LET'S BE PERFECTLY clear: There's no one-step solution to college basketball's black-market problem, exposed again most recently by the announcement of the FBI's investigation into corruption. The FBI's findings weren't especially surprising—the money is there for almost anyone who can provide value. It is a system that has long asked to be gamed, born out of the NCAA's failure to compensate basketball players—and student-athletes in general—for what they're worth. Compounding the problem is the NBA's age minimum, which locks would-be pros into a year of college.
As NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said, the "one-and-done" rule isn't working for anyone. College is a rewarding experience for most, but the notion that all players benefit from a year of school is farcical. Take Ben Simmons, the 2016 No. 1 pick who admitted to skipping classes after his first semester at LSU. He knew he was turning pro and would be among the top players selected. Elite prospects like Simmons (above) are prevented from profiting off their skills for an extra year, and many come from backgrounds where any earnings can be meaningful for a player and his family. Thus there is incentive for recruits to seek handouts that coaches and sneaker companies are eager to give. Every year these teenagers are paid under the table. Why not let them profit legally?
Silver has expressed interest in raising the minimum age from 19 to 20, but lowering it would serve the players' interests—and could help clean up college hoops in the process. Why not drop the age limit to 18 and let agents recruit and sign high school seniors? Make hiring representation a binding commitment to entering the draft, but let the best high schoolers eliminate the college recruiters early in the process. Allow NBA scouts into high school gyms, and let them give feedback that might help prospects on the fence. Those players who are unselected can go to the G League and work up. The free market is allowed to work, and a large chunk of the middlemen and agents—both out for profit—would focus on counseling talented prospects rather than on ensnaring middling college players.
NBA teams value the opportunity to thoroughly scout draft picks, and it's not the league's moral obligation to free players from a broken system. But while former commissioner David Stern's old line was that college breeds maturity and preparation, the league is better equipped to help teens succeed. Every franchise will soon have G League affiliates. The quality of coaching and player development has improved. The Rookie Transition Program has succeeded in giving career advice to players. If the league doubled down on that investment in its future employees, it could be part of the solution.
Yes, the college game would lose star power, but perhaps schools will focus on recruiting players they can develop over multiple seasons, the sort of four-year rarities that college hoops purists fondly recall. Continuity will help college recruits make better choices and improve the NCAA's product, too. A prospect could better project his playing time at a school he's considering if he had a clearer picture of which players are coming back.
This is not a perfect fix—whatever the FBI investigation turns up, ambitious coaches and deep-pocketed companies will learn to operate in a thinner market. Lowering the minimum would at least give players a clearer career choice. While nobody is naive enough to think an NBA rule tweak can save college hoops from itself, a push from the pros wouldn't hurt. If the recent FBI reports are any indication, the college hoops business can't get worse, right?
BY THE NUMBERS
Freshmen selected in the first round of the 2017 draft, the most ever.
Straight seasons the No. 1 overall pick has been a one-and-done player.