What’s the best course of action for America’s best 18 year old basketball player? The answer depends on what year it is. Decades ago a player probably would have gone to college for 4 years to refine their game, possibly get an education, and prepare themselves for the NBA. Although Moses Malone and Darryl Dawkins skipped college and went straight to the pros in the mid 70s, this wasn’t a common decision. In fact for 20 years no other player took this direct route. Even Shawn Kemp and Lloyd Daniels went to college, although neither played in an NCAA game due to off the court issues.
But as time passed, the options for an 18 year old baller increased. Due to some combination of the NCAA increasing its eligibility standards for incoming athletes, the popularization of high school athletics, the increasing amount of underclassman opting out of college, and rising NBA salaries, many players opted to go straight to the pros. When Kevin Garnett decided in 1995 to forgo college and apply for the NBA draft it was a controversial decision. But over the next few years as Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and Jermaine O’Neal made the same jump (and with a good degree of success) it became more common for players to skip college.
Consider the options at this time for a high school senior that was likely to be drafted in the first round. They could go to college where competing against Division I players could expose a player’s flaws. Waiting an extra year could result in a deeper draft class, and the player would get drafted later. Or the player could suffer an injury, and they would never get drafted at all. Each of these could cause a player to potentially lose millions of dollars. On the other hand a player’s NCAA play could enhance his draft standing, sending him to the top of the draft. Because most first rounders earn at least $1M a year, the difference between $4M and $1M in terms of life changing opportunities isn’t worth the risk of losing it all. For most athletes, the smart choice meant going to the NBA as soon as possible.
This progression continued for about 10 years until the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement set the age limit to 19 for a player to join the NBA. Hence players could no longer make the jump directly from high school to the NBA. Basketball pundits thought this move was to force players to go to college, and the term “one and done” (a prospect who went to college for one year only because they weren’t eligible to apply for the NBA draft) gained popularity. However it may not have been NBA Commissioner David Stern’s intention to send prospective employees to college. In fact when asked about the “one and done” phenomenon recently on Pardon the Interruption, Stern remarked something to the effect of “this is not an NBA problem it’s an NCAA problem.”
And indeed it is. Not only have college players shortened their amateur career, but many have skipped it entirely. Take for example the most famous underclass team: Michigan’s Fab Five. The three most talented players (Webber, Howard, and Rose) all left before their senior year. It’s no longer news when a player applies for the draft. These days it’s news when a player stays around for another year (e.g. 2006 Gators). In this last NBA draft, 4 of the top 5 players were underclassmen on Final Four teams. This attrition must hurt the pool of talent available to NCAA schools.
However there may be another option in the future for young basketball players. Earlier this week the New York Times said that top point guard prospect Brandon Jennings was considering playing in Europe, and yesterday ESPN has confirmed that Jennings has made his decision to go overseas. There are three factors which have opened up this possibility for Jennings. The first is the increased NCAA academic standards. (“Jennings has committed to play at Arizona and his adviser, Kelly Williams, has said that he will find out if Jennings qualified on Friday.”) The second is the age limit to the NBA. (“Even if he enrolls at Arizona, Jennings is expected to spend only one year with the Wildcats.”) The third is that the NCAA doesn’t pay its student athletes, while European teams do. According to the New York Times, “[Jennings] would most likely get a minimum of $300,000, including salary and endorsements”. Although Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress says he can’t see a top European club offering Jennings more than $100,000.
Naturally college coaches are against such a move. (“[Memphis Coach John Calipari] cited the language barrier, games against more physically dominant competition, and the cultural adjustment for a teenager.”) But for a single year in Europe, a player could make enough money to pay for four years of college (one year at Rutgers University costs $20,096). Playing against more skilled players would make them more NBA ready. Teenagers frequently compete in European professional leagues. Knicks draft pick Danilo Gallinari was playing in Italian Serie B1 League at the age of 15. Spain’s Ricky Rubio debuted in the Euroleague at 16. And of course living in another country is a great life experience. Consider that college students typically consider studying abroad as an opportunity.
Ultimately the NCAA is largely responsible for creating these conditions. They make billions off of student athletes while paying them relatively next to nothing. For years they’ve been able to exploit athletes whose desire is to play professionally by controlling a monopoly to the doorsteps of the NBA. The relationship between the NCAA & young athletes have been a one sided affair. According to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban
Every student who goes to school, post high school is given every opportunity and encouraged to maximize their effort and optimize their resources to achieve their goals. Unless of course they happen to attend a school that is a member of the NCAA and their goal is to be a professional athlete.
Jennings could become his generation’s Kevin Garnett and high school players might consider going overseas the better choice to a year of college. Should he return to the NBA, it will become a viable option, especially for those worried about meeting academic standards. What happens next is unclear. It’s highly unlikely that the NCAA makes a major change, since they won’t pay their athletes. One possibility is the emergence of a basketball minor league, but this interview with the former GM of the Utah Flash shows that the NBDL isn’t ready to fill the void.
An example, we had Brandon Wallace on assignment from the Celtics, he was a draft pick and they sent him to us. He was on our roster, he played for us. And in January, late December, the Celtics cut him and we had no rights to him. And that didn’t make any sense to us. We tried to make it work, we talked to his agent, but we just couldn’t get it worked out. And I think that was a source of embarrassment for the league.
With European leagues breaking up the NCAA’s monopoly on young basketball players, don’t expect things to stay the same. Depending on the contract, European teams can receive up to $500,000 from NBA teams for a drafted player. With Jennings opening the door, foreign teams will have incentive to recruit America’s best underage basketball prospects. Eventually some organization is going to want to keep these players from going oversees. The NBA would have a motive since they would be paying an extra half million dollars for some of their draft picks. The NCAA might want to make a change before their basketball empire crumbles. And the NBDL could take advantage of this opportunity to make themselves a proper minor league. One thing is for certain, future 18 year old basketball prodigies will have more than one option to consider.