Changing the NBA’s age limit will have repercussions, but to evaluate we must stop calling one-and-dones ‘students’

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We’re never going to solve the problem of the one-and-done rule if we don’t stop thinking of the best college basketball players as students.

Because they aren’t, at least not in the way that we typically think of a person being a ‘student’.

There is no tangible academic benefit that these kids are receiving by enrolling in, at most, a year of introductory college courses. Freshman year is college is for you to figure out exactly what academic path it is that you want to follow, and — *GASPS* — these one-and-done caliber players learn quite quickly that being a basketball player is the path they want to follow.

I know it. You know it. They know it. The coaches recruiting them know it. The owners drafting them know it.

And Adam Silver knows it.

On Wednesday, Silver, the Commissioner of the NBA, went on ‘The Herd’ with Colin Cowherd and let the world now that he, along with the NBA bigwigs, are reconsidering their position on the one-and-done rule, an age limit that essentially forces high school graduates to spend one season playing college basketball instead of leaping directly to the draft out of high school.

“Even the so-called one-and-done players, I don’t think it’s fair to characterize them as going to one year of school,” Silver said. “What’s happening now, even at the best schools, they enroll in those universities — some great universities — and they attend those universities until either they don’t make the tournament, and the last game therefore of their freshman season, or to whenever they lose or win in the NCAA Tournament, that becomes their last day. So in essence it’s a half-and-done, in a way.”

He’s right and wrong — without getting too into the nitty gritty of it all, the APR is a formula that prevents this from happening by requiring players to leave in good academic standing, but depending on how cynical you are, you may not believe that these players are doing their own online coursework — but he’s also totally missing the point.

We need to stop thinking about players of this ilk, basketball prospects that are good enough for NBA team to consider drafting them in the first round as 19-year olds, as students.

So let’s be adults about this, shall we?


Packed house for the NBA D League finals. (Photo via NBA D League)

The NBA’s position, since before Silver took over as commissioner, has been that they do not want to get rid of the age limit, which is why it was eye-opening for many to hear him say, “It may surprise you. I’m rethinking our position.”

“I think we all agree that we need to make a change,” Silver then said during Thursday’s press conference before Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals. “My sense is it’s not working for anyone.”

It begs the question: What is he rethinking? That high school kids should be allowed to enter the NBA Draft, or that they should be forced to spend more time in college.

The one-and-done rule exists because NBA owners were tired of drafting high school kids that they couldn’t properly evaluate. They also didn’t want to give an 18-year old millions of dollars and let him loose in America’s best party cities with NBA celebrity attached to his name. But, perhaps most significantly, they didn’t want to pay a seven-figure salary to develop these kids as players only to see them bolt for greener pastures when they hit their prime. By delaying things for a year on the front end they are able to keep those players under contract and reap the benefits of their investment for an extra year on the back end. In other words, instead of paying an 18-year old to learn, put on weight and ride the bench, you send them to college for a year and then pay them to, hopefully, help your team win a lot of games as a 27-year old.

Silver uses Ben Simmons, who was a notoriously apathetic student during his one season at LSU, dropping out of classes as soon as LSU’s postseason-less season came to an end, as an example of all that’s wrong with the one-and-done rule.

But what Silver may not realize is that Simmons intentionally and actively made the decision to make himself susceptible to the NBA’s one-and-done rule. Simmons is Australian. He left the Outback in 2013 to enroll at Monteverde Academy in Florida, a decision that essentially delayed his chance to enter the NBA Draft for a year. Had he remained an international, he would have been eligible to enter the 2015 NBA Draft. But Simmons realized the branding potential available in college, so he spent a year at LSU and was taken No. 1 in the 2016 draft.

These kids spend a year playing every game on national television. They get profiled by media outlets such as College Basketball Talk. They develop a following and a fanbase and, if they’re good enough, start to build their own brand. Don’t believe me? At this point a year ago, did you know who LaVar Ball or Lonzo Ball was? That’s good for the teams drafting them, and as Simmons showed us, there’s a benefit for the players themselves.

At the highest level of basketball, the players make more money off of endorsements — off their ‘brand’ — than they do from the NBA team that they play for. They know who is their employer and what is their side-gig.

There is no downside to this for the owners of NBA teams. The longer they spend in college, the better it is for those billionaires, I’d argue, and if we’ve learned anything about America in the last two years it’s that when a group of billionaires want something to happen, it happens. See: Trump, Donald.

The other side of this is the NBA Players Association, who must agree to any decision that the owners want to make. The NBPA is made up of players currently in the NBA, players that could end up losing their job, or their chance at a bigger/longer contract, when some of these young stars make their way to the league. Put another way, there is a larger pool of money and more available longterm contracts for the guys that currently make up the NBPA voters.

Do you think they’re going to vote to eliminate the age limit and double the number of talented potential stars entering the league in one year?


Kentucky Wildcats fans (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

 


This is where it gets complicated.

The mitigating factor in all of this is the D-League, which, beginning next year, will be known as the G League.

The G League is growing. There are now 26 teams, each of which is affiliated with one of the 30 NBA teams. With the exception of the Portland Trailblazers, there seems to be movement in the direction of having every NBA team affiliated with a G League team. The new collective bargaining agreement also created a new kind of player contract — a two-way contract — that allows two designated G League players per organization to get paid between $75,000 and $275,000, depending on how much time they spend with the NBA team; the point of this is to keep the most talented players that are not yet NBA players stateside, to allow them to develop within an organization as opposed to jumping overseas for, potentially, more money.

Put another way, the G League is trending up, and there is clearly an investment from the NBA in creating another avenue for development beyond the NCAA.

In fact, 18-year olds are already allowed to enter the G League, playing a year at that level before becoming draft-eligible, but it hasn’t taken root. That’s because salaries are so low. Terrance Ferguson and Emmanuel Mudiay went pro in Australia and China, respectively, instead of going to the G League.

But other than that duo, there really hasn’t been a push from elite prospects to skip college altogether.

Why?

(We’re still talking like adults here, right?)

Because they can make more money in college. L

et’s not be naïve here. Let’s stop talking about these ‘student’-athletes as anything more than what they are: basketball players. The NBA has a long way to go before G League salaries are more than the going rate for an elite prospect in college basketball, and that’s before you factor in what life is like being a celebrity in a place like Lexington or Lawrence or Tucson.

Out of principle, I hate the fact that the NBA creates barriers of entry into an industry for kids that clearly have a marketable skill. They should be allowed to capitalize on their talent. The NCAA’s amateurism is even worse, and if you’ve read this space before you know my feelings on that. It’s criminal.

That said, from the girls to the dorms to the workout facilities to the private jets to the insanity of a packed college arena to the tax-free handouts, life is pretty good as a one-and-done college basketball player, and it almost certainly is better than riding a bus from Fort Wayne to Erie to play in front of 100 people while your parents watch on a YouTube livestream.

It will be a longtime before the G League is able to match what the college basketball institutions can match.

What that means is that there are two questions here that need to be answered:

  1. What do the shoe companies want? There is an inherent value in brand development by having a potential superstar spending a year playing for a school like Kentucky, whose fans are as loyal as they come even for guys that spend seven months on campus. Does Nike want the next LeBron or Kevin Durant to lose that year of free publicity? It’s worth noting here that shoe companies are trending away from the monster contracts for rookies, instead investing in established stars in the NBA.
  2. Would the NBA be willing to change how rookie contracts work? Think about a situation like this: If NBA teams could draft a player out of high school — even a junior in high school — and pay him $1 million annually to play in the D-League until he gets called up to the NBA, at which point the NBA’s rookie scale contract gets activated, is that something that would be appealing to both sides? Even if that exact situation isn’t the answer, there are ways to ensure elite prospects get paid like elite prospects in the G League without doing damage to the NBA team’s salary cap or starting their rookie contract clock a year early.

Regardless of what college coaches and ADs will tell you, college basketball has been a beneficiary during the one-and-done rule.

There have been some definitively great players that have come through the collegiate ranks, putting together memorable seasons and tournament runs.

College basketball will survive. It’s not a star-driven sport. Fans root for Arizona or UCLA, Kentucky or Louisville, Kansas or Wichita State. They don’t root for specifically for the players that arrive each fall, and the NCAA tournament is and always will be the most exciting sporting event — and the absolute best event for gambling — in the country.

But if we do reach a point where the best basketball players in the world never again set foot on a college court, it’s a net-negative for the game.