Vaught’s note: Steve Vance is a long time UK basketball fan who occasionally provides commentary on UK basketball. Today he shares his thoughts on the one-and-done — and assumes that Julius Randle will declare for the NBA in a few hours at his press conference — and even has a humorous reference to Hayden “Sidd” Finch. Enjoy.
By STEVE VANCE
Coach John Calipari has said it numerous times since becoming head men’s basketball coach at the University of Kentucky, “It’s not my rule. It’s the NBA’s rule. If it was up to me, I’d have a player stay two years.” Of course, Coach Cal is talking about the National Basketball Association’s initial player eligibility rule, more commonly known to NCAA college basketball fans and sports reporters alike as the “one and done” rule. That being said, no college basketball coach has more successfully utilized the NBA’s eligibility rule to recruit and develop a top performing college basketball team than John Calipari himself has done at the University of Kentucky. Three Final Fours, a National Title, and a runner-up during his brief five year leadership of the Wildcats, all speak to the talent level Calipari has been able to bring to Lexington by embracing the minimum of one year of college eligibility required by the NBA.
In his tenure at UK, a total of 12 John Calipari recruited athletes have shined as UK freshmen and, by virtue of the one year eligibility rule, then taken their tremendous basketball talents directly to the NBA the following year. DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Daniel Orton, Brandon Knight, Marcus Teague, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Archie Goodwin, Nerlens Noel, and most recently, James Young and Julius Randle have all succeeded at UK then proceeded to the professional ranks after one season at the University of Kentucky. Imagining an NBA rule change that would require a player of comparable talents to remain at UK for a second year of play makes the Big Blue Nation almost giddy with excitement and inspires dreams of NCAA Championships to come.
And yet, for all the talk about the NBA taking action to change its player eligibility ruling to either require two years of college or be at least 20 years of age (effectively eliminating the so called “one and done” rule), The reality is that the NCAA has always had the power to negate the NBA eligibility ruling, revolutionize college basketball, and bring more parity to the college landscape as a whole; they’ve just been too contrary to do it.
It all has to do with how the NCAA defines eligibility as it relates to the NBA draft.
The NCAA Division 1 Manual, the guide for intercollegiate athletics states in Section 12.1.12 “An individual loses amateur status and thus shall not be eligible for intercollegiate competition in a particular sport if the individual: (f ) After initial full-time collegiate enrollment, enters into a professional draft .” Very simply put, if a player declares for the NBA draft – they’re done – kaput – finished – no more college eligibility. Their college playing days are over – regardless of the drafts outcome, regardless if it proved a wise decision or not. In the NCAA’s mind, this restrictive rule serves to create a climate of fear that somehow will compel a college athlete to remain in school for a longer period of time, rather than risk a premature jump to the NBA.
The question is “why”?
Why is it necessary for a player to lose his remaining college eligibility to play additional years simply by allowing his name to be placed into the NBA draft? Why not allow every college player to place his name into the NBA draft as often as he wants to, and then simply decide after the draft whether he wants to remain in college or take the money and jump to the professional ranks? If the NBA draft is simply viewed as a potential job offer, why not allow a college player to participate in the draft, determine the quality of the job offer, and then either accept it or reject it and then return to college?
The reason “why not” has a lot to do with the control of power and wealth. The NCAA leadership views itself as the righteous defender of amateur athleticism while wielding an iron-fisted monopoly of self-serving rules that would make any tyrant proud. If Coach Cal advocates a “players first” approach, the NCAA advocates a “players last” approach in its rule making. Yet, a simple change to eligibility as it relates to the draft could change it all – for the better of the players, the Universities, the fans, and the NCAA.
Think about the case of fictional NCAA player Hayden Finch. The lanky 7’2” center, starts for the Northwest Southeastern State University Tadpoles and has set a new NCAA Division 1 shot blocking record. However, he struggles offensively, and weighs only 175 pounds. Under the proposed NCAA rule change, Finch could place his name into the NBA draft and wait and see the draft results before deciding to forego his college eligibility and become a professional. On draft night, Finch might go as a lottery pick, for which he thanks his missionary parents, a Tibetan monk, and his college coach, while becoming a guaranteed contract multi-millionaire. On the other hand, Finch is picked late in the second round by the Sioux City Scooters, who follow-up with a non-guaranteed contract of $120,000, and a big qualifier of “IF Finch makes the team”. In this latter scenario, Hayden could simply say “no thanks” to the NBA offer and return to school to work on his game and help the Tadpoles continue their journey towards an NCAA title run. Finch is happy, the University is happy, the fans are happy, and even the NCAA might crack a smile with the prospect of a talented player returning to college without their threat of lost eligibility as coercion.
To be certain, there would need to be a few companion NCAA rule changes to make the new draft eligibility rule work effectively. First, following the draft, a player would need to make his intentions known to return for additional college eligibility within a 30 day or so period of the draft’s conclusion – roughly by August 1st of each year. Second, NCAA National Letters of Intent would have a non-binding status until that same exact post draft decision date; giving recruited players the option to look at other schools should they suddenly find their position crowded by a returning draftee. Incidentally, it’s this second point that would create more parity in the college game. Let’s revisit our fictional player to see how.
With Hayden Finch returning for another year of college play, the NWSE State Tadpoles suddenly find that they have one too few scholarships. Their planned replacement recruit for Sid, foreign youth athletic club player, Tahl Projecht, cannot sign a binding intent letter with NWSE State because the school does not have an available scholarship due to Finch’s decision to return to school based on his low draft position and poor man’s employment offer. As a result, Tahl Projecht signs with another NCAA school, in effect spreading the incoming talent wealth around the college game and creating more parity as more kids sticking around at a top school, means more available players for other schools. It slows the play and leave process down, resulting in more talented players remaining in college over all.
For top high school players, having to wait to finalize a commitment to a school until after the NBA draft would create some tension but probably no more so than when a current player who is expected to go to the draft now, such as Willie Cauley-Stein, elects to stay in school. Thus, top High School prospects might choose to simply make verbal commitments pending the draft results and which college players are choosing to return to school. While it could result in a few last minute scrambles, all of the top players have been recruited by multiple schools and know their options well. It really shouldn’t be an issue, and the option of being able to explore the draft at any time is a great benefit to an incoming player. Plus, it would spread the wealth of talent over more college programs, rather than the handful of elites, something all the NCAA member schools would like to see happen.
The NBA would also likely respond to this action by the NCAA. While the top college talents, regardless of class, would expect to retain a high first round draft position, an NBA team would not want to risk a low first round draft pick on a player who might opt to return to college. They would likely pass over the marginal prospect or not yet fully NBA ready talent for the more certain signing of a proven upperclassman. This also lowers the financial risk of the NBA teams, reducing their investment in marginal players who never develop NBA skills. It would also likely improve the quality of the NBA game as more immediately ready skilled players join the league.
Even if the NBA does revise their eligibility rules to require two years of college eligibility, the NCAA would still benefit by eliminating the “draft ineligibility rule” and giving the players the freedom to return to school after the draft. Quite frankly, with all the negative publicity the NCAA has received over the perceived financial inequities between the players and the institution, a player-first initiative like this proposed rule change would go a long way in helping their case in the court of public opinion.
For the University of Kentucky, this proposed rule change would likely slow down the progression of new players coming in, as more current players return for another year of improvement in the hope of improving their NBA stock, however, this would allow the current Wildcat team to develop more effectively with some talented upper classmen to support the uber-talented freshmen – much like Darius Miller, Terrence Jones, and Doron Lamb did with the 2012 Championship team. That’s a thought every UK fan salivates about, even while they agonize over the thought that Coach Cal might not have enough scholarships to sign every top high school recruit should this proposed change be adopted by the NCAA.
If the NCAA would eliminate the archaic penalty of ineligibility as a result of entering the draft, far more good college players, but not yet NBA ready players, would remain in college to hone their skills, get their degree, and to the NCAA’s benefit – raise the overall quality of college play as less underclassmen would be likely to feel pressured by an “all or nothing” NBA draft decision as they currently face. In all, it’s time for the NCAA to stop treating players with fear and intimidation and partner with these young athletes to help them succeed and then proceed with a career well suited to their skills; treating them with the equality that every other scholarship student is treated.