by Chris Foss
In the early 2000s, a flood of unprepared high school talent into the NBA prompted league owners and executives to rethink the rules about who should be allowed into the league, and at what point of their development. When the league and players’ union renegotiated the collective bargaining agreement in 2005, they instituted a new rule banning players younger than 19 years of age. Since then, many players coming out of high school have either played abroad until they became draft-eligible, or (more commonly) boosted their draft stock by playing for a year in college before entering the draft, sparking the “one-and-done” era. This compromise has never satisfied anyone: not young players, not the NCAA, nor even many higher-ups in the NBA.
A recent article on Sporting News criticized the suggestion by some NCAA men’s basketball coaches—most notably Duke’s Mike Kryzewski—that the NBA adopt what it called a “baseball rule”. This would allow NBA players to be drafted out of high school, but force them into the Gatorade League (G League, formerly the Developmental League or D League). Players who chose college over the G League would be barred from leaving college for three years. The column went into a litany of reasons why this would be a bad move—most notably that it seemed a self-interested power grab on behalf of college coaches—but also defended one-and-done, contending among other things that the rule kept NBA coaches out of high school gyms, and that the NBA should not be in the business of mentoring young players. There are many reasons, however, why both the baseball rule and one-and-done are flawed.
Young players have, understandably, chafed at a system that keeps them from becoming the next Moses Malone, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, or LeBron James: why not, they say, go and get my payday right now if I’m ready? Unlike in football, where players clearly need years of transition from the relative ease of prep football to the physical rigors of the NFL, there is clear evidence that some players can hang with pros straight out of high school. The above four players have all (with the noteworthy exception of Bryant’s alleged rape of a Colorado woman in 2003) been model citizens, and all already are (McGrady) or will be in the Hall of Fame. Several other high-schoolers made the transition and went on to arguably successful, if not all-time great, careers; Darryl Dawkins, Jermaine O’Neal, Rashard Lewis, and Dwight Howard among them.
From the standpoint of the NCAA, the 1995 to 2005 era of high schoolers skipping college deprived them of players who would have before then typically spent two to four years in school. After 2005, however, a new problem arose: the one-and-done phenomenon robbed college basketball of stability among its rosters. Guys who were in as one-and-done were perceived to be using college as a rental, not taking school seriously, and making a mockery of the amateur student-athlete principle. Roster instability has arguably caused the on-the-court product to suffer, as top college teams often don’t get their act together until late in the season as they try to work in an increasingly high number of freshmen. The emergence of phenoms makes the NCAA tournament exciting, but college teams spend a whole season integrating new talent, and the regular season suffers as a result. Furthermore, guys who stayed in school longer than a year have been perceived as flawed because of having done so, causing their draft stock to increasingly slip. In 2017, 10 of the first 11 picks were freshmen, the exception being France’s Frank Ntilikina; the first junior didn’t go until the 17th pick, the first senior didn’t go until the 29th pick.
From the NBA’s perspective, the age-19 rule does not solve the maturity problem of the transition straight out of high school. For every LeBron, Kobe, KG, and McGrady, alas, there was Korleone Young, Darius Miles, Kwame Brown, and others whose legal troubles and/or lack of attention to their craft cut short their promising careers. True, being older and having gone through college does not necessarily translate into maturity and good judgment—just ask the Boston Celtics, whose No. 2 choice in 1986, Len Bias, tragically died of a drug overdose just a day after being picked by the C’s. The perception is widespread, however, that players need more opportunities for personal and physical growth and mentorship than just a year of college or playing overseas can provide.
While I philosophically disagree with the idea that players should come into the NBA straight out of high school, I nonetheless favor abolishing the age limit and allowing players to enter the league after their prep careers once again. Players have the right to test the market and make their decision free of the league’s constraint. If they don’t get drafted or if it seems like their stock is going to be low, the NCAA should afford them the opportunity to go to college, if they so choose.
Another option for players who get drafted straight out of high school would be to go to the Gatorade League. This would probably be the most appropriate route for all but the most supremely talented high school players. There should not be an absolute rule that all high school draftees must go to the G League, but it should be strongly encouraged at the team level. The G League would be strengthened by the addition of high school draftees who stick around at that level for one, two, even three seasons. They can go back and forth from the G-League to the NBA to get experience, much like in the Major League Baseball farm system. Say Team X is either tanking or just plain having a bad season: with 20 games left, they can bring up their high school draftee from their G League affiliate for a test run. If he does well, maybe they keep him. In the more likely event that he struggles, he can go back to the G League to try again the next season.
The age limit is the worst thing about basketball because it represents a compromise that no one really likes. It angers young players who want to make money and don’t want to go to college, it makes college basketball more unstable, and it does not solve the perception that the NBA is full of spoiled millionaires who are unprepared for life or the physical rigors of the league. The NBA should get rid of the age limit, while at the same time strengthening the G-League into a true farm system, putting mentorship into place to foster holistic physical and emotional development and support for the young men that come into the league. I disagree with the Sporting News contention that “the NBA is not Basketball 101”. That’s exactly what it is anyway for the flood of one-and-dones who enter the league annually, only a bit less so than if they had arrived straight out of high school. One-and-done just allows the NBA to maintain the hypocritical high ground that they are above the fray of being at least somewhat responsible for the maturity of their athletes.
Whether or not one-and-done is done away with, the NCAA should be more flexible in allowing players who are not drafted to either enter college if coming out of high school, or to re-enter college. Such flexibility and infrastructural development are not only humane to players, but they will help to make basketball overall a better product. Finally, young players and their families need to do their homework before deciding whether to pursue NBA careers. With only 450 roster spots and a few hundred (at best) marginal G League positions, just getting into the league is like winning the lottery. While the NBA does have some responsibility to be Basketball 101 to its players, it should not have the responsibility to deny players the freedom to try to become drafted. Because of that, prospective players need to educate themselves on making the best decision for themselves. High school coaches and college and career counselors need to take responsibility, too, and assist their young charges. History can also aid players, as well. A good start might be reading Jonathan Abrams’ Boys Among Men (reviewed by me last year) so that they become familiar with the pitfalls as well as the rewards of turning pro early.