The college basketball season has not been this irrelevant to an upcoming NBA draft in a long time. Since the one-and-done era began in 2006, almost every American prospect has played in the NCAA. Those days are coming to an end.
In the past few years, several players have skipped college without harming their NBA stocks. In 2019, the trickle of prospects taking an unconventional path to the league turned into a flash flood. It’s no longer just less-heralded ones projected to go in the back half of the draft. Now the best players are doing it, too.
As many as four of the top five picks in the 2020 NBA draft could already be done playing college basketball. Two—LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton—never played at all; they went to Australia as part of the NBL’s Next Stars Program. James Wiseman played only three games at Memphis before his season was short-circuited by eligibility issues. And Cole Anthony injured his knee after playing just nine games at UNC. He’s expected to miss at least another month, but there’s no guarantee that he’ll return when he’s healthy.
The underlying trend for all four is the same: The best prospects are taking their careers into their own hands. They don’t need the NCAA anymore. They already have established reputations from years of playing on summer circuits in high school. It’s not always in their best interests to play a few months of college basketball, where NBA teams have an easier time seeing some of the holes in their games.
Wiseman is the perfect example. He could have returned to Memphis after serving a 12-game suspension for receiving money for him and his family to move to Nashville in high school. Instead, he shut himself down to focus on the draft.
As the consensus top recruit in his high school class, Wiseman doesn’t have much to gain from playing in college. He’s a polarizing prospect: an über-athletic 7-footer with incredible physical tools who also tends to float through games. The bigger issue is that centers like Wiseman, who lack refined perimeter games, have never been less valuable at the next level. He didn’t get a chance to address those concerns in his brief NCAA career—but he also didn’t stick around long enough to make them worse.
That is what happened to Anthony in his two months in Chapel Hill. He was a contender to be the no. 1 pick coming into the season, but there were concerns about his athleticism as well as his tendency to hunt for his own shot instead of setting up his teammates. Playing on a bad NCAA team only encouraged his worst habits. Anthony forced a lot of shots over double-teams at North Carolina, averaging 19.1 points per game on only 36.8 percent shooting and handing out more turnovers (3.8 per game) than assists (3.4). Part of the issue was that he had no one to pass to. The Tar Heels had little outside shooting around him. The rest of their team is shooting just 29.8 percent from 3 this season.
Anthony could return to the Tar Heels once he recovers from knee surgery in a few weeks. But the incentives are pointing him in the opposite direction. UNC is 7-5 and lost to Wofford in its first game without its star point guard. If the team’s season is over by the time Anthony can play, he might have to prioritize his own future. His high school reputation should prevent him from slipping in the draft if he shuts himself down. Coming back and continuing to struggle would potentially give NBA teams more reason to sour on him.
The one-and-done rule was about more than letting players benefit from the college experience. As former commissioner David Stern has said, it was as much about helping front offices evaluate those young players. Forcing kids to play in the NCAA would give NBA teams valuable data about their performance against high-level competition and help teams avoid making mistakes at the top of the draft.
The best example of how the process can “work” for teams is the Harrison twins, who were widely regarded as future lottery picks coming out of high school in 2013. But after two seasons at Kentucky, where NBA scouts were able to watch them closely, Andrew Harrison was taken in the second round and Aaron Harrison went undrafted. The Harrisons were bigger guards who used their size to dominate at lower levels, but their lack of elite athleticism or feel for the game became more of an issue once they were in college. Neither wound up sticking in the NBA.
There are still plenty of busts who spend a year or two in college looking like future All-Stars then flop in the NBA. Drafting young basketball players is an inexact science. But that’s exactly why teams will take as much help as they can get. The opportunity cost of waiting an extra season for a good player doesn’t outweigh the damage that drafting a less talented player in the lottery can do to a franchise.
The interesting change in the past few years is that the players are getting wise to the system. The NCAA isn’t for everyone. There are plenty of other paths to the NBA.
Brandon Jennings was the first elite American prospect to skip college and play overseas, spending one season in Italy before being taken at no. 10 in the 2009 draft. Emmanuel Mudiay, who went to China in 2014, was one of the only notable prospects to follow in his footsteps.
The NBL, based in Australia and New Zealand, is trying to make going overseas much more viable. Terrance Ferguson, who was taken by the Thunder with the no. 21 pick in 2017, was the first to play in the Next Stars Program. And now Hampton and Ball are seeing their draft stocks rise there. The NBL has a couple of things working in its favor for players waiting out the one-and-done rule. It occupies a middle ground in terms of level of play among international leagues. It’s one step below Europe, where many teams can’t afford to develop a teenager, and above China, where elite prospects aren’t challenged enough. There’s also less of a culture and language gap for American teenagers in Australia than almost anywhere else in the world.
After a winding journey through the basketball underworld, LaMelo needed a platform to showcase his game in a professional setting. In the NBL, he’s averaging a near triple-double (17.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 7.0 assists) this season for the Illawarra Hawks and showing a well-rounded skill set for a 6-foot-7 point forward. There are still red flags in his profile in terms of his funky shooting mechanics and poor shooting percentages, but he has put himself in the running to be the no. 1 pick.
Hampton is a less refined combo guard who probably wouldn’t have been able to handle being a primary ball handler at the NBL level. He’s played well in a complementary role for the New Zealand Breakers, averaging 9.5 points on 42 percent shooting, 4.2 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game. It’s a good situation for Hampton. He can play on and off the ball on a veteran team that covers for him on defense and spaces the floor for him on offense. He should be a lottery pick, and might climb into the top few spots given how weak the rest of the draft looks.
LaMelo has a unique background so he’s unlikely to set much of a precedent for future prospects, but Hampton is a different story. Unlike Ferguson or LaMelo, he didn’t have an off-court reason for bypassing college. He was an elite recruit who reclassified to skip his senior season of high school and could have played for any school in the country. Hampton just thought the NBL was the best situation for him to advance his career. He might have been right.
NBA personnel who have yet to make the trip to scout them in person might be out of luck. Both players are injured at the moment—a bruised foot for Ball and a hip strain for Hampton—and will be faced with the same dilemma as Anthony once they are healthy. Why give people more time to pick apart their games if they don’t have to? LaVar Ball has already said that LaMelo won’t return unless he’s 100 percent. There is nothing more for him to gain now that he’s near the top of every mock draft.
While prospects playing in the NBL isn’t a huge issue for NBA front offices on its own, it creates another time demand on people who are already stretched thin. There are more avenues around the world to enter the NBA than ever before. And the windows of time to evaluate players are getting smaller and smaller.
Three notable players in the past two years have essentially sat out the season before the draft. Anfernee Simons was taken by the Blazers with the no. 24 pick in 2018 after forgoing college for a year in prep school. Mitchell Robinson was taken by the Knicks with the no. 36 pick in 2018 after he withdrew from Western Kentucky before the start of his freshman season. And Darius Bazley went no. 23 in the 2019 draft after he skipped college and spent a year interning at New Balance.
It’s too early to know how any of the three will turn out. But they have already rewarded the teams that drafted them for doing their due diligence. Simons has shown flashes of high-level scoring ability as a combo guard off the bench. Robinson is one of the most athletic 7-footers in the NBA and could develop into an elite rim-running and shot-blocking center. And Bazley has been a pleasant surprise with OKC, getting consistent minutes off the bench for a playoff contender as a perimeter-oriented power forward. There wasn’t much information on any of the three players leading into their rookie seasons. All three had to be evaluated solely off their high school careers and what could be gleaned out of pre-draft workouts and interviews.
The same thing will be true for Wiseman, and to a lesser extent for Ball, Hampton, and Anthony if they shut themselves down. It’s a brave new world for NBA front offices. Or, maybe more accurately, a return to the previous one, before one-and-done was put in place.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has spent the past few seasons trying to build support for eliminating the rule. The sticking point is that teams want medical records from prospects in exchange for waiving the rule, while agents would rather hold them in reserve to help steer their clients to favorable situations.
None of the front-office people I’ve talked too have seemed enthusiastic about getting rid of the rule, if for no other reason than it creates a lot more work for them. They would have to follow high school and AAU more closely, while still keeping an eye on college and international basketball and the G League. The margin for error would be thinner with less information to go off of, and they would have less time to process what they do gather.
But change is being forced upon them whether they like it or not. Players are figuring out how to use the one-and-done rule to serve their own interests. They can sit out a year, head overseas, and/or shut themselves down if they need to. There’s no right way to enter the league anymore. The NBA draft has always been hard to figure out. It will only get harder in the years to come.