Since its inception in 2005, the one-and-done rule has completely changed the sport of basketball, and no one knows that better than John Calipari. Cal has become synonymous with the rule, and in turn, is college basketball’s biggest villain. The sport’s purists work themselves into a fury talking about how Cal’s “NBA factory” at Kentucky has demoralized and cheapened James Naismith’s great invention. To them, painting Calipari as the villain is easier than accepting the cold hard truth: the rule is a necessary evil for success in college basketball. And John Calipari’s the only one willing to do something about it.
Let’s start by looking back at how we got into this mess.
During collective bargaining talks in 2005, the players’ association and the league came up with the “one-and-done rule” as a solution to the influx of prep stars making the leap to the NBA without attending college. The NBA wanted more time to evaluate high school talent and hoped that a year in college would help players mature. The players’ association didn’t wholly approve of the concept, but agreed to it to get other things they wanted from the league. Therefore, the rule stating that a player must be 19 years of age, or have spent one season in college or playing abroad in order to play in the league was born.
In its first few years, the rule seemed to benefit both NBA and college basketball. Stars like Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, and Greg Oden only spent the requisite year in college, but helped their teams to postseason success, and Durant became the first freshman ever to win the Oscar Robertson Trophy. College basketball benefited from a jolt of talent that previously, would have followed in Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James’ shoes by leaping to the league straight out of high school, and the NBA got its slightly more developed stars. At age 22, Rose became the league’s youngest MVP, a feat that LeBron James didn’t achieve until he was 24.
The problems with the one-and-done rule began once the sport had a few years to adjust to it. Some coaches accepted the rule and found a way to make it work, while others refuse to adapt their practices, and in turn, lag behind the curve. The nation’s top high school talent sees which coaches/programs are most successful in putting players in the league (Kentucky), and as a result, other coaches are left in the cold, which breeds jealousy and contempt.
Cal’s approach to the rule? Put the players first. “I’m not recruiting one-and-dones; I’m recruiting basketball players,” Calipari said in 2011. “I tell kids, ‘Don’t come here if you think you’re leaving after one year. If you’re ready to go after a year, I will be fine with it.’ You recruit the best kids you can recruit and then you make judgments when the year is over. People say, ‘Cal, if he had stayed, you would have had another guy and maybe won the national title.’ Maybe it would have been better for us, but it wouldn’t have been better for him.”
The fact that the media really only started making noise about the evils of the rule after Cal began to have success at Kentucky is not a coincidence; Kentucky was already the villain of the sport, and when Cal came along, he vaulted it back to elite status with such speed that the rest of the teams in the sport were left spinning. It didn’t take the critics long to take the low road to explain Kentucky’s sudden shot of success.
ESPN and CBS commentator Len Elmore in 2011: “You have coaches now running and telling kids, ‘Come with me, and after your freshman year I’ll have you ready for the NBA.’â€‰It used to be in recruiting the coach would say, ‘Come with me and I’ll develop you into a man and you’ll get a degree.’ …I won’t name names, but you know who they are. And it still boggles my mind how a coach can think he can take a kid for six months and get him ready for the NBA.”
At this point, the one-and-done rule isn’t exactly helping the players out, either. The number of one-and-doners drafted that end up in the D-League is going up. While they’re getting paid, it is clear in some cases that another year or two in college would have helped both the players and the teams make a better decision. Now, teams are full of players who are young, raw players who need development. Critics love to blame Cal for the system, but he’s quick to point out that he’s not the one who created it, he’s just found a way to make it work, and in turn, reap more rewards:
“All these people are trying to make this one-year rule my rule. When did it become my rule? I don’t even like it. Would I like them to stay four years? Absolutely, I would like them to stay four years. But it’s not the rule. This is the rule,” Cal has said. “There’s only two solutions to it: Either I can recruit players who are not as good as the players I’m recruiting or I can try to convince guys that should leave to stay for me.” “
He’s even gone as far to trump his system’s “success rate,” aka a graduation rate in the one-and-done era. His players may not make it to their sophomore year, but they do put in work towards their degrees over the summer, while at the same time still chasing their dreams and taking care of their families’ financial situations. It ain’t pretty, but until the rule changes, it works.
When will that rule change? Probably not anytime soon. Yet, Cal has been one of the few college coaches to offer some solutions. He’s proposed the “two and through” system, in which the age requirement for the league would be bumped up to 20, or two years of school. The two-year rule would make it easier for players to get their degrees, while still having the time they need to develop their skills and mature in college. Cal told Mike DeCourcy back in 2011 that it’s the perfect medium:
“If it’s two years, the kids understand they’ve got to go to college. I think we would have 100 percent graduation rate along with all these kids getting drafted. When a kid leaves after one year and he’s 90 credits short, that’s going to take seven or eight years. …Two years is a good number. Kids can come in and do their thing, they can get close to graduating, you can have an impact on their lives.”
He’s also suggested that players who stay two years or more get a year off their initial contract in the NBA, which would give them a bigger contract sooner and provide incentive for them to stay in school. In the past, NCAA president Mark Emmert has proposed getting rid of the rule altogether and letting kids go to the league right out of high school, something which Cal pointed out in a 2012 speech was how we got into this mess in the first place:
“The NCAA president said let them go right out of high school? What? How many ninth graders will think, ‘I’m going right to the NBA?’ Five hundred? One thousand? Now those kids will be really focused on academics. How could you make that statement?”
Calipari’s ire for the NCAA and its rules has swelled to the point that on our radio show last week, he suggested that Kentucky may secede from the NCAA until things are changed. And while the one-and-done rule is an NBA rule, the NCAA is doing nothing to fix it. Until they do, college basketball and the nation’s top talent will continue to suffer from a broken system:
“I’m the one guy out there saying we’ve gotta change this somehow,” Calipari told Matt last week. “We’ve gotta encourage these kids to stay two years. But the NCAA’s gotta do some stuff, and if they don’t do it we need to separate from them. I’m not afraid to say it. Look, they’ve embarrassed me. I’ve done nothing, so they’re not gonna come in, show retribution to me and do stuff. I don’t really care. But something’s gotta change with this one-and-done rule. I seem to be the coach saying anything.”
We all joke about how often Cal talks about his “players-first” system, but the reason he does is because it falls on deaf ears to those who have the power. The system isn’t perfect, but right now, it’s the only line of defense until the NCAA, the NBA, and the Players’ Association come together to find a proper solution, which Cal has even already put together for them.
But he’s the villain, right?