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Sunday, January 16, 2022

This past Saturday, the Kentucky Wildcats put a cap on their perfect regular season by beating the visiting Florida Gators by a decisive score of 67-50. The game was pretty close until about halfway through the second half, when Kentucky’s depth and, well, talent overpowered the struggling Gators and sent them away with their first losing record in the regular season since Billy Donovan’s second season as the head man at Florida in 1997-98. The Wildcats will enter the NCAA tournament looking to be the first team to completely run the table since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers.

While it doesn’t generally roll into the big dance undefeated, Kentucky is still consistently regarded as one of the top programs in college basketball along with Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, etc. They’re a shoe-in for the tournament year after year, they almost always challenge for the SEC crown, and perhaps most importantly, they bring in top recruiting classes year after year.

Since taking over in 2009, head coach John Calipari has turned Kentucky into a recruiting juggernaut. According to ESPN, the Wildcats have managed to reel in a top-2 class every year starting in 2009, including number one classes in all but two years. This is certainly a key to its success because year after year Kentucky, like most high-profile college basketball programs, relies on its freshmen to start and play big minutes. This is because more often than not the would-be sophomores that were part of the past year’s phenomenal recruiting class have moved on to the NBA. It’s happened at Kentucky every year since Calipari took over, and it happens at almost every major college basketball school.

Let’s take a look at Kentucky’s draft history since Calipari took over, just to get the full picture. He took over in 2009, which is when he brought in his first recruiting class. The first NBA draft that took place while he was at Kentucky was in 2010. In the 2010 draft, John Wall of Kentucky went number 1 overall to the Washington Wizards. DeMarcus Cousins, also of Kentucky, went fifth overall to the Sacramento Kings. Wall and Cousins were the top two recruits in the 2009 class, and both called it a collegiate career after 1 season in Lexington. In the 2011 draft, Kentucky point guard Brandon Knight went eighth overall to the Detroit Pistons. Knight had been the marque recruit of Calipari’s 2010 class, and like Wall and Cousins before him, he too was one-and-done. The 2012 draft was even more exceptional than the past two for Kentucky, as Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, both from Kentucky, went first and second overall. Not surprisingly, both were Kentucky’s top recruits in the 2011 class. In 2013, the draft was pretty quiet by Kentucky’s standards. They only had two first round selections, with the top one being Nerlens Noel at sixth overall. He, too, was their top recruit in the year prior. Finally, there’s the 2014 draft. Julius Randle was the headliner, going seventh overall to the Los Angeles Lakers. In addition, James Young went seventeenth to the Boston Celtics. Randle was yet another number-one-recruit-gone-top-draft-pick-in-one-year from Kentucky and according to ESPN, James Young was ranked as Kentucky’s fourth best recruit in the 2013 cycle.

While there are certainly some exceptions, it’s clear that many or even most of Kentucky’s top talent consistently goes to the NBA after one year at school. And why not? As great and encouraging as it is to see athletes who put the “student” in “student athlete,” it seems insane that players like Wall, Cousins, Davis, etc. wouldn’t leave college after a year to make millions in the NBA, especially when they aren’t seeing a dime from Kentucky.

Obviously, I don’t specifically mean to pick on Kentucky; it’s just emblematic of the larger problem at hand: If NBA teams (or NFL teams, for that matter) are willing to draft college athletes straight out of high school, why won’t their respective leagues let them do so?

The NBA rule goes back to 2005, when the league made it a requirement that draft entrants be at least nineteen years old and required them to sit out at least one NBA season before becoming eligible. Before this rule was put into the league’s CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement), players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Dwight Howard were able to go straight from their high school gymnasiums to playing in the Staples Center, Quicken Loans Arena, and Amway Arena. Why did the rule change? Well, the NBA claims that players need more time to develop and they don’t want their teams scouting high-schoolers. They’d rather have teams scout players facing a higher level of competition. This seems to make little if any sense at all, as it’s been routinely shown that players can become superstars in the NBA straight out of high school. LeBron did. Kobe did. Is there more risk involved? Sure, for both the players and the teams that decide to draft them. But hey, there’s always risk involved, and players can be busts whether they’re coming out of high school or college.

Some also argue that requiring players to go to college for (at least) a year gives them the opportunity to pursue an education, which can be incredibly valuable if they ever go down with an injury. However, one year of college does not produce a degree, and most players who are good enough to go one-and-done aren’t leaving any more educated than when they came in. Again I say: why not? These players will presumably be making millions for many years and even if they don’t they could easily afford an education with a fraction of their signing bonuses if they choose to save them for such a time. That’s certainly a big if, but when the options are either go to college for four years, get a degree, get paid nothing, and then start making millions at 22 as compared to go to college for one year, start making millions at 19 and easily have enough money to go back to school later if need be, the decision practically makes itself.

It seems clear that the current rules regarding entry into the NBA don’t make much sense, and they’re hard to fix. However, there seem to be two equally extreme, yet more rational options.

Option one is to remove the age requirement, college requirement, or anything like that. If teams want to risk drafting players out of high school, let them go for it. If athletes want to take the risk of declaring right out of high school, they can go for it. If athletes actually want to be student athletes and elect to go to college before going pro, they can go for it. Even if athletes actually choose to go for one year and showcase their skills at the college level, they can go for that too. In other words, it would be up to the players and the teams, not the league.

Some people say that this would take away some of the thrills of college basketball. And what if the NFL adopted a similar policy, since their current policy also makes very little sense? A hit against college football? Am I mad? Am I crazy? Have I lost my mind?

It does sound jarring at first, but with football, it would seem far more likely that players would opt for college for a few years anyway, because that level of competition is important for talent evaluators. However, the arbitrary three year rule needs to go. Going back to basketball, there might be fewer SportsCenter top 10 dunks coming from college basketball, but I don’t think any excitement would be lost.

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The other option would be to require players to go to college for four years. This way, they would almost be forced to get a degree and would be actual student athletes instead of the NBA or NFL equivalent to baseball minor leaguers (minus the pay, of course). It’s definitely radical and seems a bit unfair, since theoretically players should be free to pursue their careers whenever they want. Then again, the NFL and NBA are private companies and can require whatever they want. Therefore, if the powers that be suddenly decide that education is actually valuable, this could be a viable option provided that the NCAA finally agrees to give players some form of payment.

As much as I respect true student athletes, many that are billed as such are simply athletes. That isn’t to say that they’re dumb or inferior to actual student athletes; it’s just saying that priority number one for Nerlens Noel and Anthony Davis and Julius Randle was not going to school, nor getting an education. It was playing basketball and making it to the NBA. The hurdle of the one-and-done rule is unnecessary, nonsensical, and needs to be done away with. The NFL isn’t much better and needs to seriously consider reform as well. Hopefully, both leagues can settle on policies that actually bear some semblance of sense.

If history is any indication, this is unlikely. But I’m holding out hope.

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