Mark R. Bacon—Main Event DC
Before his senior season came to a halt, Jalen Green was an elite high school basketball player, one of the top two or three in the country, with the talent to play at any college. Instead, he is charting a new path by preparing for the NBA in an unprecedented manner: He will be paid to play basketball. He will get to remain in the United States while he does so. And he won’t have to bother with the scam of going to college classes in pursuit of a degree that he would have no intention of finishing.
College basketball will be better for it.
When Green, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard from Fresno, Calif., announced his decision to forgo college and play in the NBA’s developmental G League for a year, the latest round of hand-wringing over college basketball’s future and its product commenced. Green could have been the latest lightning bolt to spend a few months in our homes, propelling Memphis or some other school into the Sweet 16 or beyond, and then vaporize into the NBA.
Now there’s an NBA-sanctioned loophole for players more interested in developing their long-range jumper than their understanding of quantum physics. That makes sense. Players who have marketable skills should be allowed to market said skills for their own profit, which the NCAA still ludicrously prohibits. Green reportedly will be afforded a $500,000 salary — as opposed to a few grand in stipends that the NCAA made permissible only in 2015. Plus, if a soda maker or car manufacturer wants to put him in an ad, it’s not a violation but the free market at work. Go get what’s coming to you, kid.
But college basketball as a casualty of this — or of the inevitable NBA rule change, perhaps as soon as 2022, in which high school players will be eligible for the draft?
I don’t buy it.
In the wake of Green’s decision, Louisville Coach Chris Mack tweeted: “For every Jalen Green there’s an Obi Toppin. For every none & done there’s a [Luka] Garza, a Markus Howard. College Basketball will be fine. Nice articles though guys. Next…”
Little edge to it, huh? That’s how sensitive a subject this is. But put aside the snark and concentrate on the sentiment. The characters in question are the consensus national player of the year from Dayton, where he redshirted one season and played two others; the Big Ten player of the year (via his hometown of Washington) at Iowa, where he has played three seasons; and the NCAA’s leading scorer, who finished his senior season at Marquette.
Mack’s point: There are enough players to go around. Let the G League — and, eventually, the NBA — have a few. People won’t watch the NCAA tournament? Please.
Now, let’s not be dismissive. Like any sport, college basketball thrives on stars. The game is marketed on stars — not to their benefit while they’re in college, but so the TV matchups shine brightest. Taking the top level of talent removes the gaudiest stars, and there’s no denying that would have an impact on the quality of play — or at least limit the stunning plays performed by the best athletes. Zion Williamson played only one year at Duke, but he became a household name there, and his presence — even for just 33 games — drew more eyeballs to college basketball than would have fallen there had he jumped to the G League or the NBA.
Still, when Duke was in its regional games during Williamson’s only year on campus — a year in which fellow Blue Devils RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish also became Duke one-and-dones — Coach Mike Krzyzewski was asked how changes to the NBA draft rules would affect his program, given some of his current players wouldn’t ever come to college.
“Or maybe more would,” Krzyzewski countered. “You know? I don’t think that it’s a done deal that everyone will [go straight to the NBA] because a big thing about going to the NBA is staying in the NBA and trying to be prepared once you go in there, not just physically but emotionally.”
Krzyzewski’s point: Some players, even elite players, will choose to come to college, matriculating on campus not because that’s the only path to the NBA but because they want to play college basketball. What a novel concept.
For years, with all the angst about whether a certain player from a specific program would enter the NBA draft early or return to school — with undertones about impermissible contact from agents who pull them in different directions — I always thought: There’s a better way. And the better way doesn’t have to be invented. It already exists.
Baseball players can be drafted directly out of high school. If they would rather wait to turn pro — gambling that they would improve their draft status or just wanting a college experience — they can attend a junior college or go to a four-year institution. If they choose the latter, they have to be on campus three years before they’re eligible for the draft again. And they don’t declare if they’re in or they’re out. It’s on the major league teams that take them to determine whether they’re ready for pro ball.
Plus, agents — they’re technically “advisers” until a player signs a pro contract, but Scott Boras or someone like him is still along for the ride — are not just allowed; they’re encouraged. In basketball, introducing a character who knows the pro game, pro executives and pro scouts is seen as evil, part of the underworld. In baseball, it’s part of the educational process. It only makes sense.
The college game benefits from retaining high-end talent, and that high-end talent gets to turn pro when he’s ready. What a concept!
One more thing: Getting rid of one-and-done comets not only rids the college game of skills and flashy dunks. It returns something more valuable: the idea that players develop not just from week to week but from season to season. This used to be a process. Look back over four years, and the bumps in the road that were overcome become the stories you cherish years down the road. There’s an arc to a career, and it matters.
Most famous college careers are on a straight-line graph that shoots off the chart before it has any nuance or character. Duke and Kentucky annually contend for the No. 1 ranking and a spot in the Final Four. But survey their fan bases. Would they rather do that behind Vernon Carey Jr. and Tyrese Maxey — freshmen for the Blue Devils and Wildcats, respectively, who departed before we really knew them? Or would they find more joy in watching Iowa’s Garza, Michigan State’s Cassius Winston or Maryland’s Anthony Cowan Jr. grow into a role, struggles and all?
A kid decides he would rather go straight from high school to the pros, and college basketball is in trouble? Not hardly. It may be different, sure. But there’s also the chance it could be different for the better.