The film on Kevin Durant as he left Montrose Christian School for the University of Texas, in 2006, reflected a talented teenager full of potential. He had a reach like Stretch Armstrong but no true position. He could shoot from all over the court but had to narrow his shot selection to optimize his efficiency. He could outleap most of the competition, easily snatching boards thanks to a recent growth spurt of nearly half a foot the previous summer. His frame, though, was still wiry; stronger players often outmuscled him.
Yet, it didn’t seem to matter. The kid could score at will.
He had all the tools at his disposal—and an enthusiasm for the game that could outlast any shooting slump. But there were a number of mundane basics Durant needed to learn were he to become the silky-smooth, bucket-getting All-Star, league MVP and NBA Finals MVP the world knows today: how to tape his ankles, how to stretch properly, how to build an entire day around the night’s game so his mind and body peaked when showtime came.
“Back in college, I didn’t know how to watch film,” Durant said recently. “I didn’t know what I was looking at when I got into the film room.”
It was then that Rick Barnes, KD’s coach at Texas, showed him the ropes. He taught Durant the minor things that became major.
“I didn’t know what a pick-and-roll coverage was,” Durant said. “I didn’t really know how to work on my game individually and take it seriously. I learned all that stuff from Rick Barnes. It was key for me, because I was always just a kid enjoying [playing] ball. I didn’t really think it would be just a job. That transition from being a high school player and working my way to be a pro, I learned a lot in that year. Some kids need that.”
Despite Durant’s promise and obvious skill set, Barnes refused to baby him. “I’m so grateful,” Durant admitted, relieved. “I didn’t realize it back then. Obviously, it was tough. But now, I realize that all that stuff was very, very important for me and my growth as a player, and if you have a good coach and a good staff, that’s vital for you.”
The education Durant received in college was unique, and—to a growing extent—an anachronism in the modern NCAA. According to Durant, coaches don’t seem as interested or invested in cultivating the deep, meaningful relationships when the most elite players are routinely one-and-done.
“Nowadays, these coaches are just like daycare owners,” Durant said. “They’re like, We’re just going to get these guys for a year and we’re not going to really coach them, because I know they’re going to be out the next year. That’s not how basketball’s supposed to played. That’s not how you’re supposed to be coached. You can’t teach the game like that.”
Durant was among the first classes of players impacted by the one-and-done rule mandating that players be at least 19 years of age and at least a year removed from their high school graduation to be eligible for the league. (The change affected the 2006 draft class; Durant was a McDonald’s All-American that year.) At the time, the concept of one-and-done athletes was more an outlier than a rule.
Now, the culture in the NCAA has shifted drastically. One-and-done is a cornerstone of NCAA hoops. Abuses are rampant; scandal is everywhere. An ongoing FBI probe threatens to link many of the top NCAA Division I men’s programs to possible rule violations.
Players, for their part, seem to know they are short-term rentals. College basketball wrapped up just last week, and already the exodus of the elite-level talent has begun. Deandre Ayton is bidding farewell to Arizona after one stellar season. Trae Young is bouncing from Oklahoma. Marvin Bagley III is leaving Duke. Many more will likely follow suit in the coming days and weeks.
One-and-done has also prompted a number of players to search for alternate routes to the NBA that don’t involve college at all. In 2008, Brandon Jennings bypassed college to play professionally in Italy. In 2009, Latavious Williams—partly because of academic ineligibility—skipped college to play with the Tulsa 66ers of the then-NBA Development League to buy time before being drafted by the Miami Heat a year later. More recently, this past December, LaVar Ball took his sons, LiAngelo and LaMelo, out of the NCAA—and high school—equation altogether when he announced the two teens would play in Lithuania. (LiAngelo recently filed paperwork to make himself eligible for the NBA draft.)
And then last month, Darius Bazley, a 247Sports 5-star recruit who signed with Syracuse, opted for the G League in lieu of playing for the Orange.
Jim Boeheim, Syracuse’s head coach, responded to the news critically, though without condemning Bazley for his decision. “I hope he does great,” Boeheim told ESPN’s Golic and Wingo. “But I don’t think it’s the way it will be. I think it will be proven it’s not the way to get to the NBA. … The last 48 McDonald’s All-Americans, 47 of them went to college. Of the next 48, 48 will go to college. It’s the best route.”
Some pros around the league who went the more traditional college route disagree.
“People talk about education,” JJ Redick, the sharpshooter for the Philadelphia 76ers, said. “Those kids aren’t getting educated.”
Redick played at Duke for four years and earned national player of the year honors. Upon arrival at the university, he recalled, his coach, Mike Krzyzewski, implored his new recruits to stick around so they could get the full experience.
“He used Elton Brand as a great example,” Redick said. “He said when Elton was at Duke, he knew he was only going to stay a year or two, but he unpacked his bags. It wasn’t one foot in, one foot out the door, and I think a lot of kids now are getting recruited as one-and-done. The school and the kids are saying it’s one-and-done. So, how does that help your program? How does that help your culture? I don’t think it does. Certainly, it’s worked. Guys have won championships. Coaches have won championships because of it, but I don’t think it’s a good system.”
The question of youth development and its relationship to the business of basketball has long been a sore spot for the NBA. At a press conference last summer, the league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, appeared torn when addressing the subject.
“We’ve talked a lot about youth development, in terms of whether we should be getting involved with some of these young players even earlier than when they come into college,” he said. “And from a league standpoint, on one hand, we think we have a better draft when we’ve had an opportunity to see these young players play at an elite level before they come into the NBA. On the other hand, I think the question for the league is, in terms of their ultimate success, are we better off intersecting with them a little bit younger? Are we better off bringing them into the league when they’re 18, using our G League as it was designed to be as a development league, and getting them minutes on the court there?”
Silver’s predecessor, David Stern, was among the primary architects of the one-and-done rule. In the early 2000s, a steady influx of talent entered the league straight from high school. And Stern, who represented the owners at the collective bargaining table, expressed his concern. “Their presence there is unseemly in my view,” he said.
He proposed an age limit, which many of the players opposed. Billy Hunter, then the director of the players union, strongly disputed the premise on philosophical grounds. “I can’t understand why people think one is needed except for the fact that the NBA is viewed as a predominantly black sport,” he said. “You don’t see that outcry in other sports, and the arguments that have been in support of an age limit have been defeated.” (Despite the objections, the players ultimately agreed to the provision.)
Hunter wasn’t alone in his assertion, and today—when around three quarters of the league is black—many still wonder what role race plays in the system.
“From an economic opportunity, I don’t think we should prohibit 18-year-olds from coming out of high school and coming into the NBA,” Redick said. “I look at college basketball. I look at the one-done-rule, it’s all just forms of control. There is a little bit of a race element there. People complain about NBA players, saying they’re not ready, but no one really gives a shit if somebody goes pro in golf or tennis.”
He added: “People are making money out of this system, and the high school kids should be able to come to the NBA and make money.”
Spencer Haywood, the former Laker great who opened the door for underclassmen to enter the NBA early—”the Spencer Haywood rule” as it is now known—has been an outspoken voice against the rule-making process for some five decades. He recently made headlines when he told Sporting News the system was racist. “If you have 11 blacks on your team and you are, say, in Kentucky, and they’re creating all this wealth but not getting paid? It does have a tinge of slavery.” he said.
Haywood was recently named chairman of the National Basketball Retired Players Association board of directors, and over the phone he talked about the NCAA and what he views as problematic eligibility rules. “You have someone coming to a player and say, ‘Well, you know, I think I want to buy you a dinner. You worked so hard last night and you did such a great thing for this town and this city in which this university is set in. So, I want to buy you a dinner,'” he said.
“And lo and behold, from that dinner, which is a $40 dinner or a $50 dinner, that player is then ineligible. So where is the fairness? And then most of those players are coming from African American, deprived areas. I mean, this is their way out, and this is their avenue.”
For Durant, getting drafted meant security.
“The reality of it is, you’re still going to change these kids’ lives if they get drafted,” he said. “Where a lot of these kids come from, to make that much money out of high school, it would be incredible, but you’re giving up some of that teaching that you need. Because you’re not getting it at the high school level if you’re a pro basketball player. There’s still a game that you need to learn.”
Durant was able to wait a year, but with time comes additional risks—particularly regarding health. His now-teammate, Shaun Livingston, had the choice to go pro straight out of Peoria High School. And the decision to do so later proved its worth. In a game against the Charlotte Bobcats, Livingston suffered what many experts described as one of the worst injuries they had witnessed on an NBA court. (He had dislocated his patella and torn three of the knee’s four major ligaments. Doctors initially feared the leg would need to be amputated.)
Had Livingston sustained the injury in college—say, at Duke, where he seriously contemplated attending—it’s likely that NBA teams would have bypassed him. But because Livingston was in the league, he was able to heal under the watch of NBA trainers with the security of a guaranteed contract that stretched a year after the injury happened.
Livingston has never been a fan of the age limit. “You’re not in control of your destiny,” he said. “You’re not able to write the story that you want to write, because somebody makes you write it and it goes to shit and then it’s like, Oh, that’s hard for me to live with. It’s hard. You’re not taking your life into your own hands, and that’s hard to do.”
Now, he and Durant play together for Golden State. The former often thinks of the college experience that could have been. “March Madness…that’s the most exciting time,” he said. “That’s the coolest part of the one-and-done. Win or go home, right? It’s exciting. But after saying that, 10 out of 10, I would’ve made the same decision. Ten times out of 10.”
He added: “I’m able to sleep easy at night, because at the end of the day, these are all my decisions, so I can accept that.”
The Philadelphia phenom Ben Simmons also suffered an injury shortly after joining the NBA. And like Livingston, his setback might have thwarted—or at least hindered—his pro dreams. One of the reasons he has strongly advocated against the one-and-done rule is the risk that college play can pose to athletes’ health. “I think just prepare yourself as best you can,” Simmons said. “Take care of your body and do what you need to do until it’s time for you to make that decision, but enjoy the time you have there, because it goes so quickly.”
Simmons was heralded out of Monteverde Academy, and upon reaching LSU in 2015 he staged his own protests against some of the NCAA’s archaic rules. He famously didn’t attend class—which later resulted in his missing a few minutes of a game—but was blunt about his aims. “I’m going to the NBA next season,” Simmons said in One and Done, a documentary about his year of college that premiered in 2016. “Why bullshit if it’s not going to help me?”
The NCAA has, for years, run ads touting the “student” angle of being a student-athlete. But the amount of scholarship taking place is coming under more and more scrutiny. According to a 2016 study conducted by Shaun Harper, a researcher and professor at the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, graduation rates among black athletes in the most money-driving sports at elite programs have declined in recent years.
“I actually think that one-and-done is a waste of time in college,” Harper said. “Because if you’re not there ultimately to earn a degree and graduate, I don’t know that it makes sense for one to be there at all, especially given how few graduate after six years. Why waste time having someone there in the first year or for a first year. Does that make sense?”
Any solution to fix the one-and-done system will need to be multi-layered, whether the G League plays a more pronounced role in the lives of players exiting high school or the NBA dissolves the age limit. Not every high school player is ready to take on the NBA like LeBron James, and a solution will need to take that into account.
In a recent phone interview, Stern admitted how complicated the puzzle truly is.
“It’s a very difficult problem, but it requires everyone, all the parties to it, to take a little responsibility rather than look for everyone else to take care of it,” he said. “Whatever else the NBA does elect to do, it has already made a substantial step by making the G League into a very respectable minor league, projecting 30 teams next season and a place where players can perfect their basketball skills, and I dare say, subject to the loud chorus that will try to drown me out, that the G League could be a place that can give kids a better education than they will get for the four months that they’re going to stay in school.”
The pressure is on to find a remedy.
In March, a report surfaced that NBA executives were formulating a blueprint for the league to open relationships with elite high school prospects in providing an alternative to a college pit stop. The Pac-12 formed a task force to study and develop policy-change recommendations for the NCAA. The Big East proposed that student-athletes attend college for two years or not at all and recommended tighter regulation of agents, among other endorsements.
Whatever happens, it’s uncertain how a new system might alter the college experience.
Despite his brief stint, Simmons said that there were plenty of benefits to student life. “I loved being at LSU, meeting all those people, and I made a lot of friends. The coaches out there were great to me,” he said. “But just the system of the NCAA, that’s the hardest part to get around.”
For Durant, college gave him something beyond socialization and books. Something a bit more vital: time. “I looked at that as you’re still in between being a professional and being a kid,” he said. “I had some responsibilities, but I didn’t have a lot. I didn’t have the responsibilities of being a professional, and not just on the court, but as a man as well.”
“There’s always pros and cons to everything,” he added. “The pros, the money and the exposure and playing at the highest level, but it would’ve took me a couple extra years to figure out that stuff. So I’m glad I sacrificed that, being able to have that choice. For me, it worked out perfect for me. … So I could learn what it took to be a pro. Now, I came into the league more ready mentally. Physically, my body, my game and all that stuff would’ve translated because I just know how to play, but just being a pro, that stuff is real.”
Howard Beck contributed to this report from Oakland.
Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.
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