It’s a lousy rule. John Calipari says so. Even David Stern, whose rule it is, says so. It’s such a lousy rule that everybody insists it needs to be changed. Question is, to what?
The NCAA title was just taken by Kentucky, which is coached by Calipari, who has come to specialize in one-and-done players. (He has had at least one in each of the past four seasons and could have three this time.) Mark Emmert, the NCAA president, told USA Today last month that he had no quarrel with Calipari’s recruiting of one-and-done players, saying the coach was “operating inside the rules.” But this rule isn’t the NCAA’s.
The NBA implemented the rule in 2005 because the image-conscious league was tiring of seeing its scouts trolling for draftees in high school gyms. From 2001 through 2004, three of the players taken No. 1 overall were high schoolers. It wasn’t that such guys weren’t ready to play professionally — LeBron James and Dwight Howard did OK — as the unseemliness of it all. Did a billion-dollar enterprise want to make a practice of sinking millions into teenage talent?
This halting compromise was hatched: To be NBA-eligible, a player had to be at least 19 and one year out of high school. Stern, who’s the NBA commissioner, took pains this week to note that his league never said a player had to go to college, but that has been the effect.
Players who would otherwise have done a LeBron were forced to bide their time, and the best players have made that time the briefest possible. Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Derrick Favors: All were one-and-done. In 2010 Kentucky had four players leave after one season. This year he won it all with a team that could see freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist drafted first and second overall.
Some have cast Kentucky’s crown as validation of the one-and-done method, but such a coronation has long been inevitable. Ohio State lost in the 2007 final with three freshmen who would never play another collegiate game. Memphis lost in the 2008 final with Rose. (Calipari coached that team, too.) That it finally happened hasn’t changed anything. It has only brought the issue under greater focus.
Has one-and-done cheapened the college game? Absolutely. Institutions of higher learning have come to be seen as way stations. That’s not how the NCAA would choose to have it: For institutions of higher learning, seeing a few guys go directly to the pros beat the heck out of these cameo collegiate appearances.
To single out Kentucky is disingenuous. Every big-time program would take the players Calipari signs. The No. 1 NBA draftee in 2011 was Kyrie Irving, who worked 11 games for Duke before leaving; this year another Blue Devil — Austin Rivers, son of Doc — is bolting after one season. Kentucky and Calipari just happen to recruit better than anyone else, and if you recruit at the highest level you’re signing those most apt to be one-and-done.
The catch: If you sign one-and-dones, you have to keep signing more every year, and that’s not easy even if you’re Kentucky. After claiming his championship, Calipari said he hoped the NBA changed its eligibility rule within the week — so Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist would be back.
Stern said this week he’d prefer a two-and-done rule. Mark Cuban, who owns the Dallas Mavericks, is plumping for three-and-done. Some prefer the baseball way: A player can sign with a pro team if drafted out of high school, but if he chooses to play in college he can’t be drafted again until after his junior season. Me, I don’t like any of those suggestions.
We know from LeBron and Dwight and Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett that some guys are ready to join the NBA straight out of high school. To force such players to wait even longer before taking their talents to the professional level would be unfair and probably illegal. Bruce Springsteen didn’t have to spend three years in the Rutgers marching band before turning pro; why should someone who happens to be skilled in another performing art?
The best course would be to repeal the NBA’s rule and replace it with no rule, to return to the days where high schoolers could be drafted (and collegians could leave at any time). The NBA would never agree, especially not with a tightened salary cap: With fewer dollars to spend, teams want to invest in more, as opposed to less, proven products. To which I say: Too bad.
For better or worse, the NBA sits atop the basketball food chain. The NBA’s preference has served to diminish its chief feeder system. There was nothing unfair about high schoolers jumping to the pros; the pros just didn’t like it. Again, too bad. None-and-done isn’t ideal, but it trumps one-and-done.
By Mark Bradley