In the summer of 2005, NBA commissioner David Stern was terrified. The steady onrush of high school players into the NBA—triggered by Kevin Garnett's leap in 1995—was producing a handful of transcendent stars, but just as many franchise-crippling busts.
Prospects who clearly weren't ready for the bright lights were flaming out in spectacular fashion, but despite the risks and uncertainty, NBA front offices just couldn't plug their ears to the siren songs of untested teenagers like Kwame Brown and Darius Miles.
So Stern championed "Article X" of the NBA's 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement, a provision that required all potential NBA draftees to be at least 19 years old and one year removed from their high school graduation.
Article X, which has come to be known as the "one-and-done rule," was meant to protect unprepared high school players from the difficult professional transition while also giving NBA teams a better opportunity to evaluate potential draftees on the college stage. In theory, the NBA figured to be the biggest beneficiary of the rule, as it would enjoy better-prepared prospects and suffer through fewer lottery mistakes.
Even the NCAA was going come out ahead, as the top-tier stars that had been bypassing college for the pros would have to spend at least one year on campus.
Everyone was supposed to be a winner.
But now, seven seasons after the inception of Article X, it turns out that the rule hasn't been all that good for anybody.
High School Blues
LeBron James didn't need to go to college. Neither did Kobe Bryant or Amar'e Stoudemire.
As players who entered the NBA draft before the one-and-done rule existed, they got to test their skills at the highest level right away. And they succeeded, earning multi-million-dollar contracts and generally living up to the hype.
Since Article X, though, even the most obvious, can't-miss high school stars have had similar dreams deferred because of an NBA mandate that says they are, by definition, not ready.
The restriction protects the Leon Smiths and Korleone Youngs of the world (two of the saddest washout stories from the era before the rule) from embarking on an NBA journey that they're simply not emotionally prepared to undertake.
But that minimal "protection" comes at cost, as players who are ready to compete on the big stage are forced to spend a year at a college they'd otherwise have no interest in attending. It should be noted here that playing overseas or in the NBA's Developmental League are also options, but with extremely rare exceptions (Brandon Jennings), neither alternative path has led to sustained NBA careers.
It's bad enough that some of these players have to watch their families struggle financially for a year while they serve time at a college program they'd rather have skipped in the first place. But it's even worse when catastrophic injuries derail NBA dreams altogether.
Most recently, Kentucky's Nerlens Noel lost his status as a likely No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft after suffering a torn ACL in his one-year cameo at the University of Kentucky. It's hard to know where Noel would have gone in the 2012 draft had he been eligible, but the point is that he was forced to undertake the risk of playing collegiately for a year and he suffered because of it.
And what about Andrew Wiggins, a high school phenom who probably would have been the top pick in the 2013 NBA draft?
He'll spend his required one year of college at Kansas, hoping to avoid injury and exposing himself to nothing but a potential dip in his value. After all, there's really nowhere for a projected No. 1 pick to go but down.
Had he been selected first overall in the most recent draft (a near certainty), he would have become an instant millionaire, collecting approximately $4.3 million in salary in 2013-14 with raises, qualifying offers and huge extensions guaranteed to follow in subsequent years.
Wiggins is a prime example of how the one-and-done rule is patently unfair to players who are not only physically ready to compete at the highest level, but who have nothing to gain—and everything to lose—by attending college.
If Wiggins' situation sounds unfair, that's because it is. What's even more interesting is that the rule controlling his fate might also be illegal.
New York employment law attorney Louis Pechman has been outspoken on the legality of the NBA's age limit. He pointed out the problems with the NBA's rule in an interview with Bleacher Report:
"You cannot collectively bargain an agreement to unlawfully discriminate against employees. A union and a company can't agree that 'we're not going to hire employees based on religion, race or sex' and the same principle holds true for age."
Pechman cites LeBron James and Kobe Bryant as evidence that many 18-year-old players are clearly capable of playing in the NBA.
"Why can't an 18-year-old be ready for the NBA? You have the prime examples being Kobe and LeBron. Doesn't that defeat any argument that the league has a bona fide business justification for the age requirement?" Pechman rhetorically wonders.
There have been challenges to earlier versions of the NBA's age-based draft rules; Spencer Haywood was even successful on antitrust grounds in 1971. But more recently, courts (of the judicial, not hardwood, variety) have shot down every attempt by a potential draftee to set aside the age restrictions that keep them out of the professional ranks.
Ask former Ohio State football star Maurice Clarett how things worked out for him after a failed antitrust challenge to the NFL's age restriction.
Clarett and others like him have failed because collective bargaining agreements are basically immune to antitrust attacks. Chances are, they always will be. But Pechman is of the opinion that a suit brought on the basis of age discrimination would be more likely to succeed—particularly in New York, where the NBA is headquartered:
"What's going to happen is you're going to have a talented 18-year-old who can't get his foot in the NBA—somebody like a LeBron or a Kobe. It will be that person who'll take the lead in challenging this rule because it's flat-out age discrimination."
Wiggins would have been an ideal option for such a challenge, but he'll instead be spending a perfunctory year in college.
Basically, the one-and-done rule forces high school players to give up multi-million-dollar salaries, requires them to partake in the charade of an unwanted college semester (most don't attend classes after the season ends) and puts them in a position in which a costly lawsuit might be the only remedy.
If anyone can explain how this rule is helping high school players, I'd love to hear it.
The Old College Try
As damaging as the one-and-done rule is for high schoolers, it might be even worse for the institution of college basketball. Don't be mistaken, NCAA hoops is more popular and lucrative than ever. According to Rachel Shuster of USA Today, the 2013 NCAA men's basketball tournament captured more viewers than it had since 1994.
But that extra money and notoriety are coming at the cost of integrity.
The college game has lost whatever semblance of amateurism it once had. A few top schools simply haul in the big names and are now little more than one-year pro factories.
Ironically, even Kentucky's John Calipari hates the rule. Even though Coach Cal has built his program into the country's finest one-and-done NBA-exposure machine, he wishes the system were different. He told Matt Jones of Kentucky Sports Radio:
I'm the one guy out there saying we've gotta change this somehow. We've gotta encourage these kids to stay two years. But the NCAA's gotta do some stuff, and if they don't do it we need to separate from them. I'm not afraid to say it...I don't really care. But something's gotta change with this one-and-done rule. I seem to be the only coach saying anything.
It's wrong for high school kids, it's wrong for college kids, it's wrong for the NBA. So why won't we come together and do something about it?
Calipari has enjoyed more success with one-year players than any other coach, but even he wants to get rid of the rule.
Former NBA player and general manager Steve Kerr made a compelling case for increasing the age limit to 20 and requiring two years of college in a piece he wrote for Grantland. And while it's true that the NCAA would probably benefit from such a change, it still doesn't do anything for the players (like Wiggins) for whom higher education is professionally unnecessary.
Not everybody wants or needs to go to college.
The Big Winner?
There's no doubt that the NBA benefits the most from the one-and-done rule.
A year of college helps establish a built-in audience for incoming picks, which results in more familiar, marketable rookies than the NBA would have with high school players.
NBA president of league operations Joel Litvin defended the rule against a Congressional challenge in 2009, arguing that it promoted the league's business interests by "increasing the chances that incoming players will have the requisite ability, experience, maturity and life skills" necessary to compete at the NBA level.
Maybe that's true. Maybe the one-and-done restriction helps create more "NBA-ready" prospects in addition to making them more marketable.
But one thing the rule hasn't succeeded in doing is saving general managers from making mistakes in the draft, which is problematic because that was among the main goals when it became part of the CBA.
According to Tom Ziller of SB Nation, "Under the age minimum, you'd expect fewer busts in the top 10—those tempting high school kids are out of the equation. But GMs have still found a way to mess a good thing up."
Ziller looked at the four years before the age minimum went into effect and the four years afterward, and he discovered that there was little difference in the overall success rate among top-10 draft picks.
|2002-2005: Before Age Minimum||10||9||21|
|2006-2009: After Age Minimum||11||7||22|
Tom Ziller, SBNation
So much for protecting general managers from themselves.
The one-and-done rule is good for the NBA's bottom line, but the statistics show it doesn't achieve many of its original goals. The NBA has a right to do what it wants to improve itself as a business. But the fact that high school players and the college game suffer serious damage—not to mention the fact that the restriction might be unlawful—makes the one-and-done rule a loser on all fronts.
What's the Alternative?
There's really no perfect fix for what we now know is a critically flawed rule.
Major League Baseball allows 18-year-old players to either jump straight to the professional ranks or go to college for three years. Maybe that's the best way to go.
Unfortunately, the NBA has little incentive to make a change unless and until it's faced with a viable legal challenge, which might never happen. The fact that the 2011 collective-bargaining process came and went without much discussion of the age limit is proof that no change is imminent.
Eventually, something is going to have to give. The NBA is getting a small portion of what it expected from the age limit, but the restriction discriminates against high school players and makes a mockery of the college game.
Nobody's totally happy and nobody's getting what they want. How is this a good idea?