The NBA has reasonable and logical arguments for the age limit they initiated beginning with the 2006 NBA Draft, creating the one-and-done rule.
None of those arguments or potential benefits to any parties applied much to the case of Ben Simmons, who played one season at LSU before declaring for the draft. Despite Simmons’ obvious pro-caliber abilities, LSU wasn’t one of the 68 teams good enough to qualify for the NCAA tournament. The program was average with him and slipped right back to being bad after him. No one got to see him play in March.
After he was drafted first overall, a foot injury in the preseason forced him to miss his entire rookie season for an NBA team that was fine with that because they have been purposely losing games for three seasons. Who in this entire situation benefited from this weird process?
This year’s expected number one pick, Markelle Fultz, followed a similar pattern: He spent a season on a Washington team unable to qualify for the NCAA tournament before bolting for the NBA. That’s not the case for Lonzo Ball, who hopes to bring a title to UCLA as a freshman. This is the difference between Fultz and Ball.
Well, sort of.
Fultz and Ball can represent two different ideologies. Those representations might be purely symbolic and totally fabricated. Their NBA success will have more to do with their physical attributes, basketball skills, mental toughness, and a lot of luck. Their fates aren’t predetermined, but they’re also not entirely indicative of how they spend their first (and only) five months of college. Yet still, Ball could do wonders for the NCAA over the next three weeks, while college basketball to Fultz seemed more like that core math course I had to get out of the way before I got my liberal arts degree.
Don’t kid yourself, though. Both stepped on campus with the exact same goal.
The mental pressures of everything that comes with the NBA could be too much for many 18-year olds. We’ve seen examples. But the suggestion that a warped and shortened version of the college experience would include preparations for those future burdens is strictly theoretical and arguably entirely unrealistic in most cases.
John Calipari is oft criticized for turning Kentucky into an NBA conveyor belt, but it’s hard to question the notion that he legitimately cares about the NBA careers of his players. By prioritizing that, he is an anomaly. Of course, this concern could be entirely self-serving; the success of his former players does wonders for his ability to recruit. But the point is that Calipari is preparing his players for professional basketball.
There are three parties in this equation: College basketball (and it’s coaches), the NBA, and the players. Not coincidentally, they all have money to make or lose under any system. As things stand, Calipari is arguably the only person transparently operating in a way that benefits all three parties, even if he is doing so by exploiting the rules to his specific advantage. Such is capitalism: We try things that benefit ourselves, and sometimes we stumble on one that benefits someone else too, and it becomes the path of least resistance.
The honest truth is that no matter what context we drop them into, these kids are commodities, able to make millions of dollars for themselves but worth even more to some association, whether it has a “B” or “CA” in the middle of its acronym.
In Jonathan Abrams’ excellent book, Boys Among Men, about the prep-to-pro generation, Abrams tells a story of Calipari advising DeMarcus Cousins after one dominant season at Kentucky that “if you want to take care of my family you’ll stay, if you want to take care of your family you’ll go [to the NBA].”
That was in 2010. As a 26-year-old in 2017, Cousins has earned $62 million, not including endorsements. Calipari is currently in the third year of a $52 million contract. They could both send each other Thank You notes.
Fultz’s short time in college basketball was essentially a quick confirmation that he is better than the other players in college basketball, like if the Screen Actors Guild had insisted that Robert DeNiro do a few commercials before he could be in a feature film.
There’s plenty to be said for the suggestion that if Fultz had been allowed to be drafted by an NBA team out of high school where he would, by rule, be forced to play for that team’s developmental team for one season while being paid less than a typical rookie, that he would be even better prepared for the NBA. He would join his NBA team at the same time, as likely a more polished player while already having made a wage for himself or his family. The Washington Husky student section might not have had as much fun this year, but the NCAA would have been just fine. The NCAA would lose out on a lot of NBA caliber players under that system, but in an association with over 300 teams, a handful of budding NBA players doesn’t necessarily improve the product, it simply complicates it. College rules are better suited for coaches to “junk up” a game and limit the impact of one transcendent player. No players from last year’s National Champion Villanova team went to the NBA this year. That’s not always the case, but college basketball could survive without one-and-done talents. By function, college basketball will never have a remotely comparable talent pool to the NBA and so its survival isn’t dependent of NBA caliber talent. And if it is, then maybe we should re-examine this whole student-athlete idea.
But maybe players don’t want to play in developmental leagues. Maybe no one would watch, temporarily taking away the players’ spotlight. Maybe playing in Frisco, Texas and Fort Wayne, Indiana for $20,000 isn’t as much fun as being on campus.
Ball got a year at UCLA, and hopefully he had a little bit of fun, because we sure had fun watching him heave full-court passes and nail step-back jumpers. As probably the flashiest player in the nation, Ball can inject some life into March Madness by returning perhaps the greatest college basketball program to a Final Four. A trip to the Final Four would likely pit him against numerous future NBA talents on Kentucky and North Carolina. Plus, he got a year as the Big Man on Campus and maybe learned a little something in some intro courses. He’ll make millions of dollars starting in a few months. How many of us wouldn’t mind if that were our college experience?
Ball’s reality is different than the pro-college narrative, though. His father LaVar, is basically the John Calipari of parents. Lonzo supposedly went to UCLA because they promised scholarships to his two younger brothers as part of the deal. The Ball family is in the business of basketball even if none of the three Ball boys have been paid to play yet. Draft stock and marketability are paramount to their decisions. If they reenergize college basketball, it’s just a product of their own self-interest, which I certainly don’t mean as a slight. It just makes all this very confusing.
Somehow we’re going on thirty-plus years without an answer for what we do with an 18-year-old who is outrageously good at basketball.