I’ve been working on this post for several days. At one point, I had a coherent central theme to write around. Unfortunately I was in the shower or at Target or doing some other thing where I could only think about it rather than enter the words into a text application. Thus, I fear, it’s turned into a hot mess.

Anyway, some thoughts on who should be eligible to declare for the NBA draft.

Marcus Smart is an idiot.

Marcus Smart is a genius.

The fantastic Oklahoma State point guard turned down a sure-thing, top five pick in next month’s NBA draft to return for his sophomore season. In doing so he made an awful choice. And a terrific choice.

He’s an idiot because he’s turning down ridiculous money with no guarantee it will still be there in a year. Knees get wrecked, achilles blow out, or crazy things can happen off the court to end a career. Hell, maybe he’s still very good but doesn’t show marked improvement next year and suddenly people are talking about how he’s already peaked.1

He’s a genius because he is deferring that massive payday to stay with his brothers at OSU and enjoy another year of college basketball. He is the rare, ultra-talented player who is willing to put the NBA on hold, which is great for the college game.

I hate that kids like Smart have to make this choice. But I’m also dead-set against forcing kids to stay in college any longer than they want/need to be. I don’t think there should be an age limit for NBA eligibility.

That’s not to say I don’t wish there was an age limit. Both college and professional basketball would be better if players had to spend one, two, or even three years in college honing their craft. Jordan did. Ewing did. Olajuwon did. It worked out ok for them.2

It would also be better for the fans and take pressure off of players who entered college with great expectations but might need two or three years to be physically, emotionally, and mentally prepared for the pro game.

If you criticize a system, you have to have a plan to fix it. I have a few ideas. I’ll allow up front that my plan is far from exhaustive. It shouldn’t be viewed as a complete, final proposal for how to fix the NBA draft. But it’s a place to start talking.

First, a player is eligible to be drafted by an NBA team if he turns 18 in the calendar year of the draft and has graduated from high school, or earned the equivalent of a high school diploma. I know, I said no age limit. But there has to be a floor so teams aren’t tempted to draft high school sophomores and hang on to their rights.3

Second, any college player can declare for the draft without losing their collegiate eligibility. They do not have to remove their names from the draft by a certain date, or even at all. They can even be drafted and still be eligible to play in college the following year. Until they sign a professional contract, they retain the option of returning to college, provided they maintain academic eligibility and don’t take money from an agent.4 College coaches will hate this. But they are the same assholes who can yank a kid’s scholarship if they recruit someone better, and leave players in limbo when they decide to chase a better job. Give the kids some protection.5

Once drafted, a player is under no obligation to sign with a team. If Johnny Jumpshot, a sophomore, doesn’t get picked until the second round by Minnesota and he doesn’t want to A) sign a non-guaranteed contract5 or B) play in Minnesota, he can go back to school. The catch for the player is the team that drafts them retains their rights until the following draft.

The catch for the team is that they must declare their intention on the player prior to the second year’s draft. If they draft a player and he returns to school, before the next draft they must A) sign him to a guaranteed contract lasting a minimum of two years at the average rate of the last five picks of the previous draft’s first round picks or B) renounce their claim and return him to the draft pool, where any team can select him. If they chose option B and Team 2 selects the player in the first round, Team 1 receives Team 2’s second round pick in that draft.

After each year’s draft there will be a four week window, ending in late July, in which players and teams can negotiate and determine what their relationship will be during the up-coming season. By the end of that period, a player must have either signed with an NBA team or elected to return to school. Once this period closes, teams can no longer trade the rights to players. They’re stuck together until the following June’s decision period.

That gives Minnesota four weeks to try to talk Johnny into coming to Minneapolis, or move him to another team where he is more interested in playing. And it prevents dramas from dragging into the fall. NBA franchises will know who will report to training camp and college coaches will know who to expect back for Midnight Madness.

Suddenly ESPN has some built-in, summer hoops excitement as draft picks and NBA teams are haggling while college fans cross their fingers that their guys turn down offers and come back for another year.

So, let’s say Johnny doesn’t sign with Minnesota and returns for his junior year of college. Now what? He can sign with Minnesota before the draft for the two-year option, refuse to sign and throw his hat back in the draft and be selected by any team without penalty, or return to college for his senior year.

Like I said, this is a preliminary idea, full of holes. As I’ve read through it, I’ve made major changes three times already. I see a few major issues that would need to be addressed immediately. But you have to start somewhere.

College will still lose players to the pros early. But this might cut down on that exodus a little. It reduces the pressure that a super-talented player must go pro because everyone expects him to. It gives them the option of truly determining their value and then choices on how to leverage that value. It gives teams a chance to grab talent before it peaks at a reduced rate. And it has a central point that might not make both sides happy, but at least protects each of them.

I don’t think we’ll ever see another Ralph Sampson, who played all four years at Virginia despite likely be the #1 pick each year he was eligible for the draft. But maybe we’ll see more Marcus Smarts who are willing to put being a pro off just a little longer.

  1. Not bloody likely, but there is a chance. 
  2. Kobe didn’t. KG didn’t. LeBron didn’t. I know. 
  3. Not that they would in the NBA, where there are only two rounds in the draft. That would be a waste in a system where there are limited opportunities to acquire young, cheap talent. 
  4. Part of this plan is the NCAA must allow college players to receive advice from agents. No money can be exchanged, but it’s criminal and immoral that the NCAA doesn’t let players get professional advisors when determining their futures. 
  5. That idea alone guarantees that the NCAA will never go along with anything resembling this plan. The last thing they are concerned about are the players, errrrr, scholar athletes.