As many of my regular readers know, I’m a huge fan of both the NBA and college basketball. While this blog has generally focused on college football over the past few years since that has been the driving force behind conference realignment, I’m still a hoops guy at heart. As a result, I’m constantly thinking about how to balance all of the interests of the NBA, colleges and individual players while maintaining a high quality on-the-court product at all levels of the game.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently touched off another debate about “one-and-done” players in college basketball and whether they would be better off going straight to the NBA Developmental League:
“I think what will end up happening — and this is my opinion, not that of the league — is if the colleges don’t change from the one-and-done, we’ll go after the one,” Cuban said. “The NCAA rules are so hypocritical, there’s absolutely no reason for a kid to go [to college], because he’s not going to class [and] he’s actually not even able to take advantage of all the fun because the first semester he starts playing basketball. So if the goal is just to graduate to the NBA or be an NBA player, go to the D-League.”
Notwithstanding the fact that Cuban erroneously assigns blame to the NCAA for not allowing players to enter into the NBA Draft immediately out of high school (that’s completely an NBA collective bargaining rule), what’s interesting over the past couple of days is that I’ve seen a lot of both NBA and college basketball fans agree with this sentiment. To the extent that they are in separate camps, NBA fans generally just want to see the best players in the pros ASAP, while college fans hypothetically don’t want to spend time worrying about players that are only going to spend a year on campus.*
(* Granted, I believe most college basketball fans are being disingenuous about this issue. If a bunch of freshmen can lead your favorite team to the national title like Kentucky in 2012, you generally get comfortable with the one-and-done concept pretty quickly. Most college basketball fans complaining about the practice are grousing about teams or rivals other than their own.)
However, while I generally sympathize with Mark Cuban and the basketball fan masses on a lot of issues, this is one area where I believe a lot of people are having collective amnesia of what both the NBA and college basketball looked like in the early-2000s before the NBA age limit was put into place. Simply put, basketball at both the pro and college levels sucked back then. The NBA was drafting high schoolers such as Kwame Brown in the lottery based on raw athleticism that were thrown into the league prior to being ready, which created a sloppier and less polished on-the-court product. Meanwhile, the college ranks were depleted of a critical mass of top-level players in a way that ended up pushing down the quality of the play across-the-board. Even if the one-and-done year gets transferred to the D-League as Cuban proposes, this can have a disastrous effect on both the pros and college levels.
This issue is a tough one for me because I’m someone that normally believes that if you’re good enough to perform a job or task, you should be allowed to do so regardless of your age. Yet, basketball seems to be the one area the laissez faire approach has proven to not work because of the nature of the sport. The main problem is that virtually everyone involved in the NBA Draft process needs to be protected from themselves (as the system provides incentives for everyone to take actions that are detrimental to the quality of the game overall). If I had faith that the only high schoolers that NBA general managers would draft were like LeBron James that were ready immediately at age 18 and, at the same time, only high schoolers that were of a LeBron-quality entered the draft into the first place, then it would be easy to say that anyone should be able to go to the pros immediately. However, we have empirical proof from the early-2000s that this simply doesn’t happen. Basketball, unlike football and baseball, is a game where obtaining an individual star matters more than anything. In contrast, stars in football and baseball might be important, but depth generally trumps stardom.
As a result, NBA GMs were (and still are) significantly more mortified about missing out on the next Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett compared to their football and baseball counterparts (and it makes sense considering the type of superstar that you need in order to viably compete for the NBA championship) and they overvalued raw athleticism in high schoolers back in the early-2000s. Meanwhile, top high school players saw all of their AAU buddies getting massive paydays at age 18, so anyone with a prayer of getting into the draft jumped in (whether it was by their own volition or pressure from family members and/or street agents looking for a financial meal ticket). This created a vicious cycle where NBA GMs were taking unproven high school players based on raw athleticism with lottery picks that were previously used on seasoned college players (many of which were already household names by the time they entered the draft), such lottery picks were getting stuck on the bench with high bust rates as opposed to contributing right away, and college programs were left with the scraps. Blowing a top 5 pick in the NFL or Major League Baseball is not a good thing for a GM, but it’s at least recoverable or mitigated if the team has the right depth. In the NBA, though, blowing a top 5 pick can mean that your franchise is set back for a decade… and we saw a whole lot of NBA franchises blow their top 5 picks in the early-2000s.
The current one-and-done system, while imperfect, at least provides a checkpoint for all parties involved: NBA GMs can watch players compete against people other than 5′ 11″ power forwards in high school (like I was back in the day) in pressure situations, while the players themselves get a reality check of where their skills really stand. Unfortunately, shifting the one-and-done year to the D-League in the manner that Cuban suggests would likely bring up the same problems as the old open NBA Draft without an age limit. NBA franchises would go back to drafting raw prospects (now for the D-League) as opposed to obtaining the best players that are ready for the NBA immediately, while top high school players will get delusions of grandeur and/or chase after the easy paycheck.
Note that Mark Cuban isn’t really proposing anything new: 18-year olds already have the option of giving up their NCAA eligibility and spending a year in the D-League (such as P.J. Hairston, who left UNC in the middle of the season this year and is now playing with the Texas Legends) or Europe (a la Brandon Jennings). So, why aren’t top players choosing that option en masse? Part of it is that the special branding in college sports matters quite a bit, as outlined by Dave Warner of “What You Pay for Sports” (who happens to be an outspoken critic of the cable subscriber fees that people pay for sports networks). As Warner stated about why minor leagues in basketball and football haven’t been successful financially:
Minor league basketball has had a bit more traction — the Continental Basketball Association survived for decades as an NBA minor league before finally folding in 2009 — but it doesn’t come close to outdrawing big-time college basketball. Go to any NBA D-League game, and you’ll be lucky to find a few thousand fans in the stands. More importantly, you won’t find the top high school prospects at those games. Jabari Parker gets more attention playing for Duke than he would playing for, say, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.
This is where we begin to understand the status quo. What we have here is an issue of branding. Minor league football and basketball have no traction in America, because fans have declared their loyalty to the brands of college football and basketball teams. College football, in particular, has a century’s worth of rich history in America. College students attach themselves to their schools’ teams, remain attached through adulthood, and spread those attachments to children and other family members. You can’t sell the Omaha Nighthawks to an army of die-hard Cornhuskers fans. They’ve spent decades engrossed in the University of Nebraska’s football team and all of its traditions. Supporting a group of guys trying to play their way into the NFL is not enough. These people demand Nebraska football.
The point about Jabari Parker getting more attention playing for Duke than the Fort Wayne Mad Ants is particularly exacerbated in the NBA context even compared to the NFL because it relates back to the star system that’s inherent in pro basketball specifically. While Jabari Parker might get more specific basketball-focused training, avoids having to go to class, and even would earn a paycheck in the D-League, the exposure that he gets with nationally-televised games of Duke and constant SportsCenter highlights aids his own personal brand off-the-court and the long-term financial effects of that could vastly outweigh a year’s worth of earnings in the D-League. In turn, the NBA itself benefits from this as it gets to leverage the pre-made stardom of players like Jabari by the time they enter the draft, which creates further interest in the league. That aspect was completely lacking in the early-2000s (with the exception of LeBron, who legitimately was a household name by the time he graduated from high school) and we’d go back to that malaise if top players enter the D-League and Europe instead of going to college. The NBA has a golden goose here that it ought to be extremely wary of messing with again.
To that end, the best approach going forward is the simple one that new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has already suggested: raise the NBA age limit to 20. That effectively means that top high school players would need to play 2 years of college basketball prior to entering the draft. While that might delay the LeBron-types from entering into the league even further than now, the early-2000s should have shown everyone that the LeBron-types are so rare that the NBA needs to care more about its year-to-year product as a whole. That requires another year of vetting in college in order to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff along with building the anticipation of stars like Jabari Parker even further. At the same time, college basketball programs get the benefit of having top players for at least 2 years, which is a good balance between having such players on campus for a long enough time that programs feel confident in investing time and money into them while being short enough to prevent holding back the true superstars from going to the next level for too long.*
(* I’ve seen a number of people suggest that the NBA approach the draft in the same manner as MLB, which is that high school players can either choose the enter the draft immediately or go to college for at least 3 years. While it’s not a bad suggestion, I disagree with it as applied to basketball because of the nature of the sport that I’ve noted above. All that would happen is the same thing that occurred in the early-2000s, where every high school player convinced that he’ll get drafted will enter the draft and NBA GMs will be de facto forced to pick them out of fear. That would lead the exact same on-the-court quality problems that we saw in that era. Plus, the MLB draft goes for 50 rounds and GMs are generally rewarded for building depth as opposed to getting a single superstar. In contrast, the NBA draft is the reverse where there are only 2 rounds, GMs are rewarded for finding a single superstar instead of building depth, and the practical reality is that only 15 or so players in any given NBA Draft ever becomes a regular rotation player (much less a superstar or even a starter). The simple numbers show that the opportunity cost of foregoing college eligibility is several magnitudes greater for basketball player compared to a baseball player. As much as I hate paternalistic rules, this is exactly why people in the basketball world need to be protected from their own worst instincts.)
So, that’s why I support raising the NBA age limit to 20-years old. It’s long enough for the NBA to get a solid evaluation of players and colleges to obtain the benefit of having top players on campus, yet short enough for the legitimately elite players to get into in the NBA relatively early. The next step is to get both the NBA and NCAA on the same page on this matter, which is probably the most difficult piece of all in this entire discussion.
(Image from Sports Illustrated)