The “one-and-done” rule is a travesty. Just the name tells you all you need to know. If it doesn’t remind you of a loose woman, you haven’t spent time in a college dorm. “One-and-done” was implemented by David Stern in 2006 as a remedy for the scores of players who came to the NBA straight out of high school. While many of the players who did this had tremendous NBA careers, there were more who were taken high in the draft only to never reach their potential. Stern’s theory was that a year of watching players in college would give teams a better idea of whether their skills would translate to the NBA game.
How well has it worked? Well, it is self-evident that mistakes have been avoided. As evidence, simply look at the top 10 high school recruits in each of the past six years. In theory, a large number of those players would have gone straight to the pros if they had had the opportunity, probably as a first-round pick. If you trace those guys forward and make a list of how many were never even drafted, you can chalk each of those up as a mistake avoided. Even the guys who were ultimately drafted in the second round, like Josh Selby and Will Barton in 2011, probably would have caused some buyer’s remorse if they had been drafted based on their high school reputation.
But, overall, of the 40 players who were on ESPN’s top 10 recruit lists from 2009-12, only two went undrafted. Kenny Boynton had a good career at Florida but was considered too small to be an NBA point guard; he probably would have met the same fate had he applied for the draft out of high school. The other player who is no longer in school and has not been drafted is Renardo Sidney, who left Mississippi State and drifted through several leagues without developing into an NBA-caliber player. Of the rest of the 40 top-ten players, 26 were drafted in the first round, four in the second round and the others are still in school. Most, like Marcus Smart, would have been high draft picks if they had chosen to go pro. So Sidney is the only player in the last four years who probably would have gone pro straight out of high school and been a bust.
The biggest reason why “one-and –done” helps NBA teams is the structure of the collective bargaining agreement. Because a first-round pick is only guaranteed two years of employment, with team options for two more years, the impact of that contract on the team’s cap space is minimal, and the player probably provides value in excess of his salary if he simply earns a rotation spot. The problem comes after the third year, when the team needs to decide whether to lock the player up to a long-term contract. In some cases before one-and-done, this decision had to be made before the player reached his 21st birthday, and the team had to commit to an eight-figure salary for up to five years before the player had finished developing his skills and maturing emotionally, or else renounce their rights and risk watching him become a star for another team. The real impact of one and done is to push this decision back a year. Whether it has led to better decisions is debatable, but the economic logic is sound.
Is that enough evidence to keep the “one-and-done” rule in place? Well, not if you weigh it against the negative impact. Start with the fact that players are denied a right they have had since the Spencer Haywood case more than 40 years ago. This is in spite of the fact that dozens of players have demonstrated the ability to go straight from high school to the NBA and contribute immediately. The fact that some NBA front offices cannot distinguish between LeBron James and Kwame Brown does not entitle them to abridge the rights of athletes simply so they are saved from the burden of making hard choices. The fact that there has not been a legal challenge probably means that David Stern is on stronger legal ground than whoever opposed Spencer Haywood, but that is probably more indicative of the general trend of legal rulings in the business’ favor than of any inherent rightness in Stern’s position.
For all that this rule impacts players negatively, the impact on colleges is even greater. Consider, first of all, the farce this makes of the concept of the “student-athlete.” I know that colleges do far worse things to this concept, but when you accept an athlete to represent your school with the tacit agreement that he has no intention of even attempting to be a real student, any pretense of the ideal is completely gone. Now you can view that circumstance as simply an acceptance of reality, but there are still programs that thrive without selling their souls, and I would suggest that the emotional bond that fans have with college basketball is stronger when players stick around long enough to become part of the fabric of the community. In some cases, like Carmelo Anthony, that can happen in a single season, but most of these players are treating college as an extension of their AAU career, and their place in the history of their school will last for about as long as it takes them to hire an agent.
From a practical point of view, there are two hugely negative impacts on college basketball. I would suggest that a player who feels he is being deprived from earning what he deserves is much more likely to seek ways to be compensated, which according to current rules means to cheat. These players have been coddled for years in the AAU/posse culture, and then they are suddenly dropped in a college environment and told that there are no benefits for them or their friends. If they have entered this culture willingly, they are much more likely to accept these rules than if the situation is forced on them. I cannot offer empirical evidence on this, but simple human nature dictates that it is true.
The other impact is that these players are essentially able to complete their entire career without taking a serious class. If a player enters college in August and completes his first semester with a 2.0 GPA, even if he takes nothing more strenuous than basket weaving, he is eligible according to NCAA rules for the entire next semester, which comprises the bulk of the basketball season, even if he never sets foot in a classroom again. Because of privacy laws, we don’t know if this actually happens, but it is highly likely that many of the most prominent players in the last several NCAA tournaments have not seen the inside of a classroom in months. Again, the NCAA does more to trample on its own ideals than anything David Stern could ever do, but for those of us who feel that college basketball should be something other than an NBA farm system, the impact of this is huge.
So why should David Stern, or Adam Silver, care what his rule does to college basketball? Well, it stands to reason that if less attention is paid to college basketball, there will be less excitement about the players who are entering the NBA, which means the NBA draft looks less like the NFL draft (which is the dream scenario for Stern/Silver) and more like the baseball draft. The difference, though, is that baseball prospects generally spend several years in the minors, where they can build a record to get fans excited before they play for the major league team. Bad NBA teams need the excitement generated from high draft picks to convince fans that better times are coming. If fans don’t know enough about those players to know whether they can help, or if the level of competition in college basketball deteriorates because of the lack of continuity on rosters so that it becomes difficult to judge performance, they won’t pay attention to the draft or buy tickets to see incoming rookies.
Is there a solution? Well, yes. In baseball, high school seniors have a choice between entering the draft immediately or committing to three years of college. The NBA could offer the same choice, but if they don’t want players to go straight from high school to the NBA, they could mandate a year in the NBDL. High school seniors could sign with any NBDL team they want, get NBA-style coaching for a year and then apply for the draft. This is what Glen Rice Jr. did this year, so it’s not totally off the wall. From a selfish point of view, the NBA would be boosting the profile of its feeder system, most of which is owned by NBA teams, so that would increase revenues and expose more markets to NBA-style basketball. It would also allow the NBA to see players in an environment that more closely resembles its own, in terms of travel, defensive style and talent level. This should lead to better decisions than seeing a guy dominate for a year against teenagers.
While this solution would rob college basketball of some of its best talent, in the long run this would be balanced by the players who stay for three years. It would also limit college basketball to guys who have chosen to be there, instead of guys who view it as an interruption on their path to the pros. In the long run, this will make for a better game.