This relationship has grown more tenuous in recent years, as the trend of the underclassman draftee has emerged. As the NCAA was robbed of its biggest names, college hoops apologists from around the nation spat and sputtered about the purity of the game. The NBA tried to appear uncomfortable with the concept of turning teenagers fresh off of senior prom into millionaires, but teams never backed away from the right youngster on draft night. Meanwhile, the mostly shady underworld of youth basketball continued to fester, and neither organization did anything about it.
That is, until July 21st 2005, the day that the NBAs new collective bargaining agreement was announced. This was supposed to be a day of rejoicing for college basketball fans, as an official age limit was announced. While premier coaches didnt get the two-year lockdown on high school prospects entering the NBA that they were hoping for, at least they no longer have to worry about their top recruits not showing up at all. However, underneath all the fancy trappings of David Stern getting NBA scouts out of high school gyms was a clear message to the NCAA. Fix American basketball development, or we will fix it for you.
We all know about the restructuring of the NBDL. We all know that only a handful of players have been sent down to the minors thus far. What makes the D-League suddenly so significant are the changes that have been made to the CBA to ensure that NBA teams actually utilize it. The injured list has been changed to the inactive list, thus allowing teams to stash young players in the deepest recesses of their rosters. This is a rubber stamped approval (even a bit of encouragement) from David Stern for teams to start drafting players with the future in mind. An even more telling clause in the new CBA involves the upping of the minimum average roster size from 12 players to 14 players. Where the average NBA roster size used to sit somewhere between 12 and 13 players, most teams are carrying a full 15 this season. This might be more than a gentle nudge from the commissioner.
Think these changes arent going to affect the college game? Think again. They already are.
An absolutely ridiculous number of underclassmen declared for the draft last spring. The draftniks (myself included) lauded a deep class. We noted the impending age limit rule, and blamed that for the rush of high school prospects that entered the draft. They were more than willing to accept a position in the 2nd round, once considered the death knell of the aspiring NBA professional. However, it wasnt just the high school kids getting antsy. Underclassmen were declaring left and right. It got so bad in the SEC that the conference has no more than a couple of significant returning producers this fall. The apologists of the college game made reference to the stupidity, impatience and lack of maturity of these players. They blasted corrupt agents, and once again heed and hawed about the purity of the game.
Fast forward to NBA opening night, 2005. The high school kids had been cut and were working at McDonalds by now, right?
Wrong. In fact, five of the six were actually on opening night rosters. None had been cut. In fact, the entire second round had done miraculously well. Eighteen of the twenty 2nd round picks that played in the United States last season were on NBA rosters. The two exceptions were Ronny Turiaf, who would be playing a significant role for the Lakers if not for his health problems, and Ricky Sanchez, a native of Puerto Rico that came to the US for his senior year of high school and is essentially being treated as a long-term foreign prospect by the Denver Nuggets. For the first time ever, not even one second rounder was cut, and one even turned down a significant NBA contract to sign a lucrative deal with a European team. Three players drafted in the 50s were guaranteed a significant amount of money up front. There was a time when agents would call NBA teams late in the second round and beg GMs not to draft their player. Suddenly, being selected in the 2nd round could be looked at as a nearly guaranteed ticket to at least brief NBA fame and fortune.
The results are even more significant when it comes to undrafted rookies.
After just five undrafted rookies made opening day rosters in 2004, that number ballooned to seventeen this fall. And many of these players arent sweating out ten day contracts, either. Former Saint Josephs center Dwayne Jones landed a guaranteed two years with the Minnesota Timberwolves after leaving school early and going undrafted, while others like Ronnie Price and Donnell Taylor also have guaranteed deals. Now, it appears that one doesnt even need to be drafted to end up in the NBA right away. Teams are taking the cue from David Stern to fill up their rosters with development players, and are using their required final spots on the cheapest players they can find rookies.
As I previewed college basketball this fall, I was taken aback by the lack of proven upperclassmen prospects on major college rosters. The talent is still there, but largely resides in this years sophomore class. Players like Jordan Farmar, Corey Brewer, Al Horford, Daniel Gibson, Darius Washington, Malik Hairston and plenty more are firmly on the NBA draft radar. Some will have breakout seasons and become lottery picks. Others wont, and will find themselves sitting squarely on draft bubble. Will they head pro, despite the opportunity to play their way into a first round spot in 2007? My guess is that just like Brandon Bass this past spring, they will jump ship in droves, and that agents are already inundating 2006s standout sophomores with wave after wave of the D-League argument.
And why shouldnt they? Take, for instance, the example of Anthony Roberson. He was universally vilified by nearly everybody, who all claimed he was blowing a major opportunity. Dick Vitale would claim that Roberson was missing out on the best years of his life, baby! I find it quite presumptuous to assume that every single basketball player out there enjoys going to classes that have little to do with his desired profession while simultaneously likely passing up, at a bare minimum, several hundred thousand dollars a year. Oh yeah. Guess who ended up on the roster of the Memphis Grizzlies? Maybe Roberson wasnt quite as immature and selfish as everybody so hastily concluded he was.
So, with the new 19 year-old age limit, college basketball has regained its star power. Greg Oden and Kevin Durant will suit up in red and orange, respectively (just as long as they dont get too curious about prep school, or the NBDL, though that is for another article). But at the same time, it looks like the NCAA has largely lost its upperclassman standouts.
But this is nothing new, you claim. College basketball has been diluted for years. While these new rules may cement the demise of the NCAA senior, the North Carolinas, Dukes, and Connecticuts of the scene have long been successful two-year development stops for Americas top young prospects. Or have they?
Check back tomorrow for part two of this article, where we delve even deeper into the issues that plague the development of Americas top basketball prospects, and the implications for both the NCAA and the NBA.