From preps to the pros: can the NBA solve a decade-old controversy?


By Greg Melo and Emma Goodson
Medill Reports

Kevin Garnett. Tracy McGrady. Kobe Bryant – giants from an era of basketball where highly touted prospects had no incentive or legal obligations to play at the college level before going pro.

That era could return in a few years due to a new NBA policy proposal and shift the very landscape of the sport.

The prep to pro generation of the NBA ended in 2005, when the league’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement required draft-eligible players to be 19 years old in the same calendar year of the draft that they planned to enter.

But the “one-and-done” era may be over soon, as the NBA proposed in February to move the draft age from 19 to 18, starting in 2022. The adjustment would allow high schoolers to throw their names in the hat once again, removing the requirement for prospects to go through the formality of playing at the college level for just a few months.

“[The proposal] does some really strange things to high school basketball where NBA agents are even more present than they are now,” said Michael O’Brien, high school basketball reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times. “When the money is that much closer to high school basketball, when there’s not that year in between, it brings a lot more people trying to get their hands on that money that the kids are about to get.”

This is a resolution that the Players’ Association has been seeking for years, as players do not get paid at the college level, while schools can use their likeness in marketing campaigns. The NBA has always provided pushback citing reasons such as lack of physical development at the high school level for some players and the need for more time to evaluate prospects. They have since changed their tune after the promotion of current NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in 2014.

“I feel one-and-done is kind of a weird charade where it sort of feels like having a player go to college one year mitigates the risk and increases the maturity for someone entering the NBA, and I just don’t see how that is the case,” said K.C. Johnson, Chicago Bulls beat reporter at the Chicago Tribune.

Though there is concern of underdevelopment in younger players, plenty of high school prospects have succeeded at the pro level. Moses Malone played in the American Basketball Association for a few seasons before it merged with the NBA. He made eight All-NBA teams and won a ring with the Philadelphia 76ers. Lou Williams has made a career as an NBA sixth man and is leading a young Los Angeles Clippers team to a playoff push this season. Arguably the greatest player of all time, LeBron James, never stepped foot in a NCAA arena.

But for every success story, there are countless failures. Darius Miles, of East St. Louis High School, flamed out after an electric first few years in the league. Kwame Brown was selected first overall in the 2001 NBA Draft after a historic career at Glynn Academy that culminated in a McDonald’s All-American selection; but he is considered one of the biggest busts in draft history.

Miles and Brown were physically ready for the NBA — Miles, a wing player, could jump out of the gym and provide electric high-flying dunks, while Brown was a six-foot-eleven monster in the paint. But injuries derailed their careers.

Some league experts consider the mental game as a rougher transition for preps than it is for NCAA athletes.

“I think it’s a maturity thing,” said Dave Vitel, associate athletic director of sports performance for the University of Loyola-Chicago. “I think it’s a system. I think there are certain colleges that may teach kids how to defend, teach kids a system. And I think you’re talking about then: ‘will they?’ Not the physical, but the tactical, technical — I think that’s probably bigger than the physical sometimes with these kids.”

Robert “Chip” Schaefer, director of performance health for the Chicago Bulls, noted there’s no “enormous difference” between high schoolers and first-year college players from a physical standpoint.

“In some ways, when guys are younger, they’re playing more basketball and getting less medical care,” Schaefer said. “They’re playing multiple games on days, playing these [Amateur Athletic Union] tournaments, playing more outdoors and [in] bad high school gyms on hard surfaces. And so we’ve been seeing an increase at the combine over the recent years of foot and ankle stress related injuries because these guys are playing a lot more high-demanding, high-volume basketball at a younger age.”

Although players at the lower levels are getting more experience, physical growth is still a little behind for younger NBA prospects. High schools, especially what he sees in Chicago, aren’t providing the strengthening and conditioning that players need, according to O’Brien. Most high school players never lift weights until they get to college, but you can see them gain strength over time, which is a necessity for playing in the NBA, O’Brien added.

“Are these kids ready basketball-wise to play in the NBA? I don’t think so. I think very few are actually ready,” O’Brien said. “I think they should be able to do it if they want but 99 out of 100, maybe 999 out of 1000, are not ready.”

While physical development can be lacking among high school prospects, the development of skills and the mental game almost certainly are missed when players skip the college level, according to Elan Vinokurov, basketball scout and founder of EV Hoops.

“I think they’re just playing basketball against better talent than you would if you were simply playing a year of prep school, playing a year in an overseas league where you’re not really playing at all, or doing the Mitchell Robinson plan where you’re literally not playing at all,” Vinokurov said on the Lane Violation podcast. “I think there’s a lot to be said for watching somebody in November, play college basketball, watching them again in January and saying, ‘they’re getting better.’”

O’Brien said that some players who struggled on defense in high school are “immediately exposed” once at the collegiate level when hiding in a zone defense is no longer an option.

These types of flaws are noticed only at the NCAA level and speak to the value of having more time to evaluate highly touted prospects that will become NBA team investments. Vitel, who has years of experience as a strength and conditioning coach for the Minnesota Timberwolves, has seen it play out time and time again.

“When you look at some of those kids that are ready to come out of high school, we’re not talking about a scrawny little guy who needs development,” Vitel said. “We’re talking about a kid like Zion Williamson who’s as strong as any of the fourth-year guys that I’ve seen. And can move just as well. So when I think back to a Kevin Garnett, ahead of the game, a Tracy McGrady — I don’t know if those guys might be an exception. But I feel that if you’re being considered, you’re already kind of an outlier exception in that way.”

Raw athleticism, speed and innate ability are traits that O’Brien described as denoting a player who is ready to go straight to the NBA. These players can read the court much better than even older teammates and the game is second nature for them, O’Brien explained.

“I think the majority of kids are better off in college,” O’Brien said. “But, I say that with kind of a sigh because if everything goes right, yeah [it’s better]. But for most of them they show up there, and I’m talking to especially kids from around here, [and] they have an immediate sense of culture shock.”

O’Brien continued saying that the world of college is an extremely new experience for many players and not all handle the adjustment well. Sometimes the coaches who recruited them in high school and made promises to them leave the program, so they’re “abandoned in this place they’re having culture shock [in],” O’Brien said.

While college can be hit or miss for players, the landscape of college basketball wouldn’t be affected by the proposal to the same degree as high school basketball. The first year of the age restriction change might create some confusion with preps being recruited by colleges and NBA teams at the same time, but the college game may ultimately get better with an assumed lower turnover rate of one-and-dones.

“I can remember when the NCAA tournament was a much more, in my opinion, dramatic and exciting event decades ago when you had 20 and 21 to 22-year-olds playing it. I made this comment to Lauri [Markkanen] a couple days ago, like imagine the tournament, you know, he should still be at [The University of] Arizona. Markelle Fultz should still be at Washington, Lonzo Ball should still be at UCLA, and on and on. Imagine,” said Schaefer, adding “And even for one more year because they’d only be juniors this year. Imagine, one more year, how good those guys would be and how high the level of play would be elevated if guys stayed in college.”

If NBA teams can bring blue-chip high school prospects straight into their facilities, living and breathing basketball would be much more familiar.

“If [the Bulls] get them under our care, which I think is, all bias included, world-class health care, then we can monitor [injuries] and their training loads and nurse them along through their physical development, as opposed to the one-and-done thing where a guy goes on a college campus for four, five or six months,” Schaefer said.

“It’s kind of a farce, certainly it’s a farce academically to what the true mission of a university is.”

The decision to play college ball or take a gap year is solely made by an individual player, but having the option to go straight to the NBA could change the landscape of the entire sport. And the NBA and the Players’ Association are still at a crossroads, with both sides haggling over certain stipulations such as Restricted Free Agency and the NBA Combine.

The fact that the ball is moving is a welcome change. Discussions are being had. And that means that the players will ultimately benefit.

The NBA draft is an intricate process. Here’s a look at how it works. (Illustration: Emma Goodson/Medill Reports)
Photo at top: 2006 NBA Draft. (Brent Soderberg/Flickr)