At some point Thursday night, Dennis Smith Jr. will have his name called in the first round of the NBA draft, probably the last time he’ll be associated with N.C. State. Same for Duke’s Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles. All three entered college as top NBA prospects and all three exited after one season as top NBA prospects, having left very little of a mark along the way.
Tatum and Giles at least won an ACC title – at the one point of the season where Giles overcame his chronic injuries to be an important contributor – but their year at Duke still ended in disappointment, more memorable for Mike Krzyzewski’s health issues than anything the team accomplished on the court.
That’s the way things seem to go for one-and-done players. Their time in college certainly helps them prepare for NBA careers, but they leave precious little of a legacy in the process as they come and go.
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The exception is Duke’s 2015 national championship team – led by a group of freshmen that came in with the goal of winning a title together. That’s a goal not many incoming one-and-done players seem to share. Atop the list for most is getting to the NBA as efficiently as possible, as Kevin Knox – one of this spring’s most sought-after recruits and a likely top draft pick next year – made clear in outlining his reasons for choosing Kentucky.
Even the winners don’t always have much to show for it; the highlight of Tony Bradley’s freshman year at North Carolina was more the promise he showed toward becoming a truly dominant player as a sophomore than anything he actually did on the court. He decided he’d rather move along to the NBA than get that chance.
That’s only fair: Players should have the right to turn professional whenever they want, even out of high school if they desire. The one-and-done rule is an artificial restraint on them that benefits the NBA, which would rather incorporate top rookies after a free, mandatory prep-school year in college than straight out of high school.
The real loser is college basketball, which may get a handful of marketable stars who would in other circumstances go straight to the NBA but loses the player continuity that once fueled rivalries and distinguished the atmosphere of the college game from the pros.
Even the publicity the game gets from that starpower is tainted, with ESPN’s bizarre Ben Simmons infatuation the primary example. Roy Williams was biting the hand that eventually feeds him when he criticized ESPN’s in-season draft evaluations of college players two years ago – the ACC is still the ACC largely due to ESPN’s largesse – but he wasn’t wrong. Whatever attention the one-and-dones get is invariably flavored to some degree by their rising and falling draft status, which inevitably minimizes the college game compared to the NBA.
There’s a cost here for players, too, and it may not be one that’s immediately obvious. With each passing year, elite players appear to be concerned less about winning in college and more about how their single year in college will prepare them for the NBA. There’s nothing wrong with that in the short term, but it deprives them of the real benefits that might accrue to them with another year in college – not just relationships built and lessons learned, but legacies left behind.
The bond a star athlete can build with a university and its fans can last a lifetime. It’s real and it matters. And it can’t be done in a year. Nor, for that matter, can much of an education be obtained in a year. Even those who fully engage academically are barely “student-athletes” by any measure.
A different draft model might help with this. While various variations of the baseball model are currently the popular alternatives – in baseball, players can either turn pro out of high school or attend a minimum of three years of college before re-entering the draft – the NHL drafts players at 18, then lets them continue to play in the NCAA until they’re ready to turn pro, a mutual decision between player and team. Change, though, remains unlikely as long as the one-and-done rule continues to be in the NBA’s best interest.
And it remains in the players’ best interests, on balance. The NBA is increasingly the focus for this generation of elite players, and most will benefit from spending a year on campus under the tutelage of an elite coach like John Calipari or Krzyzewski. They may not realize now, as they may down the road, that college, even in an era of psuedo-professional athletics, has more to offer them, just as they have more to offer it. There are no guarantees of success at the next level, and they may someday look back to see a shadow of the legacy they never left behind, even if it never crosses their mind as they cross the draft stage.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock