A United Basketball Development Plan

Let’s be honest, there will never be a perfect system in developing post-high school level basketball players. Each group involved (the players, their families, the NBA, its owners, the NCAA, its programs and coaches, the D-League and even the fans of basketball) all have their own agendas that will never coexist seamlessly.

Just because it can’t be perfected, however, doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.

In my article I intend to find a sort-of middle ground; a system that each group can be successful in, which in turn will lead the game of basketball, not just the pro or college game, to unforeseen heights.

The problems of the current system

Imagine the relationship between the NBA, NCAA and its players for a second. The NBA owners don’t want to pay prep-to-pros millions of dollars just to have them sit the bench as immature teenagers, then leave when they finally mature as people and basketball players (e.g. Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O’Neal & Tyson Chandler [1]). Nor do they want to pay a kid just to try and develop him, eventually realizing he’ll never become the player they thought he would (e.g. Jon Bender, Darius Miles, Kwame Brown, Eddy Curry, etc). So the owners rely on the NCAA to take these youngsters off their hands (and their checkbooks) for a year to polish them, helping them become better prepared for the pro game when they come out, and also giving teams an opportunity for further scouting (e.g. Byron Mullens [2]).

How does this system affect the collegiate level? Other than the occasional Calipari squad or two, one-and-dones usually damage programs (see: 2008 USC Trojans & 2013 UCLA Bruins). And while most coaches bark at the one year rental business they’re currently stuck in, their schools and conferences reap all the benefits: the one-and-dones sell the tickets, the memorabilia, and the lucrative TV deals [3].


So what can anyone do about it?

Like I said before, there’s no way to implement a perfect system, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a better one. I believe there could be a system that benefits each group, not to the extent that some are used to, but enough to keep each happy and productive. I believe there could be a system that ensures better player development, both at the collegiate and professional levels. I believe there could be a system that gives graduating high school seniors the freedom to either enter the NBA Draft or play collegiately. I believe there could be a system that doesn’t punish owners for taking a chance on a raw prospect. I believe there could be a system that allows college coaches to actually coach rather than babysit. And most importantly, I believe there could be a system that benefits the game of basketball across every level.

Understanding why so many prep-to-pros failed

Imagine you’re 18 years old, you just graduated high school… and you want to become a chef. Your whole life you’ve made meals for your family, read Emril’s books, watched the Food Network, etc. You really love cooking, and everyone tells you you’re awesome at it. Rather than going to culinary school and learning the ins-and-outs of the cooking world, you get hired at the top restaurant in your area. You’re really pumped up about the job; it’s been your dream to work here your whole life. Obviously you don’t start as the head chef, but the owner tells you he wants you to become it in the future. He overpays you for now, hoping that one day it’ll all be worth it. Every night the place is packed and the kitchen moves more chaotically than anything you could have imagined. Working here sure is different than making Chicken Marsala at your house for grandma and her friends.

Two years go by and you’re still not doing much for the restaurant. You’ve helped out on the dinner shift a few nights, but mostly you just bus and clean up the kitchen. Your boss is pissed because he’s been paying you a ton of money and you haven’t done anything beneficial for his business. You’re getting frustrated considering you haven’t had the opportunity to cook, the one thing you’ve loved and wanted to do since you were a little kid. You wonder if the smarter choice would’ve been to go to culinary school or work at a lesser restaurant to gain experience. You start to think you’re not as good as everyone told you you’d be. Eventually your boss gives up on you and lets you go.

In a nutshell, this is what happened to two-thirds of the high school draft picks in the NBA from 1995 to 2005.

To put it in perspective, I rated each prep-to-pros career on a scale from 0-5.

  • 5 = Sure-fire Hall of Famer.
  • 4 = Multiple time All-Star. “The number one guy” on a team for at least a couple years.
  • 3 = A few All-Star appearances. Solid career. Still left us wanting more.
  • 2 = 0 to 1 All-Star appearances. Role-player at best.
  • 1 = Role player for a small amount of time. Didn’t stay in the league long.
  • 0 = Never played a minute in the league.

Of the 39 players, 25 rated a 2 or lower [4]. Obviously, something went horribly wrong here.

Why was there such a high percentage of prep-to-pros that flopped? There are multiple answers to that question, but in my mind one sticks out above the others: lack of playing time. In their first seasons following being drafted [5], prep-to-pros on average checked into less than half of their teams games, and when they did get their number called, it was for a mere 13 minutes per.

What better way is there to develop a young player than experience? Obviously the franchises that drafted these teenagers were taking a major risk, but how could they realistically expect them to become future All-Stars without getting proper playing time early on? I’m not saying all the prep-to-pros should have played at the NBA level right away: most of them weren’t ready for the speed and physicality of the game (only LeBron, Dwight, KG, Amare and Kobe really were). What I am saying though, is that they should have been playing somewhere. And that leads me to my next point.

[4] The complete list:
5: Kevin garnett, kobe bryant, lebron james
4.5: dwight howard
4: Jermaine o’neal, tracy mcgrady, amar’e stoudemire 
3: al harrington, rashard lewis, tyson chandler, al jefferson, josh smith, andrew bynum, monta ellis 
2: darius miles, deshawn stevenson, kwame brown, eddy curry, travis outlaw, kendrick perkins, jr smith, dorell wright, martell webster, cj miles, lou williams, andray blatche, amir johnson 
1: jonathan bender, desagana diop, sebastian telfair, gerald green, robert swift 
0: korleone young, leon smith, ousmane cisse, ndudi ebi, james lang, ricky sanchez
[5] Not just their “rookie” stats. For example, James Lang’s “rookie” stats didn’t come until 3 years after he was initially drafted.

The evolution of the D-League

It’s Friday night in Santa Cruz, California. In a glorified Division III gym donned in gold and blue, a basketball game is being played. Every seat is filled. Behind the basket, fans are standing with their backs to the wall watching the action. A young girl is shown on the telecast, which is streamed for free on YouTube, with a turtle, the teams mascot, painted on her cheek. She’s smiling from ear to ear. On the hardwood, the brothers of All-Stars Blake Griffin and Jrue Holiday, the son of future Hall of Fame coach George Karl, and a former University of Connecticut standout battle in overtime. The fans, after the home team reaches the 100 point mark and puts the game out of reach, scream in excitement knowing tomorrow they’ll be able to get a free smoothie. On the wall above the scoreboard a banner hangs and reads: “Welcome to the Home of the Santa Cruz Warriors: The Official D-League Affiliate of the Golden State Warriors”.

Slowly but steadily the 12-year old NBA Developmental League is becoming exactly what professional basketball needs it to be: a great farm system. 

Before Linsanity took the world by storm last season, Rockets guard Jeremy Lin played in 21 D-League games [6]. This season alone 30 percent of the players on NBA rosters have spent time in the D-League (122 of them in all) [7]. And while 19 of the 30 NBA franchises share 5 of the D-League teams, the other 11 already have one solely affiliated with them [8].

If every franchise had an exclusive minor-league affiliate it would a) give their young talent the minutes they need to develop, b) offer their players coming off injuries minutes to rehab before making the jump back to the NBA, c) give veterans looking for a job a chance to showcase their talents, and d) let potential coaching candidates gain experience. All in all, it just makes sense for there to be a full farm-system in the NBA, and the D-League is poised to become just that. 

[7] Other notable D-Leaguers: Danny Green, Matt Barnes, Ramon Sessions, J.J. Barea, Gerald Green, C.J. Watson, Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson, Donatas Motiejunas, Will Bynum, Shannon Brown, etc.
[8] teams with single d-league affiliates: spurs, cavaliers, knicks, trail blazers, lakers, celtics, rockets, warriors, nets, mavericks and thunder.

The one-and-done dilemma

From the day Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA’s star freshman, walked onto campus 8 months ago, it was just about set in stone that he’d be gone by season’s end. After the teams last home game of the year, head coach Ben Howland (who was recently fired over the weekend) told reporters, “I’m very much a realist now, I knew going into this that this was a one-year deal.” In an LA Times article published Friday just hours before UCLA was pummeled in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament, we got a closer look into Muhammad and his family’s background, most notably finding that his birth certificate has been purposely incorrect to gain an advantage in recruiting. What struck me about the article, even more so than the birth certificate fiasco, is how ridiculous the current system in place is and how damaging its been for colleges and its programs.

If Shabazz Muhammad and his family have been preparing to get him into the NBA his entire life, why not let him go after he graduates high school? If he has no intentions of being in college and taking advantage of the education, why is he there in the first place? Because he’ll make the school money? Is that really the only answer we can come up with?

Stories like Muhammad’s are too common in today’s college basketball. Even NCAA President, Mark Emmert, was quoted last week as saying, “it [one-and-dones] makes a travesty of the whole notion of the student as an athlete,” and “it simply creates the wrong type of environment for us.” 

Why can’t the NCAA do anything about it?  you may be asking. Well, to put it bluntly, because of the NBA and its Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Looking strictly at the numbers, one-and-dones have contributed more for their teams in the NBA than prep-to-pros did in their first two seasons (see graphs below).

double graph

These numbers are important because they show us why the NBA voted to end the prep-to-pro days in 2006: its franchises just weren’t getting enough from their investments. From an NBA standpoint, it makes sense why they would make the change (to one-and-dones). But, as I just described, its left the NCAA in flux.

An attempt at a better system

Now that I’ve given you all the narratives, let me lay out my plan to try and fix this thing.

  1. If a player wants to enter the NBA Draft out of high school they may apply to do so. To be eligible the player must meet with the NBA before the NCAA’s National Signing Day to participate in combine-like workouts in front of independent scouts and former GM’s, take official measurements and be educated on what NBA life is like from former players hired by the league (the latter function is similar to the Rookie Transition Program). After the events are completed, the scouts will discuss among themselves where they would expect the prospective player to be selected in the Draft. Once they come to a conclusion, NBA representatives will meet with the player and their family/guardian(s) to discuss where they expect them to be selected (obviously nothing is guaranteed, these are just educated guesses by scouts and former higher-ups who understand the league and the way teams draft players). From here, the player will then be able to decide whether to enter the Draft or sign a Letter of Intent.
  2. If a high school player does not go through this process and enter the Draft, they must wait 2 years before they are allowed to enter.
  3. Every rookie deal will be made into a two-way contract. [9]

What do these changes do?

  1. It gives prospective high school players who are interested in entering the Draft the information they need to make the best possible decision for their careers (whether to enter the Draft and play professionally or compete at the collegiate level for two years).
  2. It offers NBA owners leeway on taking a risk on a player in the Draft, considering they would not have to pay the player the rookie scale if they aren’t on their big-league club (because of the two-way contracts and the D-League).
  3. It allows college coaches more time to build relationships and develop their players. Though some of the star prospects might go straight to the professional level, and least when they get a player it will not be just a one-year rental.
  4. For the player that decides to attend college, rather than attaining only a fourth of their college education, they will be half-way finished by the time they leave.
  5. It gives the high school player a chance to play in the NBA right away. As we’ve seen with LeBron, Garnett, Kobe, Amare and Dwight, this isn’t an impossible feat.
  6. The D-League, because of two-way contracts and the ability it gives teams to send players down, will get the big-names they need [10]
[10] Imagine if Andrew Wiggins was drafted out of high school and played half a season in the D-League, or if Andrew Bynum played a few games before returning to the NBA. Obviously, this would greatly increase the popularity of the D-League. 

The verdict

At the end of the day, this plan depends solely on whether the D-League becomes what it markets itself as: “the NBA’s official minor league“. Without a successful (and better paying D-League), I don’t think its possible for these changes to be made.

Hopefully 5, maybe 10 years down the line, someone will look at this article and say, wow, that Mike DeCicco kid really knew what the hell he was talking about. Or maybe they’ll just call me the Kwame Brown of sports writing. Either way, the system of basketball development is broken and fixing it will take major changes. I think this plan is a start in the right direction.

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