We all knew it was going to happen. Sooner or later, the NBA would abolish the rule they put in place back in 2006 that prohibited players to jump from high school to the professional ranks. On paper, it stated that any player that wanted to make it to the League must be at least 19 years old at the moment of entering the draft, and also one year removed from his high school days. While this didn’t force players to go the college route, that has often been the case, thus creating the “one-and-done” movement that has become stronger each passing year.
A lot of universities, mostly those with the greatest resources and success levels, have applied this new way of recruiting and courting players from high school. Coaches as heralded as John Calipari have even made it known that they get players and coach and play them in a way that is meant to maximize their chances to reach the NBA and make a life out of playing professionally.
Now, the NBA is willing to remove the restriction of players getting straight to the pros in time for the start of the 2022-23 season. This has raised concerns in some NCAA circles as the D-I schools will have less talent to pick from and thus the level of the game will suffer as a consequence. That, if you think about it, shouldn’t be the case.
At first sight, on a glimpse, just looking at the recruit rankings being made season after season here and there, the first thought you may have is that’s already introduced. Take this season as a perfect case study. Duke was able to get Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Cam Reddish, all of them Top 5 recruits no matter the scouting service you check. Given what the Blue Devils have done during the season and the impact players such as Zion can have on any team’s success or failure, it is normal to think the college level of play would suffer if those players never made it to the NCAA and instead skipped it. This is not a lie. The top prospects are at the top of the ranks for a reason. They may not adapt to the next level and suffer jumping from high school to college but it is not the average case.
What is not true, though, is the fact that all of those top-ranked prospects won’t go to the NCAA anymore. That thought is plainly stupid. To reach that conclusion we only have to look at what happened prior to the prep-to-pros ban installed in 2006. From the 2000 to the 2005 NBA drafts, a grand total of 30 players were picked out of high school. That means only five players per year on average. There were eight in 2004 and nine in 2005, and those were the most ever picked in a single draft.
Looking at the high school class of 2005, we can build a case for the top-tier prospects bolting for the NBA at the first chance instead of honing their skills in the NCAA, thus lowering the level of the college game. Six of the top ten prospects in the nation were drafted that year. The other two were ranked among the top 20 kids of their class. Fast-forward to the current high school class playing as freshmen in college this year.
If we follow a similar approach to what recruits did back in 2005, we may have seen RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, Nassir Little, Bol Bol, Zion Williamson, and Romeo Langford declaring for the NBA draft (those are the six-best recruits per 247 Sports Composite). Then, we will have a couple more players from the Top 20, let’s say Darius Garland and Naz Reid, and a couple more from the Top 50, maybe Coby White and Kevin Porter Jr.
Even if removing those players from the colleges they opted to attend, to which extent does the NCAA suffer in terms of its basketball quality? It can be argued Duke would have been much worse, yes. The rest of the field, though? Bol Bol has been down all season. Romeo Langford flopped more than a little. Nassir Little never panned out for North Carolina and Coby White was much more important for the Tar Heels. Garland also was injured and we didn’t get to experience him, while Naz Reid and Kevin Porter Jr. definitely helped their teams.
That means half the ten players highlighted didn’t have much impact in the NCAA game, and they will more than probably leave after just one season for the NBA, so the NCAA is going to lose them as soon as they can go any way. They only squeezed their game for a season, if at all. There is no denial in saying Zion, for example, made the NCAA more attractive to the casual viewer and boosted the ratings. It can also be said that there have been many more players that would have never jumped to the NBA that also helped college revenues (enter Ja Morant).
And keep in mind that all of this comes with the benefit of knowing what has and has not happened in the past. Entering this season, Duke’s marquee recruit was undoubtedly Barrett, not Williamson. Now we all know Zion will be the No. 1 pick come June, but back in October no one would have been so sure about it, pegging RJ as the top prospect of this class. Had Zion opted to go prep-to-pros, he could have been a lottery pick, but most probably not see himself inside the top 10 selections.
That is another thing to consider, and something most people are not looking properly at. The fact that we have seen a lot of great one-and-done players during the past fifteen years doesn’t mean they were sure things once they got to the NCAA. Had most opted to declare for the draft if enabled to, maybe we are watching a completely different NBA nowadays. Maybe Shabazz Muhammad would have been picked much earlier, becoming a true boost for whoever picked him. Maybe Anthony Davis’ career would have been much slower to develop and turn him into what he has become had he not played for Kentucky or being picked later in the lottery, changing his whole arc. It is possible that something similar would have happened to other greats such as Karl-Anthony Towns, Bradley Beal or Aaron Gordon. What if Isaiah Austin had been drafted in 2012, then retired in 2014 given his health problems?
This is to say that NBA teams, while again given the chance to pick kids from high school, won’t take the risk of picking whoever jumps at the chance of making himself available. Only the really good hoopers at age-18 will skip college, and those can be counted with a single hand’s fingers each year. Also, not being forced to expend a year playing D-I ball, but rather opting to do it themselves on their own decision, recruits will look at things differently and use the “team-model” rather than the “superstar-model” now in place. Instead of going to Kentucky or Duke, banners of the one-and-done movement and continuous freshmen-enhancers year after year, some kids may opt to go to programs better known for their squad building over three- or four-year spans rather than schools that base their success on yearly fresh starts. Right now, top kids look at different colleges’ classes to see where they’d fit best and have better teammates knowing they’ll spend there one year together and then jump to the NBA. In the NCAA to come, decisions won’t be based just on a bunch of months, but instead two or three seasons of playing at that level.
The NCAA thus shouldn’t worry a lot about losing five high-profile players each year, at most. Of course, those losses would impact the whole business model, and won’t bring as many fans as the likes of Zion Williamson did this year or Andrew Wiggins or Ben Simmons did in years past. But those cases are the exception and in a Division I in which there are currently 351 schools competing, each putting five starters on the court each playing day, that means 20 (at most) out of 1755 starters would be missed. That accounts for a paltry 1.1 percent of all players. Even if you cut the field of teams to 68 (those that make it to the national tournament), it means 20 of 340, which is to say 5.9 percent of the starters.
For comparison sake, we can say that the NBA would look definitely different if you remove the six percent best players from the league. LeBron, Durant, Curry, Harden, Giannis out of the equation would make for a worse product, but there would still be enough quality to make the product one of the best in place. In the NCAA the impact wouldn’t even be as big as there is not that much difference between players. The careers of those in the D-I don’t develop for more than four years, and not every year you find 20 freshmen that really are on another level than that of the rest of the field, being true game-changers.
All in all, and at the end of the day, the removal of the prep-to-pros prohibition will be more about benefiting young athletes than hurting colleges. The NCAA shouldn’t be arguing and complaining about it. The Division I will remain as strong as it is and won’t notice the change. Fans will keep watching college basketball and March Madness, as was back in the day and has always been, will keep drawing as much attention as it has during the past fifteen years.
So to you, NCAA execs out there, and to you, NCAA fans reading, keep calm. What looks like a huge change is only a little tweak everybody won’t care about in no time and will adapt to in less.