Fixing the NBA Draft: A modest proposal

There's been a lot of talk about the NBA draft recently, specifically with regard to the 1-and-done rule and potential problems it creates for colleges who recruit those types of players. Much of proposed alterations revolve around a baseball-esque system where a player can either go into the draft out of high school or go to college, but if they go to college they commit to play for either 2 or 3 years (depending on the variation of the rule change).

I propose that what needs to change is not the high school/college choice, but rather the way the NCAA handles basketball players who enter the draft. Specifically, basketball players should be able to retain their college eligibility if they go through the NBA draft, just as baseball players are able to do with the MLB Rule 4 draft.

For those not familiar with the MLB draft, high school players, college juniors and seniors, and in some cases college sophomores are eligible to be drafted. If a player does not sign with the team that drafts them they can go/return to college if they are a high school player or underclassman. If a high school player chooses to attend college, they are ineligible for the draft until their third year. There are circumstances under which a player can be eligible before that time, but they are fairly uncommon.

I propose that something similar happen with the NBA draft. To wit:

  1. High school players are eligible
  2. College sophomores and up are eligible
  3. A player can go through the draft and, if they are not drafted may return to college (The Randolph Morris rule) in the case of an underclassman, or attend college in the case of a high school player. An undrafted player who returns to/enters college must go through the draft again (ie they are NOT a free agent and able to leave college early to go to the NBA as Randolph Morris was his junior year).
  4. A college player may return to college 1 time after going through the draft. After that they lose remaining eligibility if they go through again, even if they are not drafted the second time.

A few thoughts:

1) High school player eligibility would obviously require the NBA to change their current thinking, but if undrafted players can go to college to increase their skills David Stern might be more willing to allow the Lebrons, Kobes, and Dwight Howards of the world to go straight to the NBA.

2) Likewise the college sophomore eligibility would require a change in the NBA draft rule that would make it similar to the MLB one - ie a player can jump straight from high school, but if they go to college they have to spend 2 years there minimum.

3) Rule 4 is essentially the current NCAA draft rule but with the withdraw date replaced by the actual draft. The withdraw date under the current rule could serve as a cut off for the application of Rule 4: That is, if a player withdraws before that date then it does not count as his "1 time freebie" but if he stays in past that date then he stays eligible for the draft. This also allows NBA teams to know who is and isn't available.

The main benefit of this change is that it allows players to know exactly where they stand with regard to the NBA. It would mitigate the influence of the "hangers on" whispering in the ears of good players who aren't yet ready by allowing them to still go to college.  Consider the case of a high school player or college underclassman who believes they are ready for the NBA because certain people around them are whispering in their ear.  If the player listens but goes undrafted they are less likely to listen to those people again and more likely to listen to coaches and scouts to get an accurate assessment of their abilities.  This way, neither the player nor the school is hurt by a poor decision on the part of the player.

I expect the main criticism will involve the uncertainty for coaches and schools about a player who has committed to play for a college and also plans to enter the draft. These concerns are unwarranted. The same system exists in baseball and it has not hurt that sport. Indeed, this WAS the system before the NBA instituted a minimum age rule and college basketball did just fine.

Even if the NBA sticks with the current minimum age policy, it should not prohibit the NCAA from making changes to allow players to go through the draft (Rules 3 and 4 above, though certainly part of Rule 3 would require a change in the NBA rules).

There are likely some places where the specifics can be tweaked and I'm certainly interested in any ideas other people might have so please make suggestions. The main idea seems good to me though, and I don't see any downside for players, colleges, or the NBA.