With the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament having come and gone, we are into the first “issues” phase of the in-between days. The next, and more serious, issues phase will happen in the days leading up to the Final Four, but for now there is an ongoing discussion about the one-and-done rule and how it interacts with the tournament.
What I’ve noticed in this argument is that people tend to talk right past each other. So I thought it would be useful to take this topic all the way back to its Big Bang, which came in 2002-03 when freshman Carmelo Anthony led an otherwise only OK Syracuse team to a national championship. He proved that it could be done, and he made it look easy.
A little too easy, as it turned out.
Anthony was not the first one-and-done player. Not by a long shot. I remember trend pieces about the phenomenon of college players leaving early for the draft popping up in places like Sports Illustrated in the early 90s — right as Kevin Garnett (1995) and Kobe Bryant (1996) kicked off the “preps to pros” phenomenon that got bigger and bigger and destroyed the careers of numerous NBA general managers until the league put in a rule against it in 2005.
Between about 1996 and 2005 it was very difficult for a college basketball program to get a player as good as Carmelo Anthony, because players that good all went straight to the NBA out of high school. To Syracuse’s great fortune, Anthony, a New York kid, signed up for a year of seasoning upstate under Jim Boeheim.
It didn’t take long to see that Anthony was going to be one of the top three or four players taken in the 2003 draft. There was a high school senior named Lebron James, a college junior named Dwyane Wade, a Serbian named Darko, two one-and-dones, Chris Bosh and Anthony, and then everybody else.
And yet Syracuse wasn’t supposed to be all that good. It started just one senior, along with two sophomores and two freshmen. Anthony set a Syracuse freshman debut record with 27 points in his first game, but the Orangemen (as they were known at the time) started the year with a loss to Memphis.
That, in a microcosm, is what everybody trusted would happen if you just plopped a superstar freshman into your lineup like that. He’d score a bunch of points and get a lot of attention, but by the end of the year you’d have a hard time coming up with anything to show for it. You weren’t going to have a team good enough and cohesive enough to win big in March. Those things took time.
That all changed when Anthony dominated the 2003 tournament, and Syracuse beat Kansas for the national title.
It had been proven you could win a championship with a freshman star, even — and this is important — if the rest of the team wasn’t all that great. Think about how tempting that is. By the time Kevin Durant (2006), Michael Beasley (2007), Derrick Rose (2007), John Wall (2009) and all the rest of your favorite characters came along, it was what everybody except the bluebloods was trying to do. Once John Calipari won a championship with a team full of these cats … well, even Duke is doing it now.
Everybody who likes college basketball agrees it would be better if the players stuck around longer and you got to follow groups of them as they grew together over the course of their careers. That would be a richer viewing experience. I think what people are arguing about now, whether they realize it or not, is the tension they feel about a system that feels a bit centrally planned and inorganic.
In most cases, one-and-done players look out of place on their teams. That comes from the fact that everyone involved knows that guy is only there in the first place because he had to go somewhere. That’s not to say these guys aren’t good teammates. I’m sure most of them are, and I know a lot of them love their college experience and don’t want it to end (Joel Embiid has said this many times, for example). But that never changes the fundamental reality that Andrew Wiggins belonged in the NBA all along, and everyone knew, they just tried to put it out of their mind.
So Trae Young or Michael Porter or somebody comes through town and what are you going to do as a coach, not play through him during the six months you have a chance to? You’re going to, what, develop his game? Adapt him to your system? You’re going to forge a team out of alloyed metals and sharpen the blade through challenge and triumph until it is razor sharp and unbreakable?
No, you’re gonna try to get Carmelo-ized.
That’s what Malik Hairston said he was going to do for Oregon way back in 2004. Hairston, a swingman, was one of the best players in his class, and really seemed to enjoy the recruiting process.
“I want to Carmelo-ize Oregon,” Hairston said.
If Carmelo Anthony could do it, so could this guy. So could anybody with rare talent. It was just a matter of turning them loose from the bonds of the old basketball power structures and allowing the exuberant youth to radiate in full spectrum.
Well, it didn’t work out that way for Hairston and the Ducks. It was the opposite, in a way. Hairston wound up being an outstanding four-year player that led Oregon to an Elite Eight. He then got drafted by the Spurs and played in the NBA for a couple of years. All things considered, that’s a pretty good basketball career, and it illustrates just how difficult a full Carmelo-ization really is.
The fact is, it’s possible for this to work, but it isn’t anything resembling a reliable strategy for winning titles. You may be great, but that doesn’t make you 2003 Carmelo.
With Anthony on the backside of a career that maybe fell a little short of the hype generated from his winning performance as a student-athlete, it’s easy to forget the stone-cold killer he was in that NCAA Tournament. Nobody could check him and he knew it and he couldn’t stop smiling.
By the end, everybody knew he was going pro, but the whole thing didn’t feel cheap and awkward because he had wound up at Syracuse organically, and he was a leader, and they needed him. It was all a brilliant surprise.
There will always be one-and-done players, whether the NBA ends the one-and-done rule or not. But 15 years down the road, it’s now obvious that winning a title with one is not as easy as Anthony made it look.