The decision of Thon Maker on Sunday night to petition to put his name in the NBA Draft as expected elicited a lot of reaction. Maker, a five-star prospect and potential NBA lottery pick, is 19 years old and depending on the interpretation of his school transcript, is one year removed from his original high school graduating class. Those two things would seem to meet the eligibility for inclusion in the NBA Draft.
It gets complex however when considering that the NBA has told fellow five-stars Jonathan Isaac and Wenyen Gabriel, both of which are fifth year high school students and 19 years of age, that they aren’t eligible for the draft.
This is why Maker, who was born in the Sudan and is now attending high school in Canada, is also trying to apply under the international student ruling, which is different than it is for American players.
How the NBA will rule here is unknown. Even if they rule that Maker isn’t eligible, odds are he will appeal that ruling, and who knows what will come down on appeal.
That however is secondary to the larger picture of understanding the one and done rule, and determining how colleges and the NBA can and should proceed.
Understanding the rule
The first and most important thing to understand is this is a rule that was written by the NBA in their collective bargaining agreement with the players association (NBPA). The NCAA has absolutely no say in this rule, and they were not consulted when the rule was written.
After a host of preps to pros from the mid 90’s through the early 2000’s, the owners decided that they no longer wanted their scouts in high school gyms. They then went to the NBPA in 2005 and decided they wanted to change the draft eligibility process.
With concessions to the NBPA in terms of the salary cap, the two sides agreed to the rule stating that Americans have to be 19 years old and one year removed from high school while internationals have to be 18 years of age and graduated high school.
The rule in no way says you have to go college, as players are eligible to be drafted out of the NBA Developmental League (D-League), China, Europe, or anything else of that nature. Attending college is something that is specifically omitted from the agreement for a variety of reasons, likely not the least of which would be a legal challenge.
Why was the rule put in place?
While the NBA never gave an official reason behind the rule, you can be sure this was a business decision for them. There are three main reasons why the NBA wanted this, and it all boils down to money.
First and foremost the NBA wants their incoming players to be known commodities who have built a brand. In no other sport are college fans less engrained to the professional game than basketball. Because of that one of the easiest, and best, ways to gain new fans is to have college basketball fans become NBA fans.
The theory is that if a player, such as Anthony Davis, builds his brand in college at a place like Kentucky, Duke, Arizona, UCLA, North Carolina, or any other college with a large fan base, those fans would be more likely to follow that player in the NBA.
That in turn leads to more eyeballs on TV sets, more butts in seats at games, and more jerseys purchased at stores. All of those of course leads to more money for the owners and the players.
The building of a brand is huge as well for another reason. The NBA is the place where there are more “normal” results than any other league. More often than in any other professional sport do the best teams in the NBA beat the worst teams. Helping the worst teams have “hope” in the form of a popular and well known college star coming in keeps fan bases engaged and looking forward to the future, with less of a backlash for a poor season.
The second big reason the NBA wanted this rule comes down to delaying big money contracts to players.
NBA rookie contracts are the best value that owners will ever get on player’s services. With this in mind, knowing that owners in reality have to overpay for non-superstars in second and third contracts, it makes sense to want those contracts going to players who are a year or two older, making it harder for them to cash in a third time.
Players over the age of 30 tend not to get the huge dollars that someone who is in their mid-to-late 20’s get, so if this means the owners save one huge contract on a player because he didn’t get to league as quickly as possible, they win in the short term and the long run.
The third and final main reason for this rule is the NBA wants a chance to get a true evaluation of a prospect in order to draft better.
Quite honestly it is easy for super talented players to be really good in high school. It is far more difficult to get away with simply talent in college if you don’t have the work ethic or desire to be great. A year in college goes a long way to showing the desire of a super talented player, and flaws can be exposed.
This is important because as the NBA gets to see a player’s flaws, they then can determine where to slot him in the draft with more accuracy. While sites such as Scout.com historically have done a tremendous job identifying talent, the reality is not every No. 1 prospect is correct, and not every kid who doesn’t achieve five-star status was correctly rated. Therefore the added year against top competition in a controlled environment is key for the NBA and determining who to give the top dollar rookie deals to.
Now the NBA will talk about having players be more adjusted to living away from home and paternalistic things such as that to justify the rule, and there is clearly some truth to that, but the financial implications of the rule are far more important to them, and that is why the owners have shown absolutely no willingness to go back to allowing high school players to enter the draft immediately.
The “Baseball Rule”
Because of the obvious conflicts that come with players leaving college after year and the mission of higher education, a popular, and sometimes extremely lazy, sentiment is for basketball to go to the so called “baseball rule”. Intelligent and well educated basketball people in the media, and sometimes even college coaches, claim they want this rule, and on the surface it sounds good. The elite of the elite can go directly to the NBA, but the rest have to attend college for three years.
In theory that is the best of all worlds for the NBA, for the prospects, and for the college coaches. However when you take a close look at the implications of the rule, it becomes very clear very quickly that the rule makes no sense for anybody.
The first and most obvious thing that gets in the way of the baseball rule as applied to basketball is the NBA quite simply just doesn’t want kids coming directly from high school to the NBA for the reasons spelled out above. While that enough makes it a non-starter, it goes much further than that.
From an NBA perspective this is everything they do not want. Obviously the NBA wants players to build a brand in college, and this would prevent it. However the other thing the NBA wants is players who have built their brand to make the NBA money and not the NCAA money.
If a player has a tremendous freshman season there isn’t much in the way of a further return from an NBA business perspective if that prospect stays in college another two years. The only thing it does is prevent the NBA from being able to capitalize on that player’s marketability and talent, so keeping top talents out of the league once they have a following is simply a bad business decision.
From a player’s perspective it creates a whole myriad of headaches. First and foremost it puts a lot of pressure on kids who aren’t the elite of the elite to make an extremely tough decision to enter the draft. While it would be a no brainer for Andrew Wiggins or Anthony Davis to turn pro right away, it isn’t that simple for a prospect such as Tyler Ennis, Tyus Jones, or D’Angelo Russell.
Those players would be deciding if they could enter the NBA, or their D-League affiliate, and not get lost in the shuffle versus potentially burning the opportunity to make money by staying in college, losing years of earnings, and also potentially being somewhere they have no interest in being.
The reality is in baseball, with the exception of an uber generational prospect such as a Bryce Harper or a Ken Griffey Jr, you will reach the majors at roughly the same rate whether you go to college or come directly out of high school. You simply don’t see many 19 year olds making it to MLB, even if they were top 10 draft picks coming out.
By contrast the reality is the elite high school prospects could likely make an NBA roster as a high school senior, let alone a year or two removed.
Because of this reality the salary structure would have to totally change, and that is something likely neither the NBPA nor the owners would want. In essence to make it so there isn’t a complete mass defection from high school to the NBA in an attempt to get first contract out of the way, the league would have to have a separate pay scale for kids coming out of college versus the ones coming out of high school.
It is nearly impossible to see that happening, and odds are neither side would be in favor of making that a reality.
Finally the college coaches wouldn’t be big fans of this either.
First of all the coaches, who sign 90 percent of their players in the fall, would be left swaying in the wind leading up to May to know if players are going to declare or honor their Letter of Intent.
For the top five players this wouldn’t be an issue, but the specter of having to wait three years would make players in the low five-star and high four-star range really think about their choice, and it could potentially leave college coaches without a key piece or two for the upcoming season that there was no way to plan for and with no recourse to add top prospects in the spring.
Also the reality is kids who stay “an extra year” in college tend not to be a ton of fun to deal with. Look no further than the NFL. Coming into this season there was no doubt that players such as Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott, Robert Nkemdiche, and Myles Jack were going to be first round draft picks.
Bosa and Nkemdiche ended up getting suspended at different points in time, Elliott was noticeably frustrated and gave an epic post-game press conference after a loss, and Jack simply left school after getting injured.
To a man coaches such as Urban Meyer, Hugh Freeze, and Jim Mora would probably tell you keeping those guys happy and focused wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, and not a whole lot of fun. Let alone asking Kevin Sumlin how much fun it was dealing with Johnny Manziel for an extra year after it was known what his future would look like in the draft.
It has extended to basketball as well. Marcus Smart made the surprising decision to come back following his freshman year, and quite simply as a sophomore it was a disaster. Smart wasn’t the same player he was a freshman, was visibly frustrated during games, and even had an altercation with a fan leading to a suspension.
While Smart and his coach, Travis Ford, said all the right things about his decision to come back and how good of a time he was having, the reality is everybody could see Smart wasn’t totally engaged, and it led to a long season for Oklahoma State, Smart, and Ford.
Keeping players happy who think they should be getting paid is not easy, and now college basketball would have more players like that than ever, and it would make for some long seasons, and even longer off seasons for college coaches.
Finally the other issue college coaches would run into would be professional options during the three years. A few years ago Trey Burke was a borderline top 100 prospect who had a tremendous freshman season. This year Malik Beasley and Marquese Chriss were borderline top 50 talents who broke out.
There is no way Burke, Beasley, or Chriss would have declared out of high school for the NBA. However there is very little doubt that high powered European clubs, knowing they would get two years of service before the player would be eligible for the NBA Draft, would offer solid six figure, and maybe even a seven figure deal to those guys.
European clubs are not inclined to do that for a high school kid who is unproven, relatively speaking, and only going to be there for one year, but for two years and after the player proved himself in college, it wouldn’t be crazy to think clubs would make a run at those players.
This means coaches would not only have to keep players who could be getting paid happy for two years, but they also would have to fend off European clubs all for a player they planned on having for three seasons.
What Happens Next?
A lot will be determined this spring and summer. Will players such as Thon Maker, Wenyen Gabriel, and Jonathan Isaac be allowed to enter the draft if they desire? Will the NBA even fight it legally in the courts, and then if they do, will they work to tweak their CBA to prevent it from happening in the future.
In the last CBA negotiations neither side really showed too much desire to address the “one and done” rule. Instead they chose to focus on basketball related income, salary cap, and other issues more directly tied to revenue for both sides.
Will that change in the next CBA, history shows us that isn’t the case, but if there is an upheaval of prospects trying to find a loophole in the rule anything is possible.null