The stage prior to the 2006 NBA draft. Photo by Brent Soderberg.
NBA draft picks come from throughout the NCAA and a variety of international leagues. But though the origins of 60 draftees differs each year, the number of players drafted out of high school tonight will be the same as ever: Zero.
Since 2006, the rules have dictated that draft-eligible players must be at least 19 years old and a year removed from their high school graduation. Promising high school players must decide whether to continue their basketball career at the collegiate level, pursue international opportunities, or try out for the NBA G League (the NBA’s minor league organization).
Moving overseas to play after high school has historically been the least popular of the three. Rightfully so; it can be difficult for anyone to adjust to life in a foreign country, but especially for a 17- or 18-year-old just out of high school. In addition, foreign leagues do not provide the same exposure as the NCAA. Though teams abroad can offer worthy salaries – New York Knicks point guard Emmanuel Mudiay signed for $1.2 million to play for the Guangdong Southern Tigers in China after he left his Texas high school – players have largely decided college basketball is the best option available for their continued development, on and off the court.
Playing for a college team allows players to earn an education while they develop their basketball abilities to a professional level. To remain eligible for intercollegiate competition, college athletes must adhere to the NCAA’s amateurism requirements. Among other rules, players are not allowed to receive salary or other monetary benefits derived from the use of their name or image.
College players have long been frustrated by their lack of financial opportunities, even as the NCAA has exploited their likenesses for great profit. In 2016 the NCAA and CBS/Turner agreed on an eight-year, $8.8 billion extension for the network’s right to broadcast March Madness, which marked the first time the tournament’s TV value had been priced at over $1 billion per year. The outcry for change in eligibility requirements, and perhaps player compensation, took on new urgency when the FBI launched an investigation this past winter into alleged acts of bribery and corruption between players, schools, apparel brands, agents and financial advisers.
For high school stars leery of the NCAA and reluctant to move abroad, the G League is currently the only other choice. The NBA has recently sought to bolster its G League to present players with a truly viable option. The league recently increased base salary for next season’s G League players to $35,000, up from last season’s $26,000. League officials have also shaped “two-way contracts,” which allow players to play in both the NBA and G League during a season. Players signed to these contracts spend the majority of the season in the G League and no more than 45 days with their NBA team. Compensation is pro-rated for the amount of days players spend in each league, with a maximum value of $385,000 in 2018.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said he believes the right steps are being made to mold the G League into a reliable system for teams and players. This sentiment gained momentum in March, when Syracuse University’s top incoming recruit, Darius Bazley, decommitted to instead play in the G League next season.
Prior to 2006, high school players could enter their names into the NBA draft directly, as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James did. However, a number of players forfeited their college athletic eligibility by declaring themselves eligible for the draft, only to go undrafted or play just short stints in the NBA.
The league’s front office, including Silver, has recently revived the notion of allowing players to enter the draft from high school. Silver cited three reasons for this potential change: recent NCAA scandals, an increase in “one-and-done” players declaring for the draft after a single year of college play, and the fact that the NBA’s two most recent top draft picks came from college programs that didn’t make the NCAA tournament.
While removing the age restriction on draftees could have advantages for some players, the NBA should consider complementing the idea with new resources to help high school players make informed decisions about their future.
John Calipari, the head coach at the University of Kentucky, has pushed a practical option that is fit for players, the NBA and the NCAA. His plan includes an evaluation period for high school players, where players would be provided an assessment on their talent and the level of interest from NBA managers.
I might go further, and add to Calipari’s proposal the idea of labeling only approved players as eligible for the draft. Instead of the current one-size fits all method for eligibility, the league could provide a customized solution for each player. Some players are ready for the NBA after high school, and the opportunity to capitalize on their abilities should not be restricted. Other players could still benefit from the opportunity to refine their skills, whether in college play, the G League or abroad.
Last week the NBA indicated that the eligibility rules for the draft may shift as early as 2021. I hope that in three years we will have the chance to hear the names of a few talented high school players on draft night.