Tonight’s draft is sure to turn some heads with surprise picks and absurdly expensive outfits donned by the future booms and busts of the National Basketball Association. But there are a few things constant with most NBA drafts, the most contested being the vast presence of teenagers looking to make their mark and/or get paid.
Former NBA Commissioner David Stern enacted the current “one-and-done,” rule in 2006 following an influx of high schoolers entering the NBA Draft. The collective bargaining agreement stated that players must turn 19 years old in the calendar year of the draft or be one year removed from his high school graduation. In the 12 years since the rule was created, the issue of forcing players to attend a university for one year (with exceptions for international players) has been challenged for a number of reasons. Current Commissioner Adam Silver has spoken of doing away with or altering the rule as soon as 2020.
It’s well past time for a change to be made. Not only is the NCAA making millions off players that they refuse to pay, but the NBA is forcing young men spend another year waiting to do what they’ve spent more than a decade preparing for.
The NBA’s history of restricting players in the draft goes back much further than 2006. Reggie Harding was the first to challenge the NBA’s control over when players could declare for the NBA Draft in the 1960s. After declaring for the draft in 1962 straight out of high school, the league enforced the rule that a player must be one year removed from high school. As a result, Harding played a year of minor league baseball before he was re-drafted by the Detroit Pistons.
By 1970, the NBA required a player to be four years removed from high school in order to participate in the draft. This rule was challenged by Spencer Haywood when he made the jump to the NBA from the American Basketball Association. The ABA didn’t have restrictions on when players could enter the league. Haywood signed with the Seattle SuperSonics in 1970 and the NBA threatened impose sanctions on the team as Haywood was just three years removed from high school. This led to an antitrust suit being filed by Haywood, garnering national attention and going all the way to United States Supreme Court. The case Haywood v National Basketball Association resulted in a 7-2 decision favoring Haywood. The decision allowed players to declare for the draft straight out of high school or before the conclusion of their college career as “hardship cases.”
Moses Malone became the first player to go directly from high school to a professional basketball league when he was drafted by the Utah Stars of the ABA in 1974. A year after that, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby were the first players to join the NBA straight out of high school. Dawkins was picked fifth and Willoughby 19th. These were the only two players to join the league straight out of high school until 1995. The rule change did see a number of players make the leap to the professional level after just a few years at college, such as one young man from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that went on to be a pretty decent player in Chicago.
Kevin Garnett sent shock waves across the country when he declared for the NBA Draft as a high school senior. While many felt an 18-year-old couldn’t handle the mental and physical challenges of the league, Garnett was selected fifth by Minnesota Timberwolves. He helped the T-Wolves to eight straight playoff appearances, made the all-star team 15 times, and become one of the most fearsome defenders in league history.
Garnett’s decision opened the floodgates for high schoolers to join the league whether they were ready or not. From 1996-2005, 38 players were drafted directly out of high school. While this did yield such players as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Dwight Howard, it also saw players like Kwame Brown, the first high schooler drafted number one overall out of high school, be considered a major bust.
This leads us to the current rule created by the CBA of 2006. The rule requiring players to wait a year after graduating high school to declare for the draft has led to top recruits joining top-tier college programs essentially as rented talent. Even if the players are ready for the big leagues, they have to attend classes, take exams, and bring in millions of dollars in revenue without ever getting (legally) paid.
The University of Kentucky and Duke University have been the front-runners in the “one-and-done” movement. Since 2006, Kentucky has had 21 players get drafted after just one year of college, while Duke has had 10 in the same span. In 10 of the 12 drafts since the rule was enacted, the number one overall pick has been a “one-and-done” player, with the two exceptions being Andrea Bargnani (drafted from the EuroLeague) and Blake Griffin (a sophomore).
In reference to the “one-and-done rule,” Silver had this to say at the 2017 NBA Finals: “My sense is it’s not working for anyone. It’s not working certainly from the college coaches and athletic directors I hear from. They’re not happy with the current system. And I know our teams aren’t happy either, in part because they don’t necessarily think that the players are coming into the league are getting the kind of training that they would expect to see among top draft picks in the league.”
Now is the time for a change because there are more alternatives to attending college for a few months. Players have already taken to playing overseas for a year before entering the draft, so why not have them playing for NBA farm teams so they can get used to schemes and get the necessary training to succeed in the organization? The NBA partnered with Twitch to broadcast more games, bringing in more revenue for the G-League teams. This provides an alternate to playing overseas while helping players get their foot in the door with organizations. The G-League has also grown to 26 teams, with another joining next season. Players could make a better living and not have to attend school for a year if they could make a decent living on a true minor league team.
Silver also mentioned the idea of raising the minimum age from 19 to 20, helping to better prepare players for the league. The argument that players have to go to wait a year infringes on the players’ right to choose. While many players will fall victim to the sweet talk of agents only to fall short in the league, that is a risk that still happens even with players attending college. They deserve the right to choose.
In 2015, National Basketball Association Players Association general counsel Gary Kohlman called the current rule “total complete hypocrisy,” stating that “if they were white and hockey players, they would be out there playing. If they were white and baseball players, they would be out there playing. Because most of them are actually African-American and are in a sport and precluded from doing it, they have to go into this absurd world of playing for one year.”
Much like Silver, I don’t know exactly what the perfect solution to this problem is. There are even more problems stemming from this issue, so it’s not just a “yes or no” type predicament. If Silver doesn’t elect to find a solution with the players’ union, it will definitely be one of the talking points when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2024.
Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith