One and done: who wins?

Wiggins – the next phenom?

In an interview for ESPN the magazine, Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins confirmed that he is going to join the long list of “one and done” players, who spend a solitary year in college to meet the NBA’s age limit, which was implemented in 2006.

Wiggins is the consensus number 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, a draft that many commentators are already cranked to 11 in excitement about.  The idea that teams are “Riggin’ for Wiggins” has been floated across the NBA, only to be somewhat spoiled by the quick starts to the season of teams like Philly and Phoenix.  Of course, as I have already observed in these pages, the worst team in the NBA only rarely gets the number 1 overall pick.  Of course, Wiggins has yet to even see the floor in an NCAA game.

Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart, another hot prospect in the upcoming draft, commented:

A lot of people are saying he’s the best player now in college basketball.  All I’m saying is how can you be the best player in something you haven’t even played yet?

The levels of excitement about Wiggins seem to rival those seen in 2001 and 2002 as the basketball world anticipated the arrival of LeBron James into the NBA.  LeBron of course went on to become the best player in the NBA.  The second best, by my estimation at least, Kevin Durant, had to wait a year before he could enter the draft, a year he spent at the University of Texas.  Durant’s year in Austin was so successful, his jersey was retired by the Longhorns.

Many thought that Durant needed to develop physically before entering the professional ranks, something he continues to defy thanks to his incredible athleticism and shooting range, which compensates for his relatively, but deceptively, skinny frame (while listed at 6’9″, I’ve stood next to Durant and he is a good bit taller than me – his 240 lbs is hardly lightweight either – interestingly, Durant is listed as an inch taller and only 10 lbs lighter than LeBron).  The idea of player development is at the centre of objections to players only spending a year out of high school before turning professional.

Rookie LeBron – look how cute!

Let’s look at some notable “one and done” players:

Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose, John Wall, Anthony Davis, Anthony Bennett, Shawne Williams, Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Jr., Brandan Wright, Spencer Hawes, Thaddeus Young, Daequan Cook, DeAndre Jordan, Kevin Love, Anthony Randolph, J.J. Hickson, Kosta Koufos, Donte Green, Tyreke Evans, DeMar DeRozan, B.J. Mullens, DeMarcus Cousins, Xavier Henry, Eric Bledsoe, Avery Bradley, Tristan Thompson, Brandon Knight, Tobias Harris, Cory Joseph, Josh Selby, Javaris Crittendon, Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo, Eric Gordon, Jerryd Bayless, Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors, Daniel Orton, Hassan Whiteside, Tiny Gallon.

There are three very clear groups in that list: the “makes sense”, the “could have done with a bit more time to develop” and the “borderline disasters”.  The first group is tiny and arguably only features Irving, Rose and Love.  We shouldn’t forget that there were questions over Irving’s ability to compete at the NBA level after an injury prone season at Duke (not to mention the fact that Duke was always the sort of place where guys graduated).  Wall is still a bit of a question mark, to me, but you could add him in, ditto Conley.  Perhaps, given his injury issues, the career of Greg Oden might have been considerably different if he had stayed in college for another season.  I should also acknowledge the fact that B.J. Mullens is probably far from the only player who “had” to leave college – for financial or academic reasons – on that list.

Most of the one-and-done guys have been okay at the NBA level, but if “okay” is all we’re aspiring to in a professional game where guys are paid millions of dollars, then surely we have a problem.  It’s probably also worth adding that, in most of these cases, these players would have just gone straight to the NBA had the rules not changed to prevent players entering the NBA straight out of high school.

In most cases, the players who entered the draft after their freshman season in college did so because they were told that they would get drafted.  Some, like Daniel Orton, were perhaps told that they’d be drafted earlier – and, crucially, given a guaranteed contract – than they actually were.  Xavier Henry is an interesting case here.

Xavier Henry, finally coming good?

Henry was all over pre-draft boards at the start of his one season in Kansas, but ended up being taken 12th overall by the Memphis Grizzlies.  In January, Memphis decided they’d be better with Marreese Speights and traded Henry to New Orleans in a three-team trade.  He ended up in the D-League in March.  In September 2013, he signed with the LA Lakers where he will spend at least the first part of the season filling in for the injured Kobe Bryant.  Henry showed up well in his debut – scoring 22 in an unexpected victory against the LA Clippers.  Perhaps Henry is finally realising the potential he showed in high school and, to a degree, at Kansas (maybe unfair, he had 13.4 PPG, including 42% from three, 4.4 RPG, 1.5 APG and 1.5 SPG at Kansas).  Was it totally necessary for him to leave college after one season, though?  Simply being guaranteed to be picked shouldn’t be reason enough to forego one’s development, in an ideal world at least.

Assuming these players would indeed have gone pro from high school, they would have joined the category of “prep to pro” players features guys who were drafted before 2006 and contains some impressive names as well as some less impressive names:

LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Amar’e Stoudemire, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Rashard Lewis, Tyson Chandler, Jermaine O’Neal, Al Harrington, Darius Miles, DeShawn Stevenson, Eddy Curry, DeSagana Diop, Travis Outlaw, Ndudi Ebi, Kendrick Perkins, Shaun Livingston, Sebastian Telfair, Al Jefferson, Josh Smith, JR Smith, Dorell Wright, Martell Webster, Gerald Green, C.J. Miles, Monta Ellis, Louis Williams, Andray Blatche, Amir Johnson, Korleone Young, Jonathan Bender, Leon Smith, Kwame Brown, Ousmane Cisse, James Lang, Robert Swift

You will also notice that the categories from above have rather changed in composition.  There are the “immediate studs”: LeBron, Dwight and Amar’e (tells you a lot that you only need their first names to know who I’m talking about); then there are the “legitimate studs, but took a while” guys like KG, Kobe, T-Mac, Chandler, Jefferson and O’Neal – lets not forget how good Jermaine O’Neal used to be.  Maybe Rashard Lewis belongs here as well, but a massive contract has cost his reputation a great deal of respectability.  Then there are the guys who clearly could have used a bit more time to mature as players like the two Smith’s (not sure a decade in college would have made much difference there, of course), Webster, Telfair, Perkins and Ellis.  Then you have the “serviceable, but…” guys like Harrington, Diop, Blatche and Green.  Then you have the “outright busts” like Young, Brown (amazingly STILL getting paid though, so perhaps calling him a bust is unfair, even though he has never contributed at the NBA level?), Lang and Swift.  Swift was a particularly infamous bust given that the Seattle Sonics were to draft Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in 2007 and 2008 and James Harden in 2009, when they were the OKC Thunder.  Swift, still only 27, is out of basketball and broke.  He lasted four NBA seasons and left with 4.3 PPG, 3.9 RPG averages.  Further down the 2004 draft, the Sonics passed on guys like Al Jefferson and the two Smith’s.

How many of these players could have benefited from a year or two in college?  Tyson Chandler was the first of many young big men who spent years trying to find his niche in the league, before finally “getting” it during his time in New Orleans.  The key point is that the NBA is only a good training ground for a very small number of players.  Most of these players played in the NBA when there was no minor league option for them.

Then you have the “other” players, who did a variety of things that didn’t quite fit in either of the above categories:

Shawn Kemp, Moses Malone, Stephen Jackson, Brandon Jennings, Latavious Williams, Jeremy Tyler.

Tyler, centre, looking pretty happy with life in Israel

Jennings and Tyler both decided to play pro ball in Europe straight out of high school.  Jennings actually had a not-too-bad year with Lottomatica Roma in the Italian league before being drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks, but his averages of 5.5 points, 1.6 boards, 2.2 assists and 17 minutes per game were not exactly the sort of numbers he could have compiled in college.  He did, of course, earn money, both from his club and his deal with Under Armour (he was one of the first UA signees).  Tyler, however, struggled overseas after withdrawing his commitment to Louisville.  He played for Maccabi Haifa for a few months, then moving to Tokyo for his second season abroad.  Tyler’s problem was that he dropped out of high school before his senior season, so he had to play two years overseas before he was NBA eligible.

Playing overseas might sound like fun, but former professional players-turned-authors like Paul Shirley and Flinder Boyd have told us that it is a struggle, even for relatively mature players.  Why Tyler thought he could prosper in Israel is baffling: it’s one of the toughest leagues in the world and culturally very different from his hometown of San Diego.  He managed to sneak into the second round of the 2009 draft and the Bobcats selected him, only to trade him to Golden State for cash considerations.  He started a few games towards the end of the season before ending up in the D-League during his second season with the Warriors.  He was then traded to the Atlanta Hawks and waived, before signing with the Knicks, only to be waived again in late October 2013.

The “one and done” concept is also tied to money.  Players believe they are good enough to be paid to play a sport and want to earn as quickly as possible.  In an “industry” where career-ending injuries can happen at any time, this is understandable.  The fact that the “industry” makes them go through a process of high school and college, where players cannot legally be paid (I mean “legally” in the NCAA’s view) and other regulations as to their conduct are surprisingly strict, whilst being “creatively adhered to” throughout the nation – especially at big programmes.

Comparatively, basketball players seem to be more demanding than athletes in the other major sports.  College football players cannot enter the NFL draft until they are three years out of high school and there are no “play overseas” options for them.  This is of course an entirely sensible approach to perhaps the most brutal game in the world: players need to develop physically to even survive at the top level.  Some reports online (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/31/sports/football/31hit.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0) suggest that the average NFL player goes through similar trauma to the average car crash in any given game.

In baseball and hockey, minor league options are available to all leading players straight out of high school.  Eighteen year old kids can go and earn money – not very much, admittedly (AAA is $2150 a month, AA $1500 a month, A $850-$1050 a month) – to play in what are very well run leagues.  Players drafted to the NHL and MLB out of college also play in the minor leagues and the leagues are also used for even star players, who play as part of their rehabilitation from injury.

The NBA D-League is far from an effective minor league system.  It is often used to help younger players develop their game – the Rio Grade Valley Vipers are very effectively used by the Houston Rockets, either to help bring on Donatas Motenjunas and Terrence Jones, or to punish Royce White – but there are some fairly decent NBDL alums:

Rafer Alston, Louis Amundson, Chris Andersen, Matt Barnes, Jamario Moon, Dahntay Jones, Jose Barea, Brandon Bass, Aaron Brooks, Jordan Farmar, Marcin Gortat, Jeremy Lin, Danny Green.

The list, however, is remarkable for its brevity.  There are seventeen teams currently in the NBA D-League and there have been a further sixteen now defunct teams, which either moved or were shut down – both in the case of the Charleston Lowgators, who became the Florida Flame before being folded by their owners.  So there have been fewer D-League success story players than franchises.  Most AAA baseball teams could boast of thirteen success stories over a four year period, never mind an entire league over its twelve year history.

One of the issues with seeking comparison with the other major professional sports leagues in the US is that basketball is set up quite differently from football, hockey and baseball.  It does not have hard and fast rules about player development, hence the implementation of the new rule in 2006 to limit the number of high school players coming into the league and bottoming out too quickly.

Hockey and baseball both have highly effective minor league systems and accept players into their drafts out of both high school and college.  Football and basketball both use college as their minor league system.  An elite baseball talent like Stephen Strasburg will play at least a year in the minor league system before being tested at the Major League level.  Strasburg played three years of college before entering the MLB draft.

I think the most reasonable solution to this problem begins with the NCAA.  NCAA rules prevent players from returning to college once they have hired an agent, a step that most players take when entering the draft.  Most players are, of course, relatively simple-minded: they want to play basketball for a living.  A lot of players come from relatively impoverished backgrounds and so are very easily tempted by the promise of large sums of money.

Paying college athletes is not going to solve the problem.  The vast majority of colleges do not make that much money from their athletics programmes.  To allow colleges like Alabama (total revenue for 2008 $123M), Texas ($120M) or Ohio State ($115M) to pay their star athletes (source: http://espn.go.com/ncaa/revenue) might not seem like much of a stretch, but you are effectively professionalising a handful of colleges – on the whole, those with really good football programmes – which is a dangerous precedent.  If college athletics is to become professionalised, totally contrary to the concept of school pride and the honour of playing for your school, then the less revenue-friendly sports will come under threat.  What will happen to, say, tennis, golf, or women’s basketball (largely unpopular outside of Connecticut and Tennessee, the two more successful programmes), or any number of women’s sports?  Title IX dictates that parity between male and female sports must exist.

Every team has to have a certain number of scholarship athletes.  These, while partially sunk costs, typically run to about $250k.  Teams have to travel to play their conference games, which, in most conferences, necessitates plane travel for all players, coaches and assistants.  Each major college also has a huge infrastructure behind its athletics programme which includes several administrators and advisers, not to mention the compliance people that are required by the NCAA.

Boise State Team Plane

So, if paying players won’t work, what about allowing image rights to be passed to players?  It’s an open secret that the replica college jerseys you can buy online and in campus bookstores are those of star players.  They might not have the players name on them (although retro jerseys frequently will – when I worked at U Washington, you could buy “Roy 3” jerseys for graduate Brandon Roy, but the Isaiah Thomas jerseys simply had the number 2 on them) but it would be a huge coincidence for those people walking around Chapel Hill wearing number 50 jerseys to have just happened to have chosen the number worn by former star Tyler Hansbrough.

Why not allow college athletes to earn money from athletics companies for advertisements?  These would, typically, be in relatively small markets, depending on the number of potential endorsers in the nation and their respective locations.  College athletes are allowed to earn money by working regular jobs – why not let them host coaching sessions and integrate them with local kids?

There are many possible solutions to the issue of college athletes deserving to be paid and it seems to me that if these can be resolved, the problem of the “one and done” culture can in turn be resolved.  The cynicism that has entered the NBA drafting process has meant that “good” has been replaced by “good enough” when it comes to college players.  Some players will be good enough to leave college after a year, but the vast majority who leave do so with much of their game still relatively underdeveloped.  Those who do not go on to successful athletic careers do not earn enough money to come back to college and, once they have turned professional, they cannot return on a scholarship.  This totally negates the seemingly sound logic of tying athletic development to the parachute concept of obtaining a college degree.

The question is who is going to force things to change?  Colleges?  Unlikely.  Most major college football programmes make significant money for their school, but the number of college basketball programmes that bring in serious money is considerably lower.  Part of the reason for that is that fans now struggle to identify with college basketball teams because they only get to see a raw high school player for a few months before they go on to become the latest under-developed NBA “phenom”.  Even the Duke programme, which graduates more of its star players than most other major basketball programmes, has started to invest in “one and done” players like Irving and now Jabari Parker, likely to be the second or third pick in the 2014 draft.

Change will have to come from the NBA, either in the form of developing the D-League or by stipulating that players must remain in college for longer.  The NBA is a business and a ruthless one.  Just look at the transactions page on NBA.com.  Players are signed and cast aside often seemingly at random.  Younger players can find themselves on the NBA scrapheap before they even hit 20 years of age.  European basketball is an option for every player who is drafted, but actually living in a foreign country is not particularly easy, especially for young men who have rarely, if ever, been such extreme distances away from their friends and family.

Having the best players as well trained as possible before entering the ranks of the professional leagues is surely in the best interests of all parties – teams, fans and the players themselves.  Something has to change.


About

Andrew was something of a latecomer to the game of basketball, having given up rugby after leaving high school. Joining Edinburgh’s fabled Pentland Tigers, he quickly moved on to the East Lothian Peregrines in the Scottish national league before moving to Belfast where he played with Queens and then with Belfast Star. After a year in the superleague, he moved back to Scotland and played with the Scottish Rocks in the BBL. He “retired” (the McDermott rule for using the word “retire” instead of “stopped playing” does require you to have been paid to play, so technically he retired) and moved to Seattle where he began life as an academic, which currently sees him working at University College Dublin. He is a legitimate non-frontrunning Miami Heat fan, having taken up following the team in 2001.

Leave Comment