Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: 30 first round draft picks walk into a bar, pick number one steps up and looks at the bartender and says, “I just got drafted into the NBA. I’m the #1 overall pick and I’m going to make millions of dollars, but in celebration I want to buy all of my fellow draftees a shot, so pour us your most expensive drink.” The bartender, a crusty old man with a grey beard that falls all the way down to his belly, tattoo of an anchor on his neck, and one eye a little cloudier than the other furrows his sun dried brow and without blinking gets within 1-inch of the young soon-to-be millionaire and breathes his hot breathe right into the ball players nostrils as he says, “ID, please.” The top pick steps back, “Sir, you must not know who I am. I played for the legendary Coach K, I was part of his last recruiting class and now I’m going to be playing for the Orlando Magic, can you please just pour my friends and me some drinks?” The bartender doesn’t move. His stare pierces the poor player’s soul as he clicked his tongue and says again, “ID, please.” Knowing that the bartender isn’t going to waver, the player sees defeat, the first he’d felt in a long time, or at least since April 4th, and he slinks to the back of the line of the other draft picks. A rail-thin young man shakes his head at his fellow draftee and bigfoot-strolls his way to the counter. His 7-foot frame made his pillow top hair almost scrape the ceiling, “Mr. Bartender, I’m sorry for my friend’s braggadocios demeaner. We’re here to celebrate together one last time before we head into the NBA and become enemies on the floor. You look like you know something about real battle and can relate to us trying to enjoy this moment together before we go our separate ways. How about you serve us your drink of choice and share one with us as well as part of this momentous occasion!” The bartender’s nose twitches but his gaze never wavers. He looks up at the beanstalk and says, “ID, please.” Before the Leaning Tower of the WCC could open his mouth he’s brushed aside by pick #3: “Sir, I’m sorry that my friends are wasting your time. We are underage. We came here to simply celebrate this moment in time. We don’t want to put you in a compromising situation and if you are willing to make an exception for us we would greatly appreciate it, if not, we will leave your establishment with no issue.” The old man’s hand started to shake. Not with rage or frustration, but with the weariness of time and a life of great toil. His arm raised out in front of him, a lone finger straightened out and slowly moved pointing towards the door. Message sent. Message received. Slowly, 24 of the 30 NBAers make their way out the door. The remaining 6 look at each other, step up to the bar, and slap their ID’s down in unison. For the first time the bartender drops his gaze, but only to look at the cards in front of him. He picks up his head but instead of the contentious look he had conveyed to the others, the remaining players witness the biggest, yellowest, toothiest grin, as the bar tender almost magically spreads 6 shot glasses out, one for each and says, “What’ll you have?”
With Kansas’ dynamic duo of Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun both being drafted in the first round, they became a part of unique group: upperclassmen getting drafted. The 2005 NBA labor negotiations brought forth the implementation of Commissioner David Stern’s “one-and-done” rule. This provision required draft prospects be at least 19 years old and a year removed from high school before they could officially enter the draft. Since that shift in time there have been waves of contention and acceptance surrounding the rule crashing into one another as creative workarounds have developed to keep players in college while simultaneously getting them to the pros right away. Between 2006 and 2011 an average of 11 old guys were drafted in the first round including 3 years where 50% of draftees were juniors or seniors. The 2018-2022 averages on the other hand sink down to 5 upperclassmen picked in the first round with only 4 walking the stage in 2020 and 2021. But the 2005 CBA provision hasn’t been the driving factor in the underclassmen surge.
When Kevin Garnett was drafted out of high school in 1995, it was the first time in 14 years that a player had been drafted out of high school and only the 3rd ever. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1971 titled, Haywood v. National Basketball Association, ruled against the original NBA draft regulation of requiring a player to wait 4 years after high school to be draft eligible. The original regulation was put into place with the assumption that the 4 years would be spent in college, but the new ruling shifted the landscape and opened the door for young players to not only leave college early but to never set foot on a campus at all in their quest for NBA stardom and the money that flows with it. Even with KG paving a new way for young talent in ’95, it wasn’t until 2001 that the draft saw more than 3 players in a class go prep-to-pro with only 11 total players between 1995 and 2000. Wildly enough, 5 of those 11 would become NBA All-Stars and 3 would eventually be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame. But this 2001 class made the NBA commissioner start to fidget in his leather chair as a whopping 5 HS players were drafted. While Amar’e Stoudemire was the lone ranger of the 2002 class for HS kids, 5 more came in 2003, 8 in 2004, and 9 in 2005. When considering that almost 1/3 of the entire 2005 first round class was made of up HS players, this no longer seemed like an anomaly.
The NBA pitched the one-and-done rule by disguising it as concern for the safety and protection of “the kids.” The perception that Stern was trying to foster was that these 18 year old boys lacked the physical and emotional maturity coming straight out of high school to safely transition to the pros where the grown men played. Isolating that notion into a singular idea makes it seems like plausible concern, but it also begs many questions: Is a 19 year old any more or less mature than an 18 year old? Is the NBA with its wealth of trainers, nutritionists, and a deeply vested interest in protecting key assets not more than fully qualified to take care of an 18 year old? How is a college more qualified than the NBA to protect and support young players? But potential is a succulent word for NBA execs. The reality is that 18, 19, and 20 year old’s have ruled the draft for decades as players begin to show their talent ceiling by their junior and senior years, and despite the contrary belief, even the high-major blue-blood institutions can’t offer the same things that the League can when it comes to player care either physically or mentally. An institutions athletic department is looking after thousands of athletes while an NBA team is providing for one roster. The personal attention for all aspects of life given to an NBA rookie outweigh anything a college or university can offer. What the one-and-done rule is actually doing is giving the NBA free marketing. With a year in college, high-profile, high-potential players get showcased from November to April with nationally televised head-to-head matchups against other lottery picks; they get to put their talents on display for March Madness, the nations most exciting athletic stage; name recognition happens, conversations start, attachments to these players begin so when they enter the draft their marketing stock is at its peak. Consider the 2022 National Tournament alone: The dream Elite Eight matchup was Duke and Gonzaga. Not because of the powerhouse matchup, but it was going to be Paolo v Chet the potential #1 and #2 picks going head to head on the games biggest stage. The story inside Miami’s upset of #2 seed Auburn wasn’t anything but potential top pick Jabari Smith Jr going 1-8 from the 3-point line for a meager 10 points. The NCAA is built on stories and the up and coming draft picks have become integral to the story-telling which creates the ideal marketing scheme for the NBA.
The one-and-done also decreases risk for NBA teams. Potential is scary. Lottery picks especially can’t miss, and the NCAA offers itself as a preview, a training grounds, to see if the hype is real. There will still be risk, but it’s mitigated. This aspect is beginning to fade away though as prep schools, the G-League, international opportunities, and pro training camps are starting to become more viable options for top prospects–2 G-Leaguers went in the 1st round this year–but with the NIL in full wild west mode, those options may or may not continue to stick. So if you’re not a young pup getting marketed through the NCAA for draft stock or taking an innovative approach to go pro, what are you left to do? The first old man pick of the 2022 draft didn’t come until pick 12 with Jalen Williams out of Santa Clara heading to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The blossoming 6-5 shooting guard needed 3 years to develop and eventually prove that he was worth being drafted from the WCC. Next came Ogbaji who tested the waters last year, but had to return to prove he was one of the best college players in the country by winning a national championship, and even that barely got him to the lottery. Jake LaRavia was picked 19th by Minnesota after having spent two years at Indiana State without much attention until he transferred to the ACC. David Roddy from Colorado State shares similar sentiment to Williams coming out of the Mountain West, and then of course Broun and Wendell Moore found the sweet spot of reaching national prominence at national powerhouses but reached the point that another year in college wouldn’t do them any elevating. So what are the upperclassmen like Ogbaji, Braun, and Moore supposed to do? They aren’t the scintillating underclassmen but they have a chance in the league if they can position themselves well during their final college seasons. This is where the transfer portal plays a vital role. If an upperclassmen can get to a high-major, tournament bound school they have a much higher chance of getting drafted. Thankfully for the aforementioned trio they found ideal college homes right out of the gate, had the opportunity to able to develop, and get to the first round of the draft. What’s likely going to happen now is that the low- and mid-major institutions are going to become Super-JUCOs: Prime kids who flew under the radar so that they can transfer to one of the big dogs and become one of the rare upperclassmen draftees. This could open the doors to a wave of upperclassmen ponying up to the post-draft bar with their valid, government issued IDs to order a celebratory drink, but we’ll have to wait until we all get a little bit older because only time will tell.