It’s hard to believe the one-and-done rule has been around for almost eight years. Because Kentucky wasn’t landing a lot of elite recruits under Tubby Smith or Billy Gillispie, UK fans really felt the culture shock of the rule when John Calipari took over, and five years later, some fans are still having problems adjusting.
Since 2009, ten Kentucky players have entered the NBA draft after their freshman seasons, with more to follow. For a fanbase so emotionally connected to its players, the process is still difficult to swallow. This season, there has been some backlash to the one-and-done culture by UK fans who feel as though they don’t know the players anymore, and in turn, don’t connect with the program as much. I’ve thought a lot about this recently, and came up with some tips for fans to survive in the one-and-done era.
1. Don’t put too much stock into hype
I realize that this is a rule we break a lot around here, and it’s not intentional. It’s hard not to get swept up into the hype that comes with elite recruits, especially when Cal is bringing #1 class in after #1 class. This preseason, the hype reached epic levels, with “the greatest recruiting class of all time” riding to Lexington on white horses in to save fans from the memory of an embarrassing first round NIT loss. The hype was created by the media (the 24/7 news cycle especially exists in sports); the fans, desperate to get the taste of last season out of their mouths; the overdramatic world of high school recruiting; and yes, Cal himself, who repeatedly said that he dreamt of going 40-0 during his career and he wanted his team to “chase perfection.” As bloggers whose job it is to read the pulse of Kentucky program and its fans, yes, we are guilty of believing and building the hype, too.
Looking back, the notion of 40-0 is even more ridiculous. It’s impossible to expect a team of freshmen to act like seniors. After watching the team stumble (and occasionally soar) this season, I made not buying the hype a New Year’s resolution, not because it wasn’t true this go around (by the end of the season, this group may live up to its billing), but because it wasn’t fair. Not to the players, and not to fans. When the next #1 recruiting class comes around, I’m going to do my best to let them at least play a few games before passing judgment. (Key words: “do my best”)
2. Let freshmen be freshmen
In the same vein, let’s let our freshmen be freshmen. Instead of expecting them to be NBA superstars from day one, let’s expect and accept stumbles along the way. Most of the players Cal recruits are the best of the best, and because of that, have sometimes been coddled along the way, turning the dream of going to the NBA into an expectation. Over the past five years, we’ve seen how Cal has had to “break” freshmen of their bad habits and egos, and at some point along the way (January-February), those who go on to be the most successful have that “aha moment” in which they work harder and surrender themselves to their team. A good example of this right now is Andrew Harrison, who is shedding bad habits and taking ownership of his role as point guard.
3. Remember all freshmen aren’t created equal
We were spoiled by Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Their premature maturity and poise showed the cynics that it’s possible to win with freshmen, and the two became the standard by which all of Cal’s freshmen were measured, when really, they should be considered the exceptions to the rule.
4. Keep in mind that some players need more than one year
Because not all freshmen are created equal, some need more time to mature. Even just one more year in Calipari’s system can mean the difference between a second-round pick (no guaranteed contract) and a lottery pick. Some players realize this and some players don’t. Coming in, many assumed Terrence Jones and Alex Poythress would be typical one-and-done players, destined to go in the lottery. However, that wasn’t the case and both wisely came back for a sophomore year. It worked out very well for Terrence, and from the looks of it, could for Alex as well. On the flip side, imagine how different life could have been for players like Marquis Teague or Daniel Orton if they had stayed another year in Lexington.
5. Value the veterans
No, I’m not talking about Willie Cauley-Stein or Alex Poythress, although their leadership is invaluable. I’m talking about Jon Hood, Jarrod Polson, and yes, even the walk-ons, who provide some stability to a program that’s constantly starting from scratch. Why do you think Calipari brings up Jon Hood so often? As much as I love LakeHair, it’s not because he’s the next NBA superstar; it’s because Hood is a mentor for younger players. After five years as a Wildcat, knows the fishbowl lifestyle, and he knows Cal’s system. That guidance is more important than any of us realize.
6. Don’t take it personally when a player leaves
Players don’t leave Kentucky after one year because they hate the program; they leave because playing in the NBA is their dream. Imagine working towards something your whole life and having it within your grasp. Now add in several millions of dollars and the ability to change your family’s lifestyle. While returning to college may be an appealing option, it’s not like the opportunity to go pro is a standing invitation. Injuries happen and life is fleeting. If the projections are high, how can you blame them?
7. Remember that goodbye isn’t really goodbye
The cycle is cruel: welcome players into the family just to say goodbye to them less than a year later. However, over the past five years, I’d argue we’ve learned that goodbye isn’t really goodbye. Almost every single one of Calipari’s NBA players has returned to campus since leaving for the pros, many to work on their degrees and help out with camps. The Alumni Game was created so players could come back home, be with “la familia,” and oh yeah, raise money for charity. Before Calipari came to Lexington, I could care less about the NBA. With 21 UK players currently on NBA rosters (15 joining the league during Cal’s tenure), you can turn on the TV just about any night and watch a former Cat play. It’s not goodbye, it’s see you soon.
8. Cherish the time you do have with them
It’s hard to believe, but we may only see some of these guys play in a Kentucky uniform for a few more months. Cherish it.
9. Hate the rule, not the player
The one-and-done rule was introduced before the 2006 NBA Draft to curtail the influx of high schoolers to the NBA. From then on, players must go to college for one year and be 19-years-old to enter the league. If they don’t want to go to college, they also have the option of playing overseas or going straight to the D-League. Frankly, the rule sucks, and is hurting both college basketball and the NBA. Calipari is one of its most outspoken opponents, advocating a two-and-through approach similar to the one used in professional baseball. Contrary to his critics’ beliefs, Cal doesn’t like the rule, but he doesn’t put his dreams before his players. When asked, Cal gives them honest, unbiased advice on whether or not the timing is right for them to go to the league. Sometimes they listen; sometimes they don’t. Selfishly, Cal says, he’d love for them to all stay four years. We all would. But this isn’t about us. It’s about them.
10. Hope for change
The only way the one-and-done rule will change is if the NBA and the Players’ Association decide it’s time. David Stern is retiring as commissioner on February 1st, passing the baton to deputy commissioner Adam Silver. Silver has said in the past that he is not fond of the rule. Hopefully the regime change will spark a new debate and maybe even some action.
Until then, we just have to live in the moment.