James Wiseman lasted just three games at the University of Memphis before the 2020 NBA draft top prospect became embroiled in a legal battle over his NCAA eligibility. In hindsight, it was three games too many.

The 7-foot-1 center’s ill-fated freshman season will go down as a lose-lose-lose for player, program and governing body. Wiseman never got the chance to show his skills, develop his game or soak in the March Madness experience. Memphis lost a premier recruit and a major draw, and it absorbed a public relations blow because its coach, Penny Hardaway, provided financial assistance to Wiseman’s family when the player was in high school.

And the NCAA came out looking worst of all. Its convoluted, anachronistic rules deny Wiseman from profiting from his likeness or jersey sales, and the punishment it handed him included a 12-game suspension and a galling decree that he must donate $11,500 to a charity of his choice.

As the ordeal played out over weeks of judgments and injunctions, statements and counter-statements, it became increasingly clear Wiseman had little to gain from remaining in college. He’s not the only high-profile teenager to reach that conclusion: Fellow top 2020 prospects LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton bypassed the NCAA entirely to play professionally in Australia and New Zealand, respectively. Yet the NBA shares blame here, too; Wiseman could have avoided this mess if he had been allowed to jump straight from high school to the pros.

The NCAA was only going to be a pit stop for Wiseman, who wrote on Instagram on Thursday that playing in the NBA has “been a dream of mine” since he was “a little kid.” Like most highly touted high school prospects, he was expected to be a one-and-done player whose preparation for the draft would begin as soon as his college season ended. After all, current NBA rules mandate that players are not draft eligible until they are 19 years old and at least one calendar year removed from high school graduation.

The league may change its rules to allow high school graduates to bypass college as soon as the 2021 draft, and it should. Top prospects such as Wiseman — and NBA teams — are better prepared today for a reduced age limit than they were in 2005, when the one-and-done framework was put in place.

Much has changed for prep basketball stars over the past 15 years. Their sport has been professionalized, with top teams crisscrossing the country for tournaments and appearing on national television. Their games are dissected and disseminated on YouTube and social media. Many players benefit from industry-wide advances in nutrition and weight training, USA Basketball’s improved developmental programs and the direct influence of NBA player instruction, whether through summer camps or AAU programs. No system can guarantee that 18-year-old prospects are ready to play 82 games against grown men, but elite high school basketball talents have it better than ever before.

The NBA has undergone some major changes, too. Its minor league, the G League, has expanded to 28 teams, establishing a convenient and proven professional developmental option for draft-worthy teenagers who might need additional seasoning. Scouting processes have been refined by the rise of analytics and the proliferation of video content. Coaching practices have modernized, with some developing teams seeking to limit the wear-and-tear on young players and with most franchises providing individualized plans and mental health resources. The modern style of play — higher scoring and more free flowing rather than plodding and bruising — has enabled some stars to flourish at an early age, even before they fully develop physically.

Wiseman would have been a natural candidate to go straight from the preps to the pros. He boasts an NBA-ready physique. He was a blue-chip high school recruit who ranked first overall in multiple recruiting services. And he had every reason to believe his skills were worthy of compensation, whether that be via thousands of dollars from Hardaway or millions of guaranteed dollars on a rookie-scale contract.

What Wiseman lacked was the ability to decide between a year of collegiate training and an instant professional career. The NBA’s age limit stood between him and the pro career that his prep résumé strongly suggested he could handle. Instead of tiptoeing through the NCAA’s red tape, Wiseman would have been better served this fall by learning from NBA coaches, playing against NBA competition and being assisted by NBA trainers and support staffs.

By leaving the NCAA now, Wiseman can begin training full time for pre-draft workouts, sign with an agent and land endorsement deals. It might feel as if his early exit is giving him a jump-start, but he really is just making up for lost time.

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