The Irrelevance of College Basketball in Developing NBA Talent

With college basketball’s conference championship tournaments in full swing and Selection Sunday approaching, an inevitable comment will be made at some point during March Madness. This comment, which will likely come from a studio commentator or broadcaster (last year it was Charles Barkley, who I otherwise enjoy listening to), will advocate for more basketball players to stay in college to work on their game. Unfortunately, many people hearing the comment will agree with whichever television personality utters it. The reason that this is unfortunate is because there is virtually no evidence that staying in college for the purpose of improving as a basketball player is a more effective option than trying to improve in the NBA or elsewhere. Those who believe college has a monopoly on player improvement have been badly misled or are lying to themselves.

First, let’s discuss a little background on this issue. In 1995, Kevin Garnett became the first high school player to enter the NBA Draft in 20 years. From then until 2005, 39 different players were drafted by the league out of high school. Negotiations began in 2005 between the league and the NBA players’ union on the proposal of a new age limit. The league wanted an age limit of 20, while the players’ union did not want the age limit to be changed at all. In July of that year, the two sides compromised to require draft entrants to be 19 and spend at least one year out of high school before draft eligibility. However, players are not required to spend that year in college.

The introduction of this new age limit has often caused top level talent in college to only spend one year there before leaving the school for the NBA. This phenomenon is often called being a “one and done” player. The frequency of these “one and done” players has become unpopular and controversial to the point that some, including new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, have supported the league once again attempting to raise the minimum age requirement to 20. But what is the motivation for an elite player choosing to leave college after just one season? Well, the obvious answer would of course, be money. But the better question would be: what is the motivation in wanting those elite players to play in college longer?

One of the claims made by the proponents of requiring a lengthened stint in college is that playing at the collegiate level better enables a player to improve his skills. To believe this, one would have to conclude that improving as a player is somehow exclusive to those who play college basketball. Anyone who even remotely follows NBA Basketball should know that this isn’t true. After all, were high school draftees like the aforementioned Garnett and Kobe Bryant All Stars in their first season? No, they were not. In addition, the NBA’s Most Improved Player award has gone to a player drafted out of high school three times (Tracy McGrady in 2001, Jermaine O’Neal in 2002 and Monta Ellis in 2007) and a player only playing one year of college ball once after the new age limit was imposed (Kevin Love in 2011). Clearly NCAA Basketball does not have a monopoly on player development.

College basketball’s advocates somehow ignore how often the best NBA players are those who spent the least amount of time possible playing elsewhere before entering the professional level. From 1995-2005, players entering the draft out of high school accounted for three MVP award winners (Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Lebron James) and seven more who made at least one All Star Game (Jermaine O’Neal, Tracy McGrady, Rashard Lewis, Tyson Chandler, Amar’e Stoudemire, Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum). Since the age limit change, the best players are often now the ones who just play one year in college before entering the draft. From the 2006 draft to the present, players waiting the minimum amount of time before turning pro have accounted for two MVP winners (Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant) and five more who have made at least one All Star Game (Kevin Love, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis). Certainly a lack of exposure to the college game did not hold any of these athletes back from becoming an elite player.

Recent NBA history is littered with examples of players achieving success despite limited or no college and other players who succeeded during a lengthy stint in college having underwhelming professional careers. Perhaps the best example of this was during the 2004 Draft where the two best big men were Dwight Howard and Emeka Okafor. The size of the two players and the position they played were very similar (Howard is listed as an inch taller and 20 pounds heavier. Both were built as if someone had engineered them in a lab somewhere). However, the contrast between the collegiate careers of the two men could not have been more different. Howard, of course, had no collegiate career. He came into the NBA directly out of a private high school in Atlanta and was considered to be a “raw” talent. Meanwhile, Okafor had spent three years at the University of Connecticut which culminated with a National Championship victory and the award for the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

The Orlando Magic’s decision to draft Howard over Okafor with the number one draft pick was met with harsh criticism. Howard was almost an unknown whereas Okafor had succeeded on the biggest collegiate stage possible. During each player’s rookie season (2004-2005), it looked like the critics may have had a point. Howard did average a respectable 12 points and 10 rebounds per game. But Okafor averaged 15.1 points and 10.9 rebounds while picking up Rookie of the Year honors. Since this initial season though, a different story has emerged. Okafor never went on to average as many points as he did during his rookie campaign (mostly due to injury). He never made an All Star Team or any of the All NBA Teams. Conversely, Howard turned himself into one of the best big men of his generation. He made five All NBA first teams, won three Defensive Player of the Year awards and took his team to the 2009 NBA Finals. So much for Okafor’s college development making any difference at all when it came to competing at the NBA level.

As I mentioned earlier, the age limit that the league adopted in 2005 does not actually require a draftee to play college basketball. As a result, playing somewhere other than college remains and option. But how beneficial would playing somewhere else (like overseas) be to an aspiring future NBA player coming out of high school? Fortunately there is a recent example we can use to assess the possible benefits of this option. Rather than playing college basketball as an 18 year old, Brandon Jennings (one of the top high school prospects in the country coming out of high school in 2008) decided instead to go to Italy and play in the Euroleague. He then decided to enter the NBA draft a year later in 2009, when he was first eligible. Although Jennings isn’t a superstar, he was one of the best guards in his draft class and made the All-Rookie First Team in 2010. He has averaged a solid 16.6 points and 6.2 assists per game for his career and is still only 25. Perhaps skipping college is not such a bad move after all.

Despite all of the previously mentioned evidence that indicates the insignificance of college level player development, many still will not let go of their desire for an increase of the NBA age limit. So why is this the case? One of the reasons advocates give for an increased age limit centers on education. They make the claim that their desire to have college basketball players get an education is the source of their push for an age limit increase. Wanting someone to become better educated can certainly be a virtuous cause. But when it is claimed as motivation for increasing the NBA draft’s age limit, ulterior motives are almost always in play. If it really were the case that the supporters of a 20 year age limit cared so much about elite athletes getting an education, they would apply the same logic to elite athletes in other sports who attempt to turn professional rather than going to or staying in college.

A great example of a sport that shows this inconsistent philosophy is baseball. Often times the top level of high school baseball players choose to enter the Major League Baseball draft rather than attend college. In fact, in last year’s MLB draft, four out of the top six players taken were out of high school rather than college. But do you ever hear anyone lamenting over how horrible it is that great young baseball players are choosing against going to college and are entering the draft instead? If the number one baseball prospect coming out of high school this year (I looked it up, his name is Brendan Rodgers) chooses to enter the draft instead of going to college (and I’m sure he could go play wherever he wanted being the number one prospect in the nation), do you hear any complaining from the pro-college crusaders? But why not? Both a player entering the MLB draft out of high school and a player entering the NBA draft, either out of high school (when that was possible), or after just one year of college, are choosing the prospect of a professional sports career over being a student athlete. So why all of the crying into the night about basketball players taking this path, while baseball players taking the same path produce the sound of crickets?

The answer to the aforementioned question can be found in the love that people have for the game of college basketball. I’ve met many basketball fans throughout my life who enjoy college basketball more than NBA basketball. But I don’t think I’ve ever met a baseball fan who enjoyed college baseball more than Major League Baseball. The desire that people have in raising the NBA’s minimum age limit is really about keeping better players in college in order to improve the quality of play that the college game experiences. Since hardly anyone watches or cares about college baseball, elite players playing elsewhere and not improving the collegiate quality of play is of no one’s concern.

So I would encourage the proponents of raising the NBA’s age limit to be honest above all else. Stop telling us that a basketball player who develops his game in college is better off than one who does his developing in the NBA. It clearly isn’t true. Stop telling us that you are so concerned with young elite athletes becoming educated in college. If that were the case, then you would care about elite athletes in every sport getting a college education, not just basketball. In order to truthfully advocate for an NBA age limit increase, do so by telling us this:

“I love college basketball so much that I want to force players who are talented enough to become professionals, to remain at the collegiate level so that the college game becomes better than it would otherwise be.”

Somehow that doesn’t have as much of a ring to it as a developmental or pro-educational argument.