The prep-to-pro pipeline is likely back in the NBA, and with it will come major changes to how college basketball teams operate.
Shams Charania of Athleticism reported on Monday that the NBA and its players’ association should “agree” to change the league’s eligibility age for the NBA draft from 19 to 18 in its new CBA, a decision that would take effect “as of the 2024 NBA Draft”. This change would open the door for players to go straight from high school to the draft, bypassing college and other development options like the G League’s Ignite program.
So much has changed from an NBA and college perspective since pro prep was last allowed in 2005, but in the last three years it’s been allowed, 22 players in total were picked straight out of high school. That’s an average of just over seven per year.
At that time, there were a total of eight G League teams (known then as the National Basketball Development League), which limited the NBA’s ability to develop unproven talent internally. There are now 30, and all but two NBA franchises have a G League-affiliated team they can send players to. There’s also a lot more information available for NBA teams to work with, with easy access to high school and AAU game movies and stats, especially given the consolidation of top talent. in high-level preparatory schools. Additionally, for the past two years, NBA scouts have been allowed to attend Nike’s Peach Jam, the first AAU tournament of the summer, with many are even flocking to 15U games this summer to assess the highly touted prospects of 2025 Cooper Flagg and twins Cameron and Cayden Boozer.
From a college perspective, the roster-building strategy is completely different than it was two decades ago, thanks to the transfer explosion. Between the transfer portal and players allowed to test the NBA draft waters before returning to school, the rosters are changing later than ever. Teams are built much more on a year-to-year basis than via the long-term building processes undertaken by coaches of yore.
This is where the return of prep-to-pro should have its biggest impact. Inevitably, there will be some prospects clearly on a professional trajectory who will never be seriously recruited by university teams. The loss of these players — the Zion Williamsons and Cade Cunninghams of the world — hurts the mainstream cachet of college basketball in the regular season, but it doesn’t have huge downwind impacts on the sport as a whole. It’s the NBA’s fringe prospects (guys who will likely have full college recruits and make commitments in the fall of their senior high school years and then test the waters of the NBA draft this spring) that will really shape a new era of men’s college hoops.
Will Duke and Kentucky, the two biggest single scouts in recent years, pivot their roster-building strategies to avoid this uncertainty? Does it make sense for Kentucky to recruit, say, the #40 player instead of the #10 player in a given class, knowing that it might not be clear if the #10 player will actually sign up? at the end of May or the beginning of June? The impact of this could be exaggerated in the early years of this change, as top high school players determine how much draft stock they actually have. These numbers will likely fluctuate from class to class, but there could be five surefire kids from prep to pro in any given high school class and another 20 going through the NBA spring draft process looking of a combined NBA invite. In turn, this could lead to fewer combined invitations for college players, especially upperclassmen who have been highly valued at the college level. Essentially, what was already a chaotic pre-drafting process for teams trying to finalize rosters has become even more complex, and the cost-benefit analysis for recruiting top prospects is now much murkier.
It’s also worth asking whether the value of recruiting infallible NBA prospects diminishes if the true elites skip college. A Duke team whose top freshman is AJ Griffin instead of Paolo Banchero would likely have an even harder time beating more veteran-laden teams come March. The other side of this argument, of course, is that a world where Duke and Kentucky still get top college talent but get it more frequently for several years is a scary sight for the rest of the country. There will inevitably be some trial and error here as programs determine the optimal strategy, just as there was with the advent of one-and-done. Duke, for example, took nearly a decade after the 2005 rule change to land a one-and-done in Jabari Parker.
In the short term, the possibility of a “double draft” in 2024 is looming. This draft, if these rule changes were to pass, would include the top players from high school classes 23 and 24. And while several college coaches Sports Illustrated spoke this summer thinks the 23-year-old’s high school class is one of the weakest classes they’ve seen in recent years, that’s still enough to make this 24-year-old draft a crowded one. If a player is on the fence between staying in the draft at 23 or returning to college, they’ll likely face less resistance to earning a spot on the roster if they turn pro sooner.
The end of the one-and-done era would not be devastating for college basketball. Having less overall talent is never good for the game, and this change makes a sport that was already stylistically diverging from the NBA even less pro-friendly. At the same time, the influence of single players on the higher levels of college hoops has mostly been minimal. In fact, in the past seven years, only seven unique rookies have played in a Final Four. So while missing out on the occasional superstar’s brief stint in college isn’t ideal, it’s far from a deathblow. But at a time when top managers are already seeing massive changes to roster build thanks to unique free transfers, brand new transfer portal windows and NIL’s influence in recruiting, it could be another landscape shift in how the larger programs build their teams.
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