PHOENIX – Like many NBA standouts, Suns guard Devin Booker has come a long way. After moving to Mississippi to live with his father during high school, he worked hard, earned a scholarship to play at Kentucky and after one season on the bench, declared for the NBA Draft. The Suns’ 13th overall pick in 2015 has become one of the most elite scorers in the league.
For one-and-done players, Booker is more the exception than the rule.
After securing the No. 1 pick in Tuesday’s NBA draft lottery, odds are good the Suns will find themseleves in one-and-done land again. Two players who just finished their freshmen seasons — Arizona’s Deandre Ayton and Valley product Marvin Bagley III, of Duke — are widely regarded as candidates for the top spot.
Would landing another one-and-done player be a good thing? History reveals a mixed bag of results.
Sixty-five freshmen have been selected among the NBA Draft’s first 14, or “lottery” picks, since the league implemented the one-and-done rule. Of that group, 12 have become All-Stars, some are in still-to-be determined mode and others have crashed and burned, including Illinois’ Jereme Richmond, who ended up in jail and never played a minute in the NBA.
The Suns have selected a one-and-done lottery pick in each of the last three drafts: Booker, Marquese Chriss and Josh Jackson.
In 2005 during labor negotiations, former NBA Commissioner David Stern established a rule that required players to be at least 19 and a year removed from high school before being allowed to enter the league. The goal was to help players develop and be more NBA ready.
It didn’t sway many top players from thinking college basketball was little more than a one-year rental system.
“A lot of kids know what their professions are going to be in their life and that’s professional basketball, whatever level it’s at,” Booker said. “I wouldn’t say school’s a waste of time. I have great memories there, the time I was at Kentucky, but at the same time some people need it financially to jump to professional sports.”
Booker, who was the sixth man on a very loaded 2014-15 Kentucky team (which had four players picked among the first 14 of that draft), said that he made his decision to leave once he saw some mock drafts listing him as a lottery pick. He also said that no player should stay in college if they’re in that range.
Unlike Booker, many one-and-done players aren’t ready to deal with the life that comes with being an NBA player at 18, 19 or 20, whether that’s physical maturity or mental preparedness.
“A lot can happen in those three years in terms of just personal development, let alone basketball,” Suns assistant general manager Pat Connelly said. “The guys that have stayed at school a little bit have been through a little bit more probably on their own, had more adult responsibilities, and the guys coming in after one year just don’t have that shared time experience. They get six or seven months on campus and kind of get thrown into an adult league.”
It’s not just maturity. For many, coaching is an adjustment. Suns coach Jay Triano said the more experienced college players “had a coach and they know how to be coached” compared to one-and-done and high school players.
“They know how to accept coaching and I think that’s a huge thing because some guys who just played AAU basketball or only one year, they don’t know how to deal with a coach getting on them or (have) an understanding that coaches are, a lot of times, trying to help,” Triano said. “We have a quote that you take coaching to make you better, don’t take coaching to make you bitter. … You learn that through the years of being coached at a college.”
ASU history professor and sports historian Victoria Jackson, a former North Carolina track and field athlete, said that when she was competing she thought the Tar Heels were superior to Kentucky because of the Wildcats’ embracing of the one-and-done rule. When she learned the Tar Heels were involved an education scandal that engulfed the program, it had an impact on her mindset.
“I started to see what (coach John) Calipari was doing in Kentucky is in his athletes’ interests,” Jackson said. “He’s creating a pathway for them to the pros because the current system wasn’t working. These are people that have the skills and abilities to go pro after high school but they’re required to play at least one year in the college level or be 19 before they enter the NBA draft. That’s doing a disservice to those athletes since there aren’t any alternative and these students might not want to stay in college and play for a college team for three to four years.”
The scandal is what led her down the path to “athlete activism,” she said.
Calipari recently spoke passionately about the one-and-done rule in a story written by the Courier Journal that quoted Calipari on his radio show.
“Kids should be able to go out of high school, but we cannot devalue education,” he said. “We cannot devalue education. In other words, encourage all the young kids to just worry about the NBA. How many of them are really getting to the NBA?”
He said he wasn’t “worried about billionaires in the NBA who own NBA teams,” but his concern is with the players who don’t make it in the NBA and are left to deal with their lives after failing in the league.
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and multiple high-profile players including LeBron James and Kevin Durant have gone on the record saying they’re against the rule. According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, Silver and his top advisers “have been engaged in listening tours and information-gathering missions with an array of stakeholders for months. That has included formal meetings with the National Basketball Players Association about adjusting the so-called “one-and-done” age-limit rule. … A plan is expected to include the NBA starting relationships with elite teenagers while they are in high school, providing skills to help them develop both on and off the court.”
Changing the rule presents challenges. Triano and ASU coach Bobby Hurley said they don’t know how they would fix the issue. Do you pay college players? Do you put in an age limit for the NBA?
Paying players, for example, raises more questions. What would be the minimum and maximum? Do all sports deserve equal pay?, What about players earning money from their likenesses?
Others have suggested following the path of Major League Baseball, which allows the player to leave after high school but if he goes to college, he has to stay at least three years (junior college is the exception). When Calipari was asked if the baseball rule could work in basketball, he said it’s “totally a different deal.”
“If you get the top 10 or 15 kids to go directly to the NBA, do you really need a one- or two- or three-year rule? No, because if they were that good they wouldn’t have gone to college, they would have gone straight to the NBA,” Calipari said. “So now they’ll stay two or three years. They don’t have a choice. But what if an Anthony Davis goes from 6-3 to 6-11 in one year? Well then go, ‘You’re fine, that’s a different deal, and we’re not going to hold you back for the sport versus for the kid.’ ”
Another option gaining supporters is to make the G League a better place to grow players’ skills and let it serve as an alternative to the NCAA. The Suns’ Connelly supports the idea, believing it would help those younger players secure minutes and experience competition and life similar to that of an NBA player.
Things in the G League are already changing. Players are seeing pay raises from either $19,000 or $26,000 a year to $35,000, according to New York Times Sports Reporter Marc Stein. In addition, they will also have “housing and insurance benefits over the course of the league’s five-month regular season.”
Education remains a priority for many. Suns center Tyson Chandler said he wants the NCAA to let players who aren’t drafted keep their eligibility. Jackson believes there should be a system in place like the Olympics to allow young athletes to develop “educationally, professionally regardless of where they’re playing,” specifically through online courses so “they’re set up for life.”
There are no easy answers. But with the lottery today and the NBA Draft on June 21, the questions are coming to the forefront.