SALT LAKE CITY — Is college basketball as we know it doomed?
The game has been downtrending for years with the exodus of top players; it will only get worse.
Consider the challenges ahead.
• NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said last year that the NBA’s so-called one-and-done rule will be done by the 2022 NBA draft. He’s been talking about ditching the league’s age limit for years. The rule mandates that players must be at least 19 years old during the draft calendar year, and at least one season removed from high school graduation, which is why dozens of players play one year of college ball and then drop out — hence, the term “one and done.” The current rule already has drastically undercut the quality of the college game.
• The NBA is expanding its development league. The league began with eight teams in 2001; this year there are a record 28 teams. It also has been increasing player salaries. The league, which welcomes 18-year-olds, is becoming a more enticing option for elite high school players than the college game, which forbids pay for play and is overseen by the hypocritical, iron-fisted NCAA. Why go to school for a year and juggle the hassles of going to class with basketball while earning no money?
• Foreign leagues are becoming more stable and offering an increasingly high level of play, especially in Europe. Those leagues are also raising player salaries, adding yet another option for top players coming out of high school.
• Some shoe companies and sports agencies are supporting players who choose simply to sit out a year of basketball and train full time until they are eligible for the draft. That’s the ultimate slap in the face for the college game.
Players have been choosing these alternative routes to the NBA for years and the latter is gaining momentum.
Brandon Jennings, rated by some as the top player in 2008, reneged on his commitment to Arizona and played in Europe, signing a $1.65 million guaranteed contract with the team and another $2 million contract with a sports apparel company. He was the 10th pick in the 2010 draft.
After committing to Louisville, Jeremy Tyler not only opted not to play for the school but skipped his senior year of high school and played professionally in the Israeli Super League and eventually moved to a pro team in Japan. The following year he was drafted by the Charlotte Bobcats in the second round.
Last summer Terry Armstrong also bypassed college to play professionally in Australia for a year in preparation for the 2020 draft.
Mitchell Robinson withdrew from a commitment to Western Kentucky and a year later he was drafted in the second round of the 2018 draft by the New York Knicks.
Anfernee Simons skipped college and played briefly for IMG Academy before turning 19 and making himself eligible for the draft. He was the 24th pick in 2018.
R.J. Hampton, one of the best players in the 2019 class, opted to play professionally in New Zealand rather than play the college game.
LeAngelo Ball, Billy Preston and Brian Bowen enrolled in college but left school before suiting up for a game and played overseas instead. LaMelo Ball skipped his junior season and part of his senior year of high school to play in Europe and then played for a private school, skipped college and played for Euro and G-League teams. He is still only 18.
Maybe no player has worked the system better than Darius Bazley, one of the top prep players of the 2018 class. After “committing” first to Ohio State and then Syracuse, Bazley changed his mind and announced he would play in the G League. That didn’t happen either. According to The New York Times, after signing with agent Rich Paul, “Paul … arranged for Bazley to spend the heart of the college basketball season — January, February and March — as an intern at New Balance. The internship … is folded into a handsome shoe contract Bazley, 18, has landed with New Balance on the lure of his pro potential.
According to Paul, Bazley’s multi-year deal will pay him $1 million “no matter what happens” with his NBA career — and can pay up to $14 million if he reaches all performance incentives.” The Utah Jazz made Bazley the 23rd pick of the 2019 draft and immediately traded him to Oklahoma City.
Marjon Beauchamp announced last summer that he will skip college and instead undertake a year-long training program to prepare for the 2020 draft. He said he thought a year of training on his own would prepare him better for the NBA than college. Consider that another slap in the face for the college game.
Not surprisingly, many aspiring high school players are overshooting their mark. Some 233 players declared for the 2019 draft, including 175 college underclassmen. Only 60 players can be drafted. The others passed up a free college education.
It’s easy to see why the quality of the college game is suffering and why there are few great teams (there are none this season). But the quality of NBA play will also suffer, if it hasn’t already. The NBA is biting the hand that feeds it with the creation of a development league and lowering the minimum age requirement to 19 and, soon, 18.
While the NFL has a sweetheart arrangement with college football — a free farm system — and treats it accordingly, the NBA is breaking out on its own and pilfering college basketball.
The NCAA brought part of this on itself with its arcane rules regarding agents and money and control over so many aspects of their career pursuits. Let’s face it: Anything that causes grief for the NCAA is not necessarily a bad thing.
The NBA also brought this onto the college game, as well, by caving to political pressure to allow teenagers into the league. You can decide if that’s a good decision or bad — whether it’s right to prevent teens from pursuing a living or whether it’s right to require experience and education just as most other vocations require from aspiring college graduates.
How do you balance their right to earn a living with the responsibility of determining if they are physically and emotionally ready to handle 82-game NBA seasons and all that comes with it. Luka Doncic, already the best player in the NBA at the age of 20, has been playing professionally since he was 13 in his native Slovenia, skipping any school-affiliated play. He is thriving, but he is probably the exception. There are plenty of sad stories out there of young pro players who foundered.
If the NBA age rule was originally designed to keep students in school, however briefly, it is failing. Meanwhile, it certainly has impacted the college game on the court and off (think of the lost revenue that superstars bring to a school and to the NCAA).
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps the college game will return to a more team-oriented style of play, without relying on stars. Perhaps we will see more and more teams like the one at BYU, which is thriving on old-fashioned unselfish play, without future NBA stars.
The next few years promise to continue the alteration of college basketball in a big way.