Posted: 6:19 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013
By Glenn Logan
You know this story. Sometimes, a man can, through the advent of mass communication and popular culture, become a cautionary tale because of one decision, or seemingly so. Almost always, though, it's because of a chain of decisions that lead to one of life's many cul-de-sacs that run by Hotel California rules — "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave."
So it is with Korleone Young. After you read those two words, anyone who has followed basketball for years instantly know who that is, at least in the abstract. He is perhaps the poster-child for why the NBA changed its rules in 2005 to effectively force players into at least one year of college.
Jonathan Abrams writing for Grantland has a very good piece on Young, what happened to him, how his life made a hard right turn into virtual oblivion. You can read all about Young there, because this article isn't really about him, but about why John Calipari, contrary to the perception of many people, is keen on extending the "one-and-done" rule to two years or more.
Some people have taken the position that the best way to address the issue is to simply allow players to go to the NBA right out of high school. We all know there have been success stories for that route, but the Kobe Bryants and Kevin Garnets of the world are offset by the Lenny Cookes, DeAngelo Collins', Ousmane Cisses, and — Korleone Youngs.
With that said, you can also argue that it is the right of every person to screw up their life if they so desire. If a kid wants to jump to a man's league at the ripe old age of 18 years old, who are we to deny him his dream, even if the risk to his future might look unacceptably large to us? Even though I may personally not agree, I have to point out that this is a completely defensible argument. While John Calipari may require his players to be "their brother's keeper," the truth of the matter is that whenever we deny the individual a right to pursue his dreams only because of his age, and especially after he has attained the age of majority, we have to wonder if we have gone too far, substituting our judgment for his right to act legally in his own self-interest.
Right now, "one-and-done" provides a compromise between the laissez-faire and the regulatory. The biggest problem with it seems to be that it doesn't please either group, because one year is generally too short a time to gain significant education in college. It gives the appearance of a completely pro-forma, nodding arrangement with actual education, which is ostensibly the mission of the colleges now serving as NBA prep schools, like Kentucky. For the adherents to the laissez-faire position, any delay in a person's right to lawfully engage in work is too much.
John Calipari has consistently argued that the NCAA needs to do more to encourage players to stay for at least that second year, or preferably even more. He, along with most every sportswriter you can name would like to see the age limit extended to essentially require that second year, although that generally comes with caveats like providing free insurance to players and things like travel for their parents to remote games in the post-season — at least in the case of Coach Cal.
The NBA management would gladly give Calipari et. al. that second year, but the NBA Players Association is opposed. I'd like to tell you that both parties' position have as their basis the best interests of the players, but I don't think that is the case. The NBPA is holding it out as a bargaining chip for the future, and the NBA management wants it solely as a hedge against poor draft choices — more mature players plus longer time to evaluate them equals better draft decisions and fewer busts.
There are two sides to every coin, and this one is no different. The benefit to the players of being forced to attend two years of college are undeniable — they get to mature under the eyes of college coaches and training staff while they learn enough to make a difference in their future if basketball doesn't work out for them. They learn to handle the media, get counseled on how to handle fame, the pitfalls of money and the constant attention of women, etc. With two completed years under their belt, plus some summer school, the path to a college degree is completely manageable, even without a seven-figure NBA salary. When they come out, they are more mature physically, mentally, and with respect to their game, in much better shape, and at least nominally prepared for the rigors of life in the NBA or overseas professional leagues.
But there are risks, too. First, there is the economic cost; millions of dollars are potentially lost for every year a player stays in college, and it reduces the number of "max" contracts in the NBA they will be likely to receive. There are pitfalls in college as well as the NBA, and flunking out, getting injured, or getting into some kind of legal or NCAA trouble can just as easily derail a promising career as slippage into the late second round out of high school can — just ask Renardo Sidney.
There is no perfect answer, and both the age limit and the various alternatives have costs. It is a fact that more players are successful out of the "one-and-done" arrangement than out of high school based on limited data, but that percentage is not so great as the defenders of the age limit might hope.
So where we are now is at a compromise nobody likes, which honestly, usually means that it's the right place to be. Stray from this one year more, and a lot more people will be happy on one side of the argument than the other, which is often the sign of a bad deal. It's not very likely that the pendulum will swing back the other way, as the NBA management would fight hard not to give back what they've already won.
With that said, both the "one-and-done" system and the straight out of high school arrangement have a greater potential for leaving players in a nasty dead end than the 2-year concept does. Some may see that as nanny-ism, and perhaps it is. There is just no good answer for this problem, at least not one that will address all the valid arguments of both positions.
I'd imagine that Young would love to go back to his 18-year old self and make that draft decision again. As a business decision for the NBA, it is a no-brainer to prefer older athletes — the longer in college the better. Unfortunately, the opposite is often true for the player from an economic standpoint. Most parents, but certainly not all, would prefer to see their children in school longer. But the costs of such a change are neither insignificant nor easily dismissed. The argument that a person in this situation could die for his country but can't pursue a dream he's completely qualified to pursue, with numerous successful historical precedents, is compelling, if not really dispositive. The same argument can be made for the drinking age, and there is little clamor for that to be changed back to 18 as it was in many jurisdictions years ago.
One thought that occurred to me would be for the NBA management to create a board that would have the mandate to waive the age requirement on as many players as they think could be successfully drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft each year. That could provide the opportunity for the Kobe Bryants and Kevin Garnets of the world to pursue their NBA dreams right out of high school. The rest would not be eligible until after 2 years of school or their 20th birthday, whichever comes last. Hey, if committees are good enough for the College Football Playoff and NCAA Tournament selection, why not this? It would not be completely compatible to what either the NBPA or the team management wants, but it is a compromise that gives them both a little bit, and it helps remove the roadblock to those rare players who are actually gifted enough to jump right into the NBA.
Would that potentially hurt John Calipari's recruiting? Absolutely. Coaches that recruit at the very highest level would be forced to ascertain for themselves what each prospect might do, and given the level Calipari recruits at, it would likely hit him hardest of all. In fact, he may simply give up on the 5 or so best prospects each year, and focus on the guys just beneath. He would still have his track record intact for NBA development, but the sell would be a bit different. Given his expertise, though, I doubt it would matter much in that regard, but his talent pool would have to be more closely evaluated.
Calipari would still be stuck arguing for the player benefits he has pushed for from the NCAA, which may eventually be forthcoming if they are modest enough. It's hard to tell at this point what is going on in the minds of the NCAA right now, except perhaps trying to find some graceful way of getting rid of Mark Emmert as president.
Alas, it will probably not be so. We are likely stuck with "one-and-done," perhaps forever, but it is not nearly as bad as many would have you believe. The worst thing about it is that it muddles the mission of universities, making some of their basketball programs little more than the NBA development league, and leaves the real NBA DL as a place for aging and marginal pros to fight for scraps. It also flies in the face of the American principle that those who have attained the age of majority ought to be able to make their own life decisions. But it does work, after a fashion, to the benefit of both the players and the NBA — imperfectly, and in many ways unsatisfactorily, but it is arguably better than the no-age-limit alternative.