clashing with a coach, or having some academic scandal, or just not adjusting they are a second rounder, with crushed confidence on a short leash. Should a 4 month tour of college basketball really be the most talented AAU players’ ultimate showcase for the NBA? Should a country singer be judged on three minutes of his rapping skills? It is the same thing.
Finally, for a league built a lot on hype, how did not having Andrew Wiggins being a rookie last year help the NBA? I am on record (check my twitter feed) saying that the Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love trade would go down as historically one of the worst trades in NBA history, so this isn’t a slam on Andrew Wiggins or Kansas, but did going to Kansas actually help his stock? How could it? It couldn’t get any higher. Even had he won a national championship he would have had to do superhuman things to raise his stock. Any chance he would have been traded straight out of high school would have never happened. So what did it do? It boosted Kansas’s profile, when it could have been boosting the NBA’s. The media would have covered him religiously and he would have been a walking ATM for the league. His growing pains would be less glaring in the pros, because after all it is the pros and they hype would grow with his every spin move. Endorsements would have been astronomical as people bid for the next LeBron. This has nothing to do with Kansas or Wiggins, but it is hard to argue that the NBA and Wiggins wouldn’t have been better off, monetarily speaking, riding his hype out of high school. Again, is a 4 month tryout with a new coach, new teammates, new system as a freshman in college really the best way to judge these players, or is this just a one year obstacle course that makes no sense?
I have two options instead of the “two and thru” rule that the NBA talking about, which would force players to stay two years, only slightly improving a bad system. The two year rule, especially combined with the no freshmen eligibility would do nothing to fix the logjam of players going to just a handful of coaches. At the end of the day, hopefully the NBA comes up with a solution that works better for everybody.
My preferred solution is loosely based on the MLB draft mentioned earlier. Essentially that means a player can choose to go pro straight out of high school or they can go to college for 3 years. I used this example above how this would strengthen the college game by spreading out the talent and stacking schools with upperclassmen, but how does this protect the NBA from making bad decisions on high school kids? Simply implement a rule stating only high school player drafted in the top 5 will be able to play in the NBA as a rookie, the rest of the drafted high school players will spend their first year in the D-League. This way the NBA would get the best of both worlds. On one hand they get to have a guy hyped through the roof like Andrew Wiggins come straight to the league, who was clearly wanted by the NBA. On the other hand they are maintaining the one year rule for the rest of the high school players, but only instead of sending a bunch of guys who don’t want to go to college to college, they would earn a D-League salary working for their future franchise. The advantage for the player is they get paid a modest salary and they learn the NBA style of play from their future team’s coaches and teammates in their system while adjusting to life as a professional athlete without the distracting glare of the spotlight. After one year they are either offered a rookie deal and if the club declines they are sent through waivers allowing another team to offer them a rookie contract. This almost guarantees if the high school player has any potential somebody will give him a rookie contract. If no team is willing to give them a rookie deal, the rights are retained by the drafting team and the player is sent back to the D-League. The advantages for the NBA team is they can evaluate a high school player’s abilities up close in their system for a year for a relatively minuscule investment, while also having assurance that the quality of the NBA product will be intact by having only the most ready players on the floor.
This system protects both the player and team. Nothing is fail safe, but they both are given a way out if the other party is incompetent. The players who declared but were not drafted would either be allowed to sign normal free agent D-League contracts with no chance at the waiver system, or they could sign on with any school for three years, but due to coming in late from the draft they would be forced to sit out their freshman year. This way you would discourage high school players from just throwing their hat in the ring knowing they can choose a school if they don’t get drafted. High school kids who knew, no matter what, that they did not want to go to college would feel very comfortable going the D-League/NBA route. Other taletned players may not feel as if rolling the dice in the D-League with a team/city/coach they can’t choose is a better choice than developing over three years in an environment/coach/location they can choose while experiencing college life. They would also be able to go straight to the NBA from college, making it only a two year difference of NBA experience had they gone straight from high school and played a year in the D-League. Finally,it allows a gifted player to come straight out of high school and go directly into the pros. This is a winning solution for all involved.
The other plan is from RealGM.com’s Celtics writer Elrod Enchilada. His plan is simple with no new leagues or fancy waiver system to deal with. His plan is based on the principle that the way the NBA collective bargaining agreement is structured is that you earn more money depending only on how many years you have been in the league. By capping earning potential based solely on NBA experience, it really gives incentive to athletes to go pro as soon as possible. One could make the argument that the entire point of the NBA collective bargaining agreement is that the player gets to their 6th and 10th year at the youngest age possible, where the amount they can earn rises significantly with each milestone. As you can imagine getting to your 10th year, when you max out your earning potential, at age 28 or 29 is a lot more lucrative for a long term deal than 32. This plan allows for each year the player spends in college to count against their NBA contract years. So if they get drafted after their senior year they only have 2 and 6 years to wait respectively. It doesn’t guarantee they will get paid huge, but it ensures they wont have to wait until their mid 30’s to get a chance at the biggest payday because they decided to stay in college. His argument is if both players are great at 28, league experience shouldn’t be the single factor for determine their maximum worth. The advantage for this system is that the players can go when they want to. It is completely up to them and they are not penalized for staying in college, nor are they forced to stay in college. The advantage to the NBA is ideally having a more prepared player when they declare for the draft and less rushed. The disadvantage is it does nothing to prevent unready high school players from declaring.
Whatever you prefer, both scenarios would be exponentially better for everybody involved than the unpopular one and done rule. It is also hard to argue that it wouldn’t elevate the already successful NBA draft by having true college superstars every year. What started as a measured protection has morphed into a high stakes gamble for not only the player but the NBA. This is a system that has failed college basketball, failed the players, failed the NBA and has not earned the right to continue into its second decade. The NBA needs to realize they can achieve the same goal but in a way that is not only better for them, but for the sport of basketball. The foundation is already there, it is just up to the NBA to get serious about developing their own real talent year round. The one and done rule may have achieved its goal of not allowing high school players into the draft and therefore saving NBA owners some money from some bad signings, but overall has it really been worth the cost?