By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Don't get me wrong, I'm in complete agreement with all the coaches, from Mike Krzyzewski to Jeff Capel, who think the NBA rule that forces young basketball phenoms to attend college for one year is a bad one. The rule, though unintentionally, sets up college as some sort of necessary evil, an almost punitive measure to temporarily keep the best players from what they think is rightfully theirs. And they in turn take it out on colleges by treating school as some sort of pit stop.
I agree with Oklahoma Coach Capel, who told the Kansas City Star: "It's a bad rule, a really bad rule. It makes a mockery of a college education. . . . Unless your athletic department has a [class] attendance policy, all somebody has to do is sign up for classes in the second semester. How are those kids getting an education? They're using college for the wrong reasons."
Capel's right, okay?
But the chorus of college basketball coaches complaining about what is now commonly called the "one-and-done" rule is growing a bit whiny. One would think, to listen to the coaches, that college basketball players only recently started leaving school after a year or two, when in fact kids have been bailing early for 20 years.
One would also think that college basketball players only recently, since the advent of this rule four years ago, started blowing off classes. Seriously, the NBA is now to blame for jocks not wanting to go to school? College coaches can't be serious about this, can they?
College basketball has more than its share of serious problems. One-and-done probably isn't even at the top of the pyramid; it certainly isn't the plague that AAU programs and street agents so frequently are, seducing and then ruining kids with scandalous promises and perks. One-and-done couldn't be as destructive as a coach, in this case Tim Floyd, quitting USC after allegations he gave cash to an associate of a kid he was recruiting.
One-and-done is bad, but it isn't a threat to the very existence of college basketball. Ohio State has been hit hard, taking in and then losing five kids the last three years, including Greg Oden and Mike Conley. And it is on the increase: There were two "one-and-done" freshmen drafted in 2006, eight in 2007 and a dozen last year.
I'd argue rather loudly that almost every one of the kids in question, from Kevin Durant to Derrick Rose to Tyreke Evans, is better off having gone to college for even one year. College basketball was certainly better off for having Durant and Rose -- and for that matter Oden and Michael Beasley -- play for one season. They were the stars of the NCAA's crown jewel, March Madness, and I don't recall one school or the NCAA turning away any of the money people spent buying tickets to see those kids play.
And there's a simple solution for coaches if they don't want the "one-and-done" players in their programs:
Don't recruit them.
Everybody knows who the one-and-done kids are. Every AAU coach, street agent, high school coach, parent and any kid who follows the game in his neighborhood knows who has every intention of putting his name in the draft pool after one season of college basketball. So obviously the college coaches know. If you think it's a mockery, don't take the kid. I admire Maryland's Gary Williams for just saying no, even if his boosters wanted him to resort to the quick fix.
And what do the college coaches want to do about a kid like Tyrus Thomas, who left LSU after his freshman season but only because his team reached the Final Four that year. Should that be blamed on the NBA, too?
Remember, the NBA doesn't need the NCAA's permission to do what's in its best interest. As NBA Commissioner David Stern said, "This is not about the NCAA. This is not an enforcement of some social program. This is a business decision by the NBA, which is, we like to see our players in competition after high school."
If I had my druthers, the rule wouldn't allow high school kids to come into the NBA draft for two years. But the players' association has something to say about that. In the best interest of the pro game and nothing else, the NBA and its players' union ought to agree in the next collective bargaining deal that players need a two-year apprenticeship, minimum, before entering the league. If a kid wants to skip college and go play in Europe, as Brandon Jennings did, fine. Go. The NFL and its union, very wisely, have negotiated for three years between high school and pro football. Yes, the leagues benefit from kids being marketed in college. But does anybody want to seriously argue that Rose and Beasley, just to name two, were hurt professionally by having to attend college for one year? In fact, each kid will tell you he was helped by his time in college. Two years would have helped more.
Personally, I don't care about the one phenom who comes along every so often like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James who are indeed special and can successfully navigate the waters and thrive in the NBA without a day of college. I'm much more concerned, and so should the college coaches and NBA executives be, about the ones who need an apprenticeship, which is to say the overwhelming majority. The rules should be set for them, not the exceptions and not the college coaches who might be inconvenienced by kids leaving early.
Perhaps the league and the union need to look at the MLB model, where high school kids are routinely drafted. But if a player attends a Division I school he is ineligible for the draft for three years or until the age of 21 when he can be drafted again. New options and creative ways of dealing with entry into the league should be explored. But ultimately, the hope here is that Stern will push hard for two years and union chief Billy Hunter will look at the high school phenoms who have struggled (Kwame Brown) or failed completely (Leon Smith, etc.) and decide his constituents are better off with two years of college preparation.
If college basketball coaches are inclined to take this up any further, and accept some of the nation's best players for a minimum of two years, lobbying Mr. Hunter is the smartest place to start.