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Kevin Garnett ruined it: Why the NBA’s "one and done" rule is better than the alternative

On Monday evening, the Kentucky Wildcats won the NCAA Men's basketball championship. The result was not surprising given that the Wildcats were by far the most talented team in college basketball and had the most dominant player in the game in Anthony Davis. Davis and upwards of five more of his teammates are expected to declare their intentions to enter the 2012 NBA Draft sometime in the next 7-10 days. This is also not surprising.

A significant amount of the credit for Kentucky's success goes to the coach, John Calipari, for being able to recruit impact-level freshman players year after year as if he has a hidden factory cloning the Michigan Fab Five. Nonetheless, because John Calipari is seen by the media as a smarmy used car salesman type of coach and recruiter, his tactics are routinely chastised. No one doubts Calipari's skill as a recruiter. The criticism is instead directed on his willingness to exploit the "one and done" rule put into place by the prior NBA collective bargaining agreement. Until Monday, many claimed that the increased practice of attending one year of college with no intention of ever being a sophomore undermined the purity of college athletics and also harmed the ability for big-time basketball institutions to win at a consistent level. Calipari's model essentially destroyed that notion this year.[1] Once again, there has been a call-to-arms to get rid of the "one and done" rule and allow players to go straight from high school to the NBA.

This would be a huge mistake.

But for Kevin Garnett not being able to get a high enough score on his ACT/SAT when he was in high school, this might not have been an issue though...

Follow me after the jump to see how and why the NBA is a lesser product due to the influx of high school players and college freshman into the draft.

[1] It would have done the same back in 2008 had Derrick Rose and Joey Dorsey been able to make free throws. Of course, because I had money riding on Memphis winning that game... they were doomed.

Prior to 1995, there were only a handful of NBA players that entirely skipped college and became "professionals". I put the word "professionals" in quotes for a reason. Just because you are getting paid for your efforts does not make you professional at your chosen craft. Moses Malone was one of these high school-to-NBA players, and he is rightfully in the Basketball Hall of Fame. It would be an error to contend that what was good for Moses is good for everyone. As we have seen in the last 17 years, lots of players have the requisite talent to compete in the NBA but very, very few have the mental makeup and sense of self-discipline necessary to do so at the age of 18.

Before Garnett, there was Moses. Both are Hall of Famers. But there was also Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby. There was even Shawn Kemp, technically speaking. No one doubts that any of them had the talent to be top-flight basketball players. The evidence also demonstrates that each could have been much better as players and professionals had they been allowed the chance to make a full transition to being an adult before they were thrust into the NBA limelight.

For every Moses, Garnett, Kobe and LeBron there has been a Korleone Young, Leon Smith, Darius Miles, Kwame Brown, Sebastian Telfair, Gerald Green and on and on.[1] Every single one of these players was blessed with inordinate amounts of talent and natural skill. If given the right environment and a chance to actually develop over time, they all could have been amazing. It just did not happen for them though. You simply cannot overstate the culture shock of going from taking high school history exams and attending the prom to being a professional athlete with obligations and responsibilities and having co-workers 10-15 years older than you. Not to mention the level of fame, attention, adulation (*cough*groupies*cough*) and, yes, money. Lots of it. It is hard enough for a college graduate to manage significant amounts of money for the first time, much less a high school graduate that has been coddled and protected throughout his formative years. It is nothing short of a recipe for disaster.

Basketball is mostly fun and games when you are in high school and your competition barely presents a challenge. Jumping straight from that into the machine that is the NBA is nothing that anyone could be prepared for.

To directly rebut the argument that Moses and Garnett and Kobe and LeBron and many other "high school" players eventually were successful and managed to not screw it up, I contend that in many ways they did screw it up.

For instance, would LeBron James be the self-centered douchebag responsible for The DecisionTM if he had been exposed to a college lifestyle? Would Kobe be the narcissistic borderline sociopath if he had been forced to compromise his individual goals for the sake of Coach K's structured environment at Duke for at least a couple years? Would Tracy McGrady have developed a sense of professional discipline if he had to dedicate a few years to being a college student? (Okay, maybe Tracy was always a lost cause...)

College is not just about getting a higher education and being in a classroom all the time. It is not just about getting a job and getting started on a career path. A significant part of the college experience is being "on your own" for the first time away from your parents and direct supervision and in an environment that is mostly comprised of other young adults in your similar age range. You cannot be a selfish prick and survive in college without quickly being ostracized. For many people, those four years are when they learn the most about themselves and what they want to be as a person. You learn to think critically and self-evaluate. It is also about learning how to properly interact with other people as an adult. These are skills you simply cannot acquire by being a coddled prodigy living at home with your parents and having a series of "yes men" AAU coaches telling you everything you want to hear about how awesome you are.

On the flip side, NBA teams and the management of rosters has been an ever-increasing challenge once it became common for teenagers to be eligible for the draft.

Once Kevin Garnett became an All-Star, every single NBA team had to re-assess how it drafted players and who made the roster. As a rookie, Garnett got little playing time and he was essentially a non-factor on a Timberwolves team that was in transition. With Garnett on the roster, that meant a veteran player no longer had a job. It also meant that Minnesota was short-handed most every night because they had to keep Garnett activated. This made the coach's job that much tougher. Teams also had to assign players and staff to watch over the newly-drafted teenager to make sure that he did not do anything stupid outside of practice and games. Garnett was fortunate to have Sam Mitchell be his personal buddy and mentor. Not everyone was so lucky. The case of Leon Smith, for example, was tragic. The Dallas Mavericks had no idea how to handle a maladjusted 18 year old they drafted entirely based on potential. It blew up in their face. Though what should have been a cautionary tale ended up swept aside by the relative successes of Garnett, Kobe and McGrady.

The real problem is that the NBA is a business. The customers are the fans. And from 1995 onward, the fans have been fed an ever-decreasing quality of product. Additionally, it is becoming all-too common for the NBA Draft to be a collection of names that no one has heard of before. That's not a slam on the foreign players. That's a slam on all of the high school players and freshman early entries that went "pro" based purely on potential and measurables and not based on any empirical evidence generated on the basketball court during a college game. For example, would Marvin Williams really have been drafted ahead of someone like Chris Paul if he stuck around North Carolina for another few years? Paul at least played significant minutes in his couple of seasons of college basketball. Marvin mostly rode the bench and his draft stock was based primarily on the mystery of his supposed athleticism.

I am 34 years old.[2] So, yes, my "glory years" of watching college basketball occurred in the late 80s and early 90s when I was able to watch players grow over the course of 3-4 years. Yes, the NCAA tournament was much better then. Even if I was not old enough to gamble on it. The 1991 UNLV team remains the best basketball team I ever saw. I do not care that they lost to the evil Blue Devils that year in the semis.[3] When these players would enter the NBA I had a strong familiarity with them. I recognized their names immediately. This is a good thing. Shaquille O'Neal, Christian Laettner, Alonzo Mourning, Grant Hill, Jason Kidd, Kenny Anderson, Larry Johnson, etc. etc. These players were finished products that the league could readily market to the average NBA fan. They were also 21 to 23 year old adults who invariably had a better sense of responsibility and the characteristics of professionalism they developed as college athletes. Even Michael Jordan stayed at North Carolina for 3 seasons. Jordan would have stayed for his senior year but Dean Smith told him he was ready. If Jordan came out as a freshman, would he have set the NBA on fire in 1982 the same way he did in 1984? Doubtful. Very doubtful.

The NBA's one-and-done rule helped this factor immensely. Kevin Durant was a known entity after his freshman year at Texas. Derrick Rose as well. And the aforementioned Anthony Davis this year. Similarly, while the Rule was not in place at the time, Carmelo Anthony greatly benefitted from his very successful year at Syracuse. That ring ‘Melo got may be the last he ever gets. And it still gives him a +1 over LeBron in the jewelry department.

Accordingly, I am a huge proponent of adding a year or two to the Rule.[4] I think the NCAA and the NBA would both benefit from not allowing a player to declare for the draft until his high school graduating class is 2-3 years removed from graduation. From purely a marketing standpoint this is good for everyone. From a personal growth standpoint, this should be good for any individual who desires to become a professional basketball player.

Easy cash grabs usually turn out poorly for everyone involved.

(That said, I do not begrudge any of the "high school" players that jumped to the NBA early. If you can make a few million dollars right away and help out your family, you take that opportunity when you can. From a long-term perspective though it is just bad for the business model of professional sports.)

The NFL has shown that its own 3-year rule works. The NFL Draft dominates news. It dwarfs the coverage of the NBA or MLB drafts. I posit that player recognition is a significant reason why. After having been able to watch these players for 3+ years, we are familiar with them and are eager for our respective favorite teams to draft them. It is much harder to rally the fan base around an unknown 18 year old. Even in the age of Facebook, Twitter and the 24 hour media cycle, Anthony Davis was largely an unknown to the average basketball fan a year ago. Look at him now. It is amazing the difference a single year can make.

It would be in the NBA's best interests (and also the players' association) to expand the scope of the Rule. I am all in favor of getting rid of the "one and done" but only in favor of a "two and through" or "three and free". It is better for everyone that way.


[2] That's right, my age is rocking Hakeem's number. For at least another month or so.

[3] Relatedly, F Duke.

[4] One of the few things David Stern and I agree on these days.