Why you should care
College basketball coaches and analysts are increasingly preparing for high school stars turning pro too early for their own — and the game’s — good.
The colossus that is Duke’s Zion Williamson captivated college basketball this season, so much so that he became his own reality show with a “Zion Cam,” a dedicated camera focused on his every move on the court. But the daily dissection of the 6-foot-7 Williamson has started an early grieving in the college game.
The one-and-done era will likely end in 2022, when the NBA is expected to allow 18-year-olds to jump from high school right into the showtime of the NBA. Will the new none-and-dones rob the college game of ever seeing another Zion, just like it missed out on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James? Perhaps, but the reshaping of the game goes much deeper — and doesn’t simply mean a return to pre-2005 hoops, when the NBA’s 19-year-old age restriction debuted.
Most expect future college basketball to look more like Duke’s Atlantic Coast Conference rival Virginia — the far less heralded No. 1 seed that starts four upperclassmen and shared the arena with the Blue Devils during last weekend’s opening rounds in Columbia, South Carolina. The Cavaliers have won just as many games over the past four years as Duke, but there is no “Kyle Guy Cam” for Virginia’s sharp-shooting guard. And in Pennsylvania, Villanova’s philosophy of “get old, stay old” in recruiting players who wait their turn to play as juniors earned the Wildcats national championships in 2016 and 2018.
They’re much better prepared with any amount of time they spend in college.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski
The schools primarily associated with one-and-done will have to rejoin the “get old, stay old” crowd. “It’s obviously going to affect the teams that recruit the one-and-done players — the Dukes, the Kentuckys, the Arizonas. They are going to have to go about the recruiting process differently, so instead of focusing on players 1 to 10 in the rankings, they are going to have to focus on 11 to 30,” says Evan Daniels, a national recruiting analyst with 247Sports. “When Duke and Kentucky come in and gobble up some of the 11–30 players, the teams that had been getting those guys are going to have to go down a tier themselves.”
But while the college game won’t see youthful superteams — like Duke’s 2019 squad with Williamson and two other lottery-pick talents, Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett, or Kentucky’s teams of 2012 (featuring Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) and 2015 (Karl Anthony-Towns and Devin Booker) — analysts say relatively few players each year will take the leap.
“There are not too many kids coming out of high school who can go right to the NBA — the NBA is not giving away money,” says longtime college basketball television analyst Bill Raftery. “The name on the front of the jersey will still be more important than the name on the back. I don’t see a big change coming in the game with just a very few kids going to the NBA.”
And college basketball will continue to provide national exposure and skill development for talents such as sophomore De’Andre Hunter of Virginia and junior Brandon Clarke of Gonzaga, who are shooting up draft boards after not being considered elite high school prospects.
The one-and-done rule has drawn plenty of criticism since it was first instituted in 2005. At Duke, one of America’s top schools that has relied heavily on the rule to fuel its basketball program, faculty have warned that the college risks coming across as effectively renting players who have no intention of actually graduating. The NCAA’s Commission on College Basketball led by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last year said the rule had “played a significant role in corrupting and destabilizing college basketball” and “restricting the freedom of choice of players.” It called for the rule’s abolition. Some critics have even compared college athletics to slavery, as coaches and administrators reap millions while players are barred by NCAA rules from earning more than their tuition and cost of living.
But to many coaches, evidence from the period preceding the one-and-done rule also points to the challenges of allowing players to enter — or try to enter — the NBA out of high school. There were future Hall of Famers like Dwight Howard, busts like Ndudi Ebi (who played only 19 games over two seasons) and a lot more like 2001 No. 1 overall pick Kwame Brown who had middling careers and might have benefited from more personal and professional seasoning.
“At the schools, there’s a maturation process that goes on both on and off the court that an 18-year-old needs,” says Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “They’re much better prepared with any amount of time they spend in college.” Krzyzewski, 72, is in a position to compare — he won championships before one-and-done, and has recruited 13 players since 2011 who spent a year at Duke before jumping to the NBA. Even without one-and-done, there will be some high school basketball players who will opt to go to college for a year, says Krzyzewski. It’s just that others will seek to enter professional basketball earlier.
And “if they listen to the wrong uncle,” they might “make a bad decision,” warns Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger.
Kruger and Joe Castiglione, the athletic director at Oklahoma, argue that the NCAA should allow for do-overs for the kids who make a mistake if it is within a certain time frame and guidelines. The NBA will tempt ill-prepared high school students, but so will the $125,000 payday the G League (NBA development league) will start offering high school seniors this summer. “Kids are smart enough, but they don’t get a chance to make the decision — somebody else is deciding for them,” Castiglione says. If the NCAA doesn’t allow kids that option of returning to college, “we’re just using people and exploiting people,” he says.
Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, though, says advisers of high school players have a responsibility to get the decision right to begin with. He says in the early 2000s the NCAA membership explored but rejected the idea of restoring amateur status to professional athletes if their pro career fizzled. “This is not a single-sport issue,” he says. But other sports have different rules. The NFL requires three years in college. Baseball lets players go professional straight from high school, but if they go to college they have to stay three years — though baseball does have a more robust minor league system than the other sports.
Sankey also suggests it’s wrong to lay the responsibility for morality in the game — corruption charges have led to an FBI investigation — at the door of the NCAA or the NBA. Parents and players asking for benefits they know are against the rules bear some blame.
Williamson has sparked new debate over the rule this year, particularly when he sprained his knee and many commentators said he should sit out the rest of his unpaid college season, lest he endanger his future. But Williamson, who returned for the postseason, might be the poster child for the benefits of college basketball. Despite a terrific reputation in high school, he was not the No. 1 prospect when he joined Duke last fall. He received good coaching, matured, played against good competition and built up his body, while also earning millions of dollars’ worth of national television exposure.
Williamson, though, didn’t have the choice of turning pro at age 18. The next generation of high school stars likely will. The question is what kind of safety net they’ll have if they follow the wrong uncle’s advice.