College basketball recruiting used to be a simple matter of signing the best players available.
The nuances of fit, scheme and need played some small role in the process, but even they were largely obscured by the greater allure of landing an elite talent.
I say all this in past tense because the NBA's age limit—implemented in 2006 and known colloquially as the "one-and-done" rule—has changed the way we value top recruits, or at least it should have.
For the first time in the history of the college game, there is a patent disincentive attached to top recruits—namely the fact that so many leave school after their freshmen years. While the assumed brevity of the player's college career doesn't completely annul his value, it should at least be treated as a detriment.
Put simply, great players today are worth less than ever to college programs, if only for the naked fact that they take their greatness to the next level sooner.
That leads us to this obvious and perhaps uncomfortable question:
In the name of player development, team continuity and, ultimately, winning, should coaches avoid obvious one-and-done talents and instead target players more likely to stay with the program for three to four years?
The answer this season is a resounding yes.
Identifying the Dilemma
Underclassmen in the NBA draft is nothing new, but the league's age limit has produced a noticeable change in the collective behavior of blue-chip recruits.
The old draft eligibility rules effectively created a seal between those prospects who were considered prep-to-pro material and those deemed "college players." With a few rogue exceptions, players who opted to attend college tacitly embraced the perception that they needed a few years' seasoning.
The below chart compares the college tenures of recruits listed in the top 10 of the Rivals150 before and after the implementation of the one-and-done rule.
|Class Year||Straight to Pro||Played One Year||Played Two Years||Played Three Years+|
|2008||1 (Brandon Jennings)||4||4||1|
|2010||1 (Enes Kanter)||6||2||1|
What's surprising here isn't the emergence of one-and-dones—most of whom are displaced prep-to-pro prospects—but rather the effect the NBA's age limit has had on the number of top-10 recruits who complete three or more seasons at the college level.
From 2003 to 2005, 30 percent of all top-10 recruits played at least three years of college ball. For the years 2006 to 2010, that number dropped to 18 percent.
Prior to 2006, when a recruit decided to play in college, he was essentially telling pro scouts he needed three or more years to refine his game. Pro scouts in turn wouldn't take that player seriously until he proved himself capable at the college level. Of the 14 top-10 players who decided to attend college between 2003 and 2005, only four stayed in school for two years or less.
Now those boundaries have blurred, and it's harder to draw clean lines between pro-ready players and career college ballers. That means more and more top recruits are forgoing their final two years of eligibility in search of professional spoils—and to avoid the low-ceiling stigma that seems to accompany a longer college career.
You sign a top-10 recruit today, the chances are better than ever that his time in school will be brief.
How the 2012-13 Season Has Exposed the Flaws in "One-and-Done" Recruiting
Of the teams currently ranked in the AP Top 10, only Michigan starts more than one freshman. Meanwhile, three teams in the AP Top 10—Florida, Louisville and Miami—don't have a single debutante in their starting lineup.
By comparison, the eight schools who landed players ranked in the top 10 for the Class of 2012 (per ESPN) have only three representatives in the most recent AP poll—Arizona, Pittsburgh and Oklahoma State—and none in the top 10.
All of this is in stark contrast to last season, when a Kentucky team led by five underclassman starters went 38-2 en route to the national championship.
So, is this year the exception or the rule? Is it better to develop talent over two to three years or roll the dice with a group of talented but unproven freshmen?
We already know both strategies can work, but the 2012-13 season tells me that the standard set by Kentucky has driven some programs too far in the pursuit of talented frosh. Even with all its success, UK is still the exception—the lone program that can outplay concerns over continuity and fit by the sheer quantity of top recruits it lands.
There is, however, a class of teams that have tried to build programs based roughly on the Kentucky model and fallen short. Uneven recent results at one-and-done turnstiles like Baylor, Texas and UCLA speak to the pitfalls associated with recruiting blue-chip players in the age-limit era.
Last year, all three schools finished in the top five of ESPN's class rankings. Since 2009, Baylor and Texas have finished in the top 25 of those same rankings every single year. UCLA missed the cut once.
Yet none of the three have been to the Final Four since UCLA got there in 2008. Baylor is in danger of missing its second NCAA tournament in the last three years. Texas is 2-4 in its last six tournament games.
The way I see it, there is a substantive difference between recruiting the occasional top player and prostrating oneself in an attempt to sign as many top players as possible.
The former allows a program to maintain continuity and balance. It ensures that top recruits come to the school on the coach's terms, aware that their basketball future is secondary to the team's immediate goals.
The latter creates an environment where young players expect minutes and touches. It makes the recruitment of supplementary players near impossible because those players know they can be summarily replaced by the next big thing at any moment. And it creates a state of constant flux, one that can be hard for even the most talented teams and coaches to navigate.
Over the last two months SI spoke with more than a dozen players and staff members from the past four Bruins teams. They portrayed the program as having drifted from the UCLA way as (Ben) Howland allowed an influx of talented but immature recruits to undermine team discipline and morale.
The Bruins' struggles tell a cautionary tale of the risks of recruiting hyped players, the challenges of managing recalcitrant teenagers and the consequences of letting discipline and accountability break down.
The UCLA case is extreme, but telling. Under coach Ben Howland, the Bruins haven't simply recruited blue-chip players, they've become a blue-chip program—embracing volatility in order to maximize their appeal to recruits with pro potential.
The premium UCLA places on top recruits in turn handicaps its ability to build a stable program with long-term winning potential. It's not that 5-star studs like Shabazz Muhammad and Jrue Holiday haven't played well for UCLA; it's that the value they provide over their short stints in Westwood must be measured against the vacuum they leave upon departure.
It's that last calculation we often forget to make.
The Kansas Way
Few programs have been more successful during the one-and-done era than Kansas.
This despite the fact that the Jayhawks—winners of eight straight Big 12 crowns—have produced only two one-and-done players and finished better than 10th just twice in ESPN's last six class rankings.
It's not that Kansas doesn't recruit sought-after players. Josh Selby, Xavier Henry and Cole Aldrich were all very well regarded out of high school.
But coach Bill Self balances his pursuit of top players with second-tier prospects who are potentially more valuable, if only for the reason that they might give him two to four years in Lawrence instead of just one.
Thomas Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor, Travis Releford, Jeff Withey, Marcus Morris and Markieff Morris all spent at least three years at Kansas. While none of them earned as high a scout grade as, say, Baylor center Isaiah Austin, it'd be impossible to argue that Austin—a fine player who will likely enter the NBA draft after his freshman year—was ultimately a more consequential get than any of the aforementioned Jayhawks.
Austin may have the better pro career—and he certainly made more noise upon arrival—but Kansas' recruits produced far more good for the program that signed them.
When tracing Kansas' recruiting patterns, I sense that Self has a special appreciation for guys in the 4.5-star range—the kind of recruits that eventually become productive upperclassmen. I also sense that Self understands how severely undervalued those guys are in a marketplace that fetishizes elite talent.
For a long time, lottery-pick athletes were the forbidden fruit of the college basketball world. We could only wonder idly how good LeBron James, Kevin Garnett or Tracy McGrady might have been against D-I opposition.
When age restrictions began funneling a similar caliber of player into the college game, the gold rush was on.
We weren't thinking about the true value of a one-and-done player. We weren't weighing his contributions against the upheaval he invariably causes or the fact that he won't stay long. We just knew we wanted as many as we could get.
Smart programs now realize that the hysteria surrounding one-and-dones is best kept at arm's length. Recruit top players all you want, but make sure it's not at the expense of building a program.
The guys you recruit in their stead won't have the same ceiling, but there's a very real chance they'll deliver more raw value as college players.
If I Ruled the World
The sane question to ask after all of this is whether or not I'd really pass up a chance to sign Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle or some other stud from the Class of 2013 just because I had some reservations about one-and-done players.
The answer is no, I wouldn't.
If any of those guys wanted to play for my school, I'd gladly hand him a scholarship.
But I wouldn't make it a priority—and I wouldn't rearrange the composition of my program to accommodate their future earnings potential.
Callous as that sounds, it speaks to the market inefficiencies in today's college game.
We'd never expect an ace pitcher with one year left on his contract to command more trade value than a No. 2 pitcher with three years remaining. Yet a potential four-year starter at the college level gets noticeably less attention from scouts and coaches than a player whose tenure won't exceed nine months.
When I look at the teams competing for a national championship this season, I see two common themes: experience and rosters full of guys who ranked somewhere in the second tier of top prospects coming out of high school.
I see Louisville led by Peyton Siva (No. 25, ESPN 100), Wayne Blackshear (No. 27), Chane Behanan (No. 28) and Russ Smith (NR).
I see Kansas led by Elijah Johnson (No. 28), Jeff Withey (No. 43), Ben McLemore (No. 49) and Travis Releford (No. 62).
I see Florida led by Kenny Boynton (No. 9), Patric Young (No. 13), Erik Murphy (No. 38) and Scottie Wilbekin (NR).
I see Michigan led by Glenn Robinson III (No. 18), Nik Stauskas (No. 76), Trey Burke (No. 84) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (No. 93).
I see Duke led by Mason Plumlee (No. 10), Ryan Kelly (No. 17), Quinn Cook (No. 38) and Seth Curry (NR).
Finally I see Indiana, led by Cody Zeller (No. 14), Yogi Ferrell (No. 24), Christian Watford (No. 34) and, of course, POY favorite and presumptive lottery pick Victor Oladipo...
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