As March Madness culminates with the Final Four in New Orleans this weekend, all eyes will be on Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the two best players on the team favored to win the tournament — the University of Kentucky Wildcats. What’s particularly notable about these two players is that they are both freshmen. They play for a team that has three freshman starters and has been called “a waystation for NBA talent,” and they’re coached by a man who has famously (and controversially) encouraged his most promising young players to turn pro after one season.
However they fare in the end, Kentucky’s dominance in the tournament has prompted the reemergence of many questions about the so-called “one and done” rule, which forces rising basketball stars to play at least one college season before entering the NBA.
Can anyone win a tournament with a bunch of raw talent that has not had time to be shaped and molded into a team? Shouldn’t these young men have to stay in school longer than one year to prepare themselves for life beyond the sport? And what responsibility do coaches have to push for changing a rule that works for neither the players nor themselves?
My answer to the last question: Plenty.
This “one and done” rule is not really fair to players, for one. People can fight in wars at 18, or pursue professional careers in baseball, golf, tennis or the arts. But they can’t play in the NBA. With few exceptions, the rule for top amateur basketball players in this country is simple: You must be 19 and have attended college for at least one season before you enter the NBA draft.
The rule’s existence also creates difficult challenges for the coaches who lead college teams. Many coaches have spoken of hating the rule for the chaos it can inflict on their rosters. And presumably, some of them also think it’s unfair to force an unqualified, disinterested student to attend college classes when all they want to do professionally is play basketball.
Take Kentucky coach John Calipari, for instance. With a multi-million dollar contract predicated primarily on his ability to win games, he, like other coaches, focuses on doing just that. This means recruiting the best high-school players in the country, giving them big roles on the team right away, encouraging them to turn pro after one season if they’re expected to be a high pick, and then starting the whole process over the next season.
Calipari has produced five freshman first-round draft picks in his two years at Kentucky (six if you count Enes Kanter from Turkey, who wasn’t allowed to play while at UK but did practice with the team), and Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist are locks to increase that number this June. “Coach Cal” is proud of these facts. After all, becoming a first-round pick in the NBA draft creates a financial windfall for a player and his family — and one that might disappear completely if the player stayed in school and got hurt before he turned pro.
As a result, one of Calipari’s biggest challenges as a coach is balancing team goals with individual ones. When there is so much focus among players on when they can turn pro, it can become hard to get them (and their families, friends and the various hangers-on whom NBA prospects accumulate) to put their current team first. The process of building camaraderie becomes rushed, and the best players don’t get to develop through experience because they leave the program so fast.
For years, college basketball coaches, as well as their counterparts in other sports, typically had the luxury of watching their players mature and improve over a three- or four-year stretch. Calipari only sees his benchwarmers do this. And until he wins a national title, Calipari arguably hasn’t mastered these challenges yet — even if he has won more games since the 2005 - 06 season than any other coach has, while making himself, his employers and his “pupils” a lot of money.
Most other coaches either can’t convince the top 10 to 15 players in the country to join their team, or don’t want to take on the trials mentioned above. They would rather build a team the old-fashioned way, limiting how much responsibility freshmen are given and letting a team build momentum over a couple years in hopes that a certain class or two matures enough to become a force when they’re juniors or seniors.
A few programs have coaches who are able to do both. The 2005 and 2009 University of North Carolina squads are both recent champion teams that won with very talented upper classmen leading the way. UNC can recruit the same top players that Kentucky does, still Tar Heel leaders dating back to the legendary Dean Smith have gone out of their way to limit freshmen exposure. As one example, media have very limited access to UNC freshmen, who as a rule can't participate in featured interviews or cover shoots. North Carolina also tends to limit the playing time it gives them.
Carolina’s approach, which current head coach Roy Williams has adopted in full, is to go after the best kids in the country, but put a system in place that discourages them from leaving school quickly. It seems like a good way to win games and, theoretically, to expose players to as much school as possible at one of the nation’s finest public universities.
Still, while I respect the way that UNC’s approach pays off for its program, I wonder about the fairness of intentionally delaying the payoff some of the players have waiting for them in the NBA.
The biggest stars in the NBA today are Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose. The first two didn’t go to college at all, since the current rule was only enacted in 2006, while Durant and Rose attended school for the minimum one year. Last year’s first pick — Kyrie Irving out of Duke — played only 11 games in an injury shortened freshman season before becoming the No. 1 pick, and he’s the runaway favorite for NBA Rookie of the Year this season.
Meanwhile, current North Carolina sophomore Harrison Barnes and Baylor University sophomore Perry Jones are two players who have seen their NBA draft stock drop by playing two years in college. The simple truth is that in the cutthroat world of NBA scouting, certain players (usually bigger ones whose skills aren’t suited to the tightly packed college game) often see their “flaws” dissected more and more the longer they play college ball.
I concede, though, that having to balance these conflicting thoughts — the benefits of life and basketball experience gained by attending college for a longer time versus the delay and potential lessening of NBA riches to be gained from same — put coaches at the top schools in a difficult position. The NFL and college football require players to be three years out of high school before turning pro. Baseball players are given the choice to turn pro right out of high school; but if they choose to attend a four-year college instead, they must stay for at least three seasons.
The rule as it exists in basketball now comes from the collective bargaining agreement between the NBA owners and the NBA Players Union. The owners want the most mature players possible entering the league, ideally with a little name recognition acquired from playing televised college games. The union tends to worry more about the jobs of older players than of young guys who have yet to enter the pros. Ultimately, those are the only parties that can legally change the “one and done” rule — and they should.
But college coaches, and the students it’s their job to lead, are also greatly affected. Rather than keep right on recruiting and cashing their checks under the current rules, they owe their players more. With their adoring fan bases, massive salaries and extensive media contacts, college coaches should be agitating for change. Real leadership is not about just managing as well as you can under the current rules, but pushing to make them better.
Ben Osborne has been the editor-in-chief of SLAM , the “In Your Face” basketball magazine, since 2007. He has been entering bracket pools for more than 20 years…and never won one.
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