It was reported on Thursday by USA Today that the NBA to the National Basketball Players Association to change the age requirement for the NBA Draft, from 19 to 18. That would be the death knell for the one-and-done rule that's governed elite college prospects since the 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement.
It was sheer coincidence that Zion Williamson's scary knee injury in the most high-profile college basketball game of the season came just hours before the news the players union and its executive director, Michele Roberts, will soon be reviewing this proposal.
But Williamson's injury, whichthan it looked -- a Grade 1 knee sprain is the furthest end of the spectrum away from the serious ligament injury that it could have been -- did help illustrate the inequities of the soon-to-be dead one-and-done rule better than just about anything.
Williamson's injury has dominated the sports talking heads in the days since. But the talking heads are talking about the wrong question. The dominant question shouldn't be, "Should Zion Williamson shut it down, since he's risking so much while essentially playing for free?" The question should be: "How much longer will the NBA support the one-and-done rule that is anathema to the NBA's public image?"
Let me explain. The one-and-done rule is an incredible deal for both NBA teams and collegiate basketball programs. For NBA teams, they get risk-free, one-year tryouts from the best prospects. Instead of relying just on AAU competitions, in-person scouting, combine measurements and interviews to judge which 18-year-olds are best suited for investments of millions of dollars and a franchise's future, they get a full collegiate season where they can judge a prospect against elite competition before investing millions of dollars and a franchise's future into a 19-year-old. The one-and-done rule has saved NBA teams from investing mid-lottery picks in, say, an Andrew Harrison or a Cliff Alexander. Both were considered talents who could go in the middle of the NBA lottery, until struggles during their freshman exposed them as something far less than that.
For collegiate programs, they win, too. They get a taste of those elite talents, if only for a year. Instead of the best players paying no heed to college basketball, they use it as a developmental system to reach the pros, and teams like Duke and Kentucky reap the benefits of those elite talents.
The players get much less of an incredible deal, of course. They play an amateur sport while their schools reap millions. It's not the worst deal in the world, as it's sometimes portrayed: These players get elite facilities and training, they get room and board and a college education, they get media exposure that helps build their brand, they get to live the exciting, first-class life of a high-flying Division I college athlete. But let's not kid ourselves. This is a capitalistic society, and one-and-done players like Williamson are not permitted to chase anything close to their market value. That's not to say there isn't great value in what Kentucky coach John Calipari calls a "gap year." These players get to be nurtured in a more forgiving environment than going straight from high school to the NBA. They get to live the college life. There can be very important life lessons and basketball lessons learned during that one-and-done year.
But it's not anywhere close to a fair deal.
Ultimately, that's why Adam Silver and the NBA are on an inexorable path toward eliminating the one-and-done rule. The NBA prides itself for its progressive politics. When I was talking with Silver recently, he spoke with great pride about LeBron James'to conservative commentator Laura Ingraham's comments that politically active NBA players should "shut up and dribble" -- but he pointed out that Hall of Famer Bill Russell was standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
"This has been part of the DNA of this league since its earliest days," Silver told me.
It's for these sorts of reasons like that Silver has been perhaps the most powerful voice to speak out against the one-and-done rule. Because of the NBA's progressive brand, once the narrative around the one-and-done rule became that it's exploiting young, often black, often poor athletes for the benefit of elite institutions of higher learning (as well as for the billionaire owners of NBA teams), the NBA's support of the rule became a visible hypocrisy. It also became untenable. People will tell you that these elite teenage prospects are not forced to go to college.
Technically, that's true. They can make money in the Chinese professional league for a year, like Emmanuel Mudiay did. They can take a $1 million "internship" with a shoe company, like Darius Bazley did when he decided to not attend Syracuse and skip the G League while signing a shoe deal with New Balance. They can go straight to the G League with the new $125,000 contracts that the NBA's minor league is offering to elite high school prospects who don't want to play a one-and-done collegiate season. These are all newly viable options.
But you want to tell an 18-year-old who has never left the United States that, even though a fair market would have him as an NBA player right now, he's got to leave the United States and move to China to reap the profits from his talent?
Let's be honest: The way the system is set up, the path most traveled -- the one that makes the most sense for nearly all of these elite prospects -- is also the one that is based on a fundamental inequity. That's not to say the college basketball system is all bad, bad, bad. Far from it. Thousands of young men and women who may never have had an opportunity to attend college are offered that opportunity through basketball. And the collegiate system is often of great benefit even to these one-and-done prospects who are the center of the fundamental inequity. Ask Karl-Anthony Towns how his one season under Calipari changed the way he approached being a big man. Ask Trae Young if he ever thought he'd be a top-five pick as a teenager until he blew up at Oklahoma. But it's a bad look for the NBA for the most elite players to not be allowed to at least put their name up for draft consideration at age 18. They have choices, certainly … but the one choice that they really want is denied them.
That's all going to change, hopefully soon. This is only one step in the negotiations between the union and the league; since this issue is collectively bargained between the union and the league, they need to come to some sort of an agreement, with the target date of the 2022 draft to put it in place. Sometimes this new plan will work out better for certain players; sometimes it'll be worse. There will be stories of 18-year-olds who go to the draft instead of going to college and blow a great opportunity without making it in the pros. But what it will undoubtedly be is the American way, where talented people can test their worth on the free market -- where they get to make the choice for themselves.
That's the right side of history that the NBA and Silver want to be on.