One of the things you’re just going to have to be OK with, if you’re going to be a fan of college basketball, is that you will not be watching the best players in the world, playing at the peak of their craft. That’s what the NBA is for, and college basketball fans for the most part have no problem accepting that.
Still, it’s nice to see a young superstar come through every once in a while. Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, Andrew Wiggins, John Wall, Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis, Josh Jackson, Lonzo Ball — it was a blast to watch these guys play in college.
Durant in particular was like something from another solar system. And if, as I do, you follow a team (Kansas) that is frequently in the mix for these players, there is every two or three years some new big-shot wing player who is always 6-foot-8 and can jump out of the gym but could use a little work on his jump shot but he’s going to be special, that much everybody knows. Then there’s always some flattering comparison — the next Kawhi Leonard.
But now NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said the one-and-done rule is not long for this world.
“It’s clear a change will come,” Silver said Monday on ESPN’s “Mike & Mike” show.
Silver’s reasoning for that is that it is causing all kinds of trouble in the college game, and chaos in the college game is not good for the NBA game. And that’s all fine. Without knowing what rule might replace it, this doesn’t necessarily spell the end of one-and-done players in college hoops. But removing a rule that forces players like Josh Jackson to go to college is a move in the right direction (even if one-and-dones will still exist).
Because even just as a fan of college basketball, I won’t miss the steady stream of one-and-done players. Even the ones that live up to the hype.
Which a lot of them do. Kansas has had this happen several times now. Xavier Henry, Ben McLemore, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Josh Jackson were all at least as good as advertised. They all starred on teams that won Big 12 championships. None of those players could be considered a disappointment, and yet even under the best of circumstances, with the ideal outcomes for one-and-done players, those seasons ended short of the national championship.
Kansas has been to the Final Four twice since the one-and-done rule came into effect in 2005, winning one championship (in 2008, without a one-and-done player on the roster). Other schools have had a little more success with these guys. Kentucky has been to four Final Fours and won one championship (over Kansas in 2012) since the one-and-done rule began. North Carolina has four Final Fours and two championships in that time. Some schools have briefly used one-and-done players to lift up down programs (Kansas State), and others have gotten one-and-done players, watched them put up bonkers stats, and gotten little out of it (Texas, LSU).
The one-and-done rule hasn’t changed much of anything about the balance of power in college basketball, it’s just turned the whole thing into a lottery. And as a college basketball fan, I’m not going to miss it, because seeing the best 18-year-olds play was never the point of this in the first place.
LeBron James entered the NBA when high school players still could, and I certainly don’t feel deprived because I didn’t get to see Lebron play for Mike Krzyzewski or Thad Matta for a year. When I wanted to see him play, I just watched the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Kevin Durant year at Texas was dazzling, but was anything really gained from it? It didn’t elevate Texas’ program. It didn’t make college basketball more popular. It didn’t do much to advance Durant’s goals as a basketball player. Of course Michael Beasley did a lot for Kansas State, and that was a lot of fun, but I think it’s safe to say most Wildcats fans hold more fondness in their hearts for the teams that came right after that, coached by Frank Martin, and led by one of the overlooked players in Beasley’s class, Jacob Pullen.
I don’t say this to be maudlin, it’s just a matter of fact that college basketball fandom is about different things than professional basketball fandom is about. Even though everybody understands there is a market playing out behind the scenes for these players, and that these are not exactly regular students who tried out for the basketball squad, and a good many of them have little involvement in their academics and and even less interest in them, these guys nonetheless do come in as a class, usually three, four, five at a time. And that sets them on a quest, together, to accomplish something unforgettable. Then four years later, in February, on Senior Night, they walk out there with their parents, and the fans toss roses at their feet and they make a big speech in front of everyone about we’re not done yet.
That’s not better than the NBA, and it’s not worse, but players like Anthony Davis and Andrew Wiggins fit awkwardly into that space. A team has recruited this core group of players that is building toward something, and now all the sudden here’s this new guy available who isn’t even going to live here long enough to lose a sock in the dryer, but what are you going to do, not sign him? He can lick soup off the top of the backboard for goodness sake.
Josh Jackson was the No. 4 pick in the NBA draft, but his teammate, senior Frank Mason, was the National Player of the Year. In both cases, that was the correct choice, and it says a great deal about the difference between what people value about the game at different levels.
The one-and-done rule was a fine experiment, and I’m glad the NBA tried it. But its time is almost up, and I don’t think college basketball will miss it.