In the coming months, the NBA will move to end the one-and-done era. Commissioner Adam Silver has given up trying to raise the NBA’s draft eligibility age minimum to 20 years old, and has now said multiple times that the current rule is not working as intended.
That rule, instituted as part of the 2005 labor deal, prevented players from declaring for the draft directly out of high school. Players must spend a year following high school graduation in college, playing overseas, in the NBA’s development league, or ... somewhere. Just not in the NBA.
In practice, few players went overseas for their gap year, and even fewer joined the NBA D-League (now rebranded as the G League). Most top prospects went to a college program. Many of the best players truly spend just one semester in actual classes of questionable value before ending their freshman season and declaring for the draft.
Since Silver is declaring the rule doesn’t work and acknowledging the players’ union has no appetite to expand it another year, the age minimum will be reformed. The question is how. We lay out five potential ways the NBA could end the one-and-done era and reform the age minimum.
Method 1: Straight repeal
The easiest thing the league could do on paper is just simply repeal the rule it put in place in 2005 limiting the NBA draft to players at least a year out of high school or 19 years old. This may also be the most disruptive path forward for the league’s teams.
Most franchises are still investing a good deal of scouting resources in the domestic amateur game below the college level, though more likely through AAU than high school play. But without that one-year cushion to play catch-up on top prospects, identifying potential stars aged 16 and 17 becomes a higher priority so that wise choices are made when those classes enter.
This would hurt international prospects and three- and four-year college grinders. The sheer mystery of the domestic prospects will boost their value over the other typical flavors of dice roll. This could be mitigated by extending the draft to three rounds, which is something the NBA should do in any case.
This change would be wonderful for websites who specialize in getting video and scouting reports of high-end high school prospects.
Method 2: Repeal and replace
(Shout out to all the health care reporters out there — I see you, Sarah Kliff and Dylan Scott! — for giving us the language to identify these proposals. Apologies to anyone for whom these terms cause hives or anxiety attacks.)
Another option would be to replace the current age minimum with a modified version akin to Major League Baseball’s scheme. Players are eligible for the pro baseball draft upon graduating high school. But if they don’t declare at that point and go to a four-year college, they are not eligible until after their third or fourth year. If they go to junior college, they can be eligible after their first or second year.
This would completely eliminate the one-and-done norm, something straight repeal actually wouldn’t do. Remember, even during the peak prep-to-pro era a number of hot prospects spent a year in college before jumping into the draft, the most prominent example being Carmelo Anthony. Under an MLB-type system, that would be barred.
This would be excellent news for all college coaches not named John Calipari. While other programs have used one-and-done prospects to great effect — Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski has become a master of the form -- no one has built their entire team around the concept like Calipari. There’s little question he’d remain competitive for top prospects, but some of the mystique of the lottery pick factory would fade.
Like full repeal, this would force NBA teams to invest more in high school and AAU scouting. But their college scouting would be less resource-intensive because more tape would be available on players who choose that route and attend three years.
Method 3: G League University
One of the problems some people around the league had with the prep-to-pro era was the drain 18-year-old players had on the quality of the game. Teams that invested in teenagers felt obliged to give them pro minutes to help develop them; these minutes were often quite ugly. We still see that with 19-year-old players, to be honest.
How could the NBA ameliorate this problem while lifting the age minimum? Require all prep-to-pro players to spend a year in the G League. In this way, the age minimum would no longer apply to the draft — 18-year-olds fresh out of college would be eligible -- but it would still apply to the actual NBA.
This would add some complexity to the decision-making for teams that would slightly reduce the value of prep-to-pro prospects. Rookie deals are four years long. If you take a player straight out of high school, you would be signing a quarter of his rookie deal over to your G League affiliate. The hope would be that the player development there would make those other three years — and the additional years where most top young players stay with the team that drafted them — more valuable.
This would be a huge boon for the G League, obviously. If even three or four lottery pick 18-year-old players spent the year in the G, it’d boost viewership and attendance for the teams who have them. As nearly all NBA teams now have exclusive affiliations with single G League teams, this could be a nice solution on the league-end while protecting veteran players jobs by deferring new entrants under the rule change for a year.
Method 4: Two-Way Plus
The NBA introduced two-way contracts this season, which allow teams to carry players in two additional roster spots. These players can be called up to the NBA team for 45 days per season, spending the rest of their time in the G League. They get paid substantially more than the normal G League player, and no other NBA team can pluck them away. It’s a mixed bag for the players.
This could be adapted to deal with 18- and perhaps even 19-year-old players drafted under a revised age minimum rule. These players could be limited to the G League with windows during which they could be called up to their NBA team. Perhaps 45 days is not enough. What about 60 for players in the first year following high school graduation (or 18-year-olds) and 90 days for players who have been out of the preps for one year (19-year-olds)?
Like the G League University plan, this could balance adding the ability of 18-year-olds to enter the NBA directly instead of spending a year in college without saddling pro teams with kids who aren’t ready to contribute. It would also diminish the value of 18- and 19-year-old players in the draft by restricting their use on rookie deals, which seems like something with which current veteran NBA players can get on board with.
Method 5: The Academy
This one is far-fetched — to turn the American amateur basketball infrastructure into a European style academy model — but has an important backer in Mark Cuban. The idea is that instead of AAU teams, high school competition, and the NBA Draft, teams would build developmental academies that produce youth teams for 11-year-olds and up. There is synergy between the youth squads and the pro team. The pro team would eventually have dibs on signing these players under local rights.
The current American amateur basketball infrastructure is currently too powerful for something like this to happen, and NBA owners are too likely to see it as a financial drain vs. the investment opportunity it actually would be. (Competitive youth sports is a mint that chews up money from families and spits it directly into the mouths of investors.) It would also lead to the likely end of the NBA draft, something that should definitely happen but definitely will not.
But the academy concept is definitely an idea people in the league are talking about. It works in European basketball and in other sports. Perhaps some day American basketball will move in that direction.
In the interim, one of the other four methods is likely to be the result of current moves to end the one-and-done era. Pay attention, because whatever happens will have wide-ranging ramifications on the league.