NBA commissioner Adam Silver has observed a sudden shift in market trends in college basketball just as a massive scandal involving agents, coaches and shoe companies has overwhelmed the sport.
The combination, he said Monday, will likely cause the end of the NBA’s so-called “one-and-done” rule, which would dramatically alter how young basketball talent is developed while changing how college teams are built.
Since 2005, a player has had to be at least 19 years old or one year past high school to be eligible for the NBA draft. The days of that rule appear numbered. The era of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and, indeed, any number of unprepared busts going straight from the prom to the pros will likely return in some form.
“It’s clear a change will come,” Silver said Monday on ESPN’s “Mike & Mike” show.
This won’t eliminate cheating and corruption in college basketball. That’s been going on for generations and will continue as long as money and competitive humans are involved. And yes, losing out on the most talented of players is never a great thing. Getting to watch Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson and others is good for college basketball’s entertainment value.
Yet the current system is unsustainable, the proof being last month’s FBI-led investigation into bribery and fraud. Ten men were arrested, seven schools were swept up in at least potential NCAA violations and the career of Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino ended. The scandal promises to widen if any of those currently facing charges wants to start flipping for leniency.
The issue is simple. The market shows that top players who project to be high draft picks are worth a great deal more than the NCAA’s amateurism rules allow. Their future value is so great, parties interested in doing business with them, whether negotiating their contracts, managing their millions or employing them as endorsers, don’t feel they can wait until they turn pro to try to retain them as clients.
Yet, the NBA all but forces American players to enter into a system that is attempting to stop the wheels of capitalism. It doesn’t work and never will. The market will go wherever it needs.
The NCAA needs a complete overhaul, but in the interim, having players who are worth the most bypass its artificial stopgap will at least take some heat out of the system. Adidas, which saw two executives arrested in the current scandal, is far less likely, for example, to offer a recruit $150,000 if he’s a projected second-round choice three years from now. (While it may still pay some recruits because it needs the schools it sponsors to win, the amount of money and players involved should decrease.)
Right now, even honest coaches don’t know where to turn in recruiting. You need top-20, likely one-and-done recruits to win big. Yet the vast majority, if not all of them, are being heavily pursued by agents and shoe companies. So even if you want to recruit them by the NCAA book, they may have taken payouts outside your knowledge. You either hope they didn’t, pray they don’t get caught, or you try to win with lesser talent.
Just letting them go pro would at least be more honest.
Silver, for his part, cited three things that have dramatically shifted. The scandals are one. “It’s clearly not working for the college game,” Silver said. Second is the increase in one-and-done players declaring for the draft. There were 16 last year. Silver said the average had been about eight per year.
And finally, it appears more top recruits don’t care about where they go to college and are just biding their time until draft night. This may be most concerning to the NBA because it impacts the league directly.
“What’s really interesting to me is the last two No. 1 picks in the NBA draft, Ben Simmons two years ago and Markelle Fultz last year, both played with teams that did not make the NCAA tournament [LSU and Washington, respectively],” Silver said. “And I don’t think enough people are talking about that. That seems to be a sea change.
“It’s become common knowledge that these so-called one-and-done players, maybe understandably, are almost entirely focused on where they are going to go in the draft lottery. Not to say they don’t badly care about winning but … the stakes are so high in terms of the amount of money they can make over a long NBA career.”
Or put it this way, if the NBA isn’t going to benefit from college hoops marketing its future stars across the winter and into the highly rated NCAA tournament, then it’s a major value loss for the league. A season at high-exposure Duke is one thing. A forgotten one at LSU is another.
Take this extreme, but telling, example. Mitchell Robinson, a 7-footer who Rivals.com pegged as the No. 9 recruit in the Class of 2017, chose to attend Western Kentucky. This was, at least in part, because where you play college ball doesn’t matter on draft night. He has since left the school and will spend the year working out with an individual trainer. He’s just one player, but for a league that always seeks big men, is that a good thing?
“From our standpoint, if the players in that one year of college aren’t getting the kind of development we’d like to see them get coming into the NBA, aren’t playing in the NCAA tournament, aren’t competing against top-notch competition, I think we have to take a step back and figure out whether we are better off taking those players at a younger age and working on their training and development full time,” Silver said.
Silver cited the improvement in the NBA’s developmental arm, the G League. It includes 26 clubs with parent teams and new two-way contracts that allow at least two players to earn as much as $250,000 a year. The NBA may finally, after decades of using the NCAA as its de facto minor league, be interested in real investment. In some cases, the actual coaching in the G League is better than the NCAA.
There could be other routes too. In the past Silver has discussed a zero-or-two deal to replace the one-and-done, essentially making a player come out right away or stay in the NCAA for two seasons. It’s similar to the way MLB does it.
There is also the NHL model where the NCAA allows drafted players to compete in college hockey. It’s true. Cale Makar was selected fourth overall in the 2017 NHL draft by the Colorado Avalanche. He is currently playing for the University of Massachusetts. He could stay four years or join the Avs after the current UMass season. It’s the way Boston University star Charlie McAvoy joined the Boston Bruins for last spring’s NHL playoffs, just days after BU was knocked out of the NCAA tournament. College hockey players can’t be paid by their NHL clubs, but what if the NCAA offered to loosen its rules on that and include NBA draft picks.
Radical? Sure. With Silver seeking change, though, now is the time to put everything on the table. Ever resistant to wholesale change, the NCAA should consider what it might be willing to do for the next system.
Silver has already reached out to union president Michele Roberts and noted they don’t need to wait until 2024, when the collective-bargaining agreement is up. He wants Chris Paul from the union and Michael Jordan for the owners to run point on this.
“We should sit down even this season and talk about what a different frame work would look like,” Silver said.
The need for change is real. For college basketball always, but increasingly for the NBA as well.