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The NBA's One-and-Done Problem: Leaving Before Learning to Play

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The NBA's One-and-Done Problem: Leaving Before Learning to Play
(Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

I was talking with the Mrs. on the phone on the eve of the draft, and she brought up a very good point: The NBA Draft isn’t as big a deal as it once was.

I agreed—and if anyone else feels the same way, I'll tell you why: It’s because we don't know the players.

Players are making the leap to the NBA after only one year of college. Kids are leaving college before really learning how to play the game and before the nation's basketball fans get to know them.

It’s all about "One-and-Done."

Thirteen years ago, I remember being in high school and running to the library during lunch period, where someone managed to coax the librarian into letting us watch the NCAA Tournament games.

We'd sit and watch the games in awe, hoping we'd see something spectacular during the few minutes CBS would stay with a particular game—something we could possibly try to imitate when it came time to run three-on-threes in sixth-period P.E.

Watching players only a few years older than we were at the time, who we'd followed for years instead of months, we took for granted the fact that we would get to see these kids grow into great basketball players.

Oh, how the times have changed. We're now watching kids who obviously aren’t ready to play at the pro level learn how to play against grown men who've played the game longer than they've been alive.

Months after those days of watching tournament games in the library, we would spend the next few months wondering which NBA city our favorite players would end up in. 

Let's use the 1996 draft as an example. Here's a look some of the best players taken in the first round that year.

1.   Allen Iverson, Georgetown
2.   Marcus Camby, Massachusetts
3.   Shareef Abdur-Rahim, California
4.   Stephon Marbury, Georgia Tech
5    Ray Allen, Connecticut
6.   Antoine Walker, Kentucky
7.   Lorenzen Wright, Memphis
8.   Kerry Kittles, Villanova
9.   Samaki Walker, Louisville
10. Erick Dampier, Mississippi State
13. Kobe Bryant, Lower Merion HS
14. Predrag Stojakovic, Serbia & Montenegro
15. Steve Nash, Santa Clara
16. Tony Delk, Kentucky
17. Jermaine O’Neal, Eau Claire HS
18. John Wallace, Syracuse
19. Walter McCarty, Kentucky
20. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Lithuania
24. Derek Fisher, Arkansas-Little Rock

I omitted a few of the lesser-known players taken in the first round that year, but you get my point. Bryant and O'Neal, two high schoolers; Iverson, one player who played only two years in college; and Marbury, the only "One-and-Done" player.

Twenty-seven of the 29 players taken in the first round had some sort of college, or in the case of foreign players, professional experience. These players were experienced, and we knew them. Most of them went on to have successful NBA careers.

Over the years after that draft, more and more high schoolers and one-year college basketball players started to make the leap until the NBA finally acknowledged a problem that everyone had been ignoring for quite some time: These kids weren’t ready, and the NBA was suffering.

Call it the "SportsCenter" generation, but players with basic skills like shooting, rebounding, and ball-handling were replaced by players looking to dunk on the opposition and slap balls into the expensive seats. Aging players were dominating the league longer than they should have because, simply put, they could play.

The 2004 draft saw eight high school players taken in the top 20. Out of those players, the only true star to emerge has been Dwight Howard. But despite his raw athletic ability and five seasons in the league, Howard, while great on defense, still displays a very limited array of low post moves on offense, with most of his points coming on dunks and put-backs.

He never learned to play.

There was a reason why Michael Jordan felt he could come back at 40: He knew he'd face watered-down competition. In the second and final year of his second comeback, he averaged 23 points per game.

For whatever reason, these kids were coming into the league too soon, and everyone knew it. So in an effort to stop the bleeding, Team Stern decided to put in a rule that forced players to go to college for one year.

The rule worked—no one tried to fight it—but it hasn’t served its purpose. High school players who feel they are "NBA-ready" are going to college with no intentions of getting an education.

Schools are losing scholarships, and coaches are complaining about how difficult the recruiting process has become. There is a revolving door of players coming in and out of school, and after one solid season under their belts, many are declaring for the draft.

There are cases like with Carmelo Anthony and Marbury, who were both great college players and have gone on to be successful pro players, and high school players like Bryant and Kevin Garnett, who blossomed into amazing pros. But for every Bryant and Garnett, you have a Kwame Brown and Leon Smith.

Who? Exactly.

These are players that, for whatever reason at the end of the day, just weren’t ready to make the jump to the pro game. The league is currently littered with these players, crowding benches in both conferences. Once great ball players at some level bounce throughout the NBA as virtual unknowns until the next crop comes in.

It’s a league led by three truly great players: Kobe and LeBron, who are exceptions, and Dwyane Wade, who attended college for three years. You have a handful of really good players and everybody else.

That last one is a group, made up of mostly of kids, who at some point thought they had what it took to make it in the pro game but never learned to play.

They didn't take time to learn the basics, and now many are current NBA players we can't name because we never got to know them.

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