NBA draft rule means Triangle fans see best of best, even for short time

Jahlil Okafor poses with Commissioner Adam Silver after being selected third overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the First Round of the 2015 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center on June 25, 2015.
Jahlil Okafor poses with Commissioner Adam Silver after being selected third overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the First Round of the 2015 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center on June 25, 2015. Getty Images

The NBA draft, conducted Thursday night in Brooklyn’s Barkleys Center, is a source of enduring fascination for North Carolina followers of ACC men’s basketball. Around here the draft is first and foremost a continuing source of pride, even as it’s become a factor in a growing sense of distance between college players and fans.

This was the 13th time in the past 18 years the first ACC player taken in the draft came from Duke or North Carolina. This also was the 14th time in 19 years, or since Wake’s Tim Duncan was the top pick in 1997, that one of North Carolina’s ACC schools (with N.C. State and Wake Forest) produced at least one top-10 selection.

Many years a player from North Carolina’s ACC schools was chosen among the top five. This year it was Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, selected third.

Clearly, we’re blessed. Or spoiled, if you prefer. Thanks to the programs, coaches and, yes, fan interest that attract many of the nation’s best players, we routinely get a front-row view of top-quality talent.

The draft’s more disquieting drift is reflected in the fact Okafor is the sixth freshman in the last nine years taken first from the ACC. This is in keeping with the trend nationally: 2015 was the sixth straight year the top NBA draft choice was a freshman. The first five picks and eight of the top 10 in the just-concluded draft were freshmen or players who competed overseas last year.

The flood of freshmen to the NBA is a direct consequence of a misguided rule that prohibits players from being drafted until they’ve passed their 19th birthday. Without a viable intermediate option, even athletes uninterested in a college education have little choice but to attend school for a year.

Since the 2006 draft that has meant the likes of LeBron James and Dwight Howard, the No. picks in 2003 and 2004, respectively, can no longer go directly from high school to the NBA.Yet the one-and-done rule only accelerated what already was a changing dynamic.

During the same year James went pro, so did Georgia Tech freshman Chris Bosh, ultimately his teammate for three years with the Miami Heat. And in the same draft that began with Howard’s selection, Duke freshman Luol Deng also jumped to the NBA as the seventh pick.

New rule proposal helps everybody

There’s no question it takes time for a player to fully develop individual and team skills. Likewise, it takes time to appreciate a university’s athletic traditions, and to develop heartfelt pride in wearing its colors. As for fans, watching youngsters grow as a person and player, witnessing their evolution, experiencing with them the peaks and valleys of a career, is key to developing an enduring feeling of connection.

So, fans might welcome a new rule proposed by the NCAA’s men’s basketball oversight committee that, while not intended as a strategy for keeping players in school, might have that effect for a select few.

Under the proposal, players may declare for the draft, participate in what’s presently a mid-May NBA combine, work out for one team as well, receive a dispassionate evaluation of their readiness for the pros, and still have a chance to return to college if they haven’t signed with an agent. They can perform this rite annually. Such an approach was long advocated by retired Maryland coach Gary Williams, among others.

Making even the smallest adjustment to the pre-draft process, particularly one that benefits players, is a move in the right direction, part of a swell of much-belated, grudging accommodations made by collegiate sports leaders to extend fairness to those generating their revenues.

Coaches who chafe at the uncertainty caused by premier players “testing the waters” probably won’t be any more thrilled with the proposed changes than they are with the current arrangement. “Why is it that the school’s got to be held hostage while the NBA is parading (players) all over the country trying to figure out whether they can play?” demands an angry ACC head coach, who insists on speaking anonymously.

If it’s any consolation to coaches, another proposal urges the Division I Conference Commissioners Association to change the signing date on the National Letter of Intent from mid-April to sometime in the summer.

Extending the signing period would allow coaches time to woo replacement players – admittedly likely to be lower-profile options – to fill unexpectedly vacated roster spots.

Of course, the best solution would be a system similar to baseball, in which players can be drafted out of high school, or after their junior season in college or age 21. That change figures to be a topic of conversation when a new NBA labor agreement is negotiated, slated to occur following the 2016-17 season.

Senior stars are more rare

However rules are tweaked, the days are long gone when players like Brad Daugherty, destined to be a No.1 choice in the draft, arrived in Chapel Hill with the quaint intention of enjoying a college basketball career, and nothing more.

Back then, about one ACC player per year, including North Carolina’s James Worthy and Michael Jordan, left early for the NBA. Yet when Dean Smith asked if Daugherty wanted to leave for the pros rather than spend another year in school, the two-time All-ACC player was taken aback.

“It wasn’t even a thought,” recalls the center, the top pick in 1986 following his senior season at UNC. “I had no inclination; I wasn’t even interested at the time. I wanted to go back my senior year and go play basketball for coach Smith.”

Trajan Langdon, a three-time All-ACC player, had a comparable reaction when he met with his coach a dozen springs later.

Mike Krzyzewski explained he was recruiting Corey Maggette in part to guard against the possibility Langdon, a sophomore, might leave early. “I think I looked at him like he was out of his mind,” says Langdon, currently a scout for the San Antonio Spurs. “Leave and go where?”

Langdon stayed through his senior season and was among four Blue Devils taken in the 1999 draft’s opening round, then a record from one school. Three teammates left as underclassmen, a first for the Duke program, with sophomore Elton Brand the No. 1 pick.

Besides sophomore Will Avery, the ’99 departees included Maggette, who piloted what’s become a flood of freshmen stopping fleetingly at Duke. Just since 2011, six Blue Devils jumped to the NBA after a single season in Durham, three this year alone with Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones.

“The past 20 years of college basketball has become a one-stop shop of guys who are looking to get to the NBA,” says Daugherty, who does TV basketball commentary. “Today guys are so skilled, they’re so, not beaten but driven to play pro basketball, that’s their ultimate goal. College is just a byproduct, a stepping stone to the NBA.”

The rush to leave school, the thirst “to get to the next level,” as the cliché-mongers have it, is now so familiar fans barely blink when highly-touted darlings abandon ship. Just part of the basketball business, leading to “Draft 15” sponsored by State Farm, complete with sober analysis of player duds courtesy of ESPN’s “style expert.”