With much fanfare, but perhaps a lack of foresight, the NCAA announced Wednesday a wide range of changes to the college basketball system. Naturally, there are implications for the NBA draft and the amateur basketball landscape at large. There’s also plenty of room for skepticism, it seems, a sentiment that has begun to echo around the league in private less than 24 hours after the news was released.
On one hand, it’s worth wondering how much the NCAA has actually improved the draft process for players. Equally as frustrating would seem to be the lack of communication surrounding the changes. As ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski underscored on Twitter, the NBA, NBA Players Association and USA Basketball, three organizations at the center of the NCAA proposal, were by and large surprised by the developments as they unfolded in the public sphere.
The full release explains in greater detail, but the chief items include a rule that permits college players who attend the draft combine but are not selected in the draft to return to school, and a series of changes that allow amateur players to be represented by certified agents, which has already been broken down by SI’s legal expert Michael McCann. Moreover, it appears the NCAA has chosen to defer a range of responsibilities onto other governing bodies in lieu of engineering actual improvements to its own system. It feels like a grab for positive press.
The primary element directly pertaining to the NBA and draft is the conversation surrounding which undrafted players are allowed to return to college. As it stands, a combine invite is a prerequisite to earn what is essentially a parachute that restores college eligibility, modifying a successful change that allows underclassmen to ‘test the waters.’ Under the new rules, players who don’t receive combine invitations don’t benefit, and would be allotted the same time period as before to make their choice. Chief among the NBA’s concerns as they determine a response is whether undrafted underclassmen should regain draft eligibility, how many times they can do so, and if not, how their professional rights should be allocated in a manner that maintains competitive balance.
It’s thorny territory for a change that will, in truth, only affect a relatively small number of players year-to-year. Players who make it to the combine have already been selected based off talent level. Of the underclassmen invited to the combine in 2018, only five went undrafted: Trevon Duval, Rawle Alkins, Allonzo Trier, Malik Newman and Brandon McCoy. All five were widely viewed as second-round talents and knew the stakes, chose to stay in the draft anyway, and will make money playing basketball this season (something players still cannot do in college, lest anyone forget). Between two-way contracts, the G League and overseas competition, there are more legitimate pathways than ever in the current climate for undrafted players to launch their pro careers.
While it doesn’t make sense to enable every single underclassman to test and return to school (imagine the flood of additional paperwork and evaluation required on behalf of college players with little to no chance of making the league), this is simply not a change that anyone really needed to begin with. For the most part, if a player is viewed by NBA evaluators as a late second-round or undrafted player, that’s where they’ll end up anyway. If players don’t feel good about their stock, they should simply stay in school. Necessity debate aside, the ability to go undrafted and return to college should be afforded to everyone, or not at all.
On the agency front, college players can now hire NBPA and NCAA-certified representation, but only after the college season is over. Then, if that player chooses to return to college rather than enter the draft, they must then terminate a written agreement with their agent. Additionally, all players who enter the draft are required to have an evaluation from the Undergraduate Advisory Committee. This will lead to what is sure to be an ungodly number of evaluation requests around the country from kids who simply want to say they tested the waters.
Top high school prospects will also be allowed to have agents officially represent them, but only during their senior year, and only after the NBA and NBPA come to a decision regarding the ‘one-and-done’ rule (and if they choose not to push back on the concept). While everyone around the league seems to believe that change will happen, the NCAA creating framework for a new rule contingent entirely on an agreement that has not been ironed out is somewhat amusing. And to determine which ‘elite’ high school prospects can hire agents, the NCAA chose to foist a whole lot of power into the hands of USA Basketball—an organization that has already expressed (via media reports) a level of reluctance to take on such a massive task.
Naturally, that decision-making position is quite complex: players, agents, NBA and college teams all have major stakes in which top high school prospects can hire representation. There would be newfound notoriety and pressure placed on players who earn that designation. Arbitrating that level of eligibility requires impartial decision-makers, but it’s foolish to think outside influence and motives would have zero sway in a highly interconnected industry. If USA Basketball says no, the NCAA’s plan hinges on establishing a fair process for student-athletes. This says nothing of how the rules impact top international prospects who come over to play at American high schools. Again, it makes the most sense to let the free market work: let all high school seniors hire representation, crack down on the certification process, and let players good enough to draw interest from an agent hire an agent.
The alarming thing about all these changes is that the NCAA seems to be taking a stance that can only be construed as elitist, on some level. By picking and choosing which players are afforded various new privileges and structuring college recruiting around camps, they are in essence raising barriers to entry on who gets to be classified as a high-end prospect. Talented players are going to slip through the cracks. Moving that responsibility into the hands of the few is begging for it to be misused. But after all the back-patting and talk of a substantial shift, it’s clear that the NCAA would love it if other organizations would solve the rest of the puzzle for them. Therein lies the rub.