Skip to Content

Do NBA players have to go to college?

One question that has continuously been raised throughout NBA history and which still has no definitive answer is should high school basketball players continue their education and go to college, or should they be able to skip it and go pro right away like some of the best have done previously? Are they missing valuable time and money to compete when they go to college or are they benefiting much more from learning and maturing in their formative years?

Do NBA players have to go to college? Perspective NBA players can go to college to reach the NBA or they can choose to play basketball overseas in order to play in the NBA.

One decision that offers a middle ground, and which many players chose, and are now forced to choose is to go to college, but for a shortened period of time. The league made a stance in 2005 with their one and done policy, but is that policy necessary, and is it here to stay is also a topic of discussion. The reason why this is such a problematic and controversial question is the individual nature of it all. There have been so many contrary and inconsistent experiences so far that the only way to offer some sort of conclusion is to take a more extensive approach, and look at individual cases and look into what has made them successful or not so successful.  But first, let’s take a look at some basic NBA regulations regarding this topic.

Can you get to the NBA without going to college?

Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James… Besides being guaranteed future hall of famers, these superstars have one more thing in common. They opted to enter the NBA draft straight from high school, and each of them went on to have magnificent careers. McGrady was and still is considered to be one of the premier scorers in NBA history, the other three each MVPs and champions. When it comes to talent of that magnitude, few scouts and general managers ever doubt if the transition from high school is possible immediately. After all, LeBron was picked first in the 2003 NBA draft, which proves the point.

But that’s not always the case, sometimes the signs that the NBA level of basketball is just too big a step, the same signs that are pretty clear later on are not there at the age of 18. That was the case many times, most notably in 2001, when the Washington Wizards picked Kwame Brown at number 1, which soon proved to be a terrible mistake. So, 4 years later  the league office along with the commissioner David Stern pushed forward a new rule during collective bargaining agreement negotiations. The rule was called “one and done” and required players to attend college for at least one year or be of the age of 19 in order to be eligible for the NBA draft.  That condition has been present ever since, and during that time has never stopped being a talking point for players, fans, college coaches, general managers and others.

What are the requirements to enter the NBA draft?

NBA draft is an annual after-season event in which all of the 30 NBA franchises select new players for their respective teams from the pool of new recruits. The format and requirements have changed from the early days on a couple of occasions, but have remained the same since the above mentioned introduction of the ”One and Done” rule. The requirements are the following:

  • All 30  teams get to select one draft pick for each of the 2 rounds
  • First 3 picks are determined by lottery drawing consisted of 14 non-playoff teams, with the teams with worse records having the more favourable odds.
  • After those first 3 picks, all teams are put in reverse order based on their regular season record from the previous season.
  • Players have to be 19 years old during draft calendar year, and at least one season has to pass since their graduation of high school
  • Players have to declare their eligibility 60 days before draft night
  • International players are automatically eligible if they are turning 22 by December 31st and the American players if they complete college eligibility.
  • An American player who has a contract with an international team is automatically eligible by the age of 19.
  • No player can be eligible for more than 2 drafts

A few of these rules are rumoured to change sometime in the near future, probably before 2022. The biggest of these changes is certainly the expected lowering of the required age for eligibility.  According to USA Today, the league has submitted a proposal to the NBA Players Association to lower the required age from 19 to 18. The other possible change is also very interesting. The NCAA apparently wishes that NBA would alter the rules for undrafted players, allowing them to return to school if they are not selected.

Why does the NBA require one year of college?

The NBA age limit is a subject almost every involved party has an issue with. Everyone has an opinion and everyone wants to think they are trying to protect the game and not solely their own interest. But in a matter this multi- layered, it’s almost impossible to understand better one side’s position without hurting the other’s. So, before getting into what was former commissioner David Stern’s reasoning for introducing this notorious rule, and if it is justifiable, let’s first take a look at the stances of the other involved parties: the players and the NCAA.

From the player perspective, since being forced to wait a whole year before entering the league has prevented talented young men from being able to get out of the first contract sooner and therefore earn big bucks, it is easy to see how this rule is one that frustrates them. For all their talent, playing college basketball is something that gives them only paid tuition in return, which is almost insulting a compensation compared to the views and money they draw.

Many of these “One and Done” players are hugely popular even in their teens. That was the case for Kevin Durant, John Wall, Anthony Davis and most recently Zion Williamson. Before even stepping foot on the NBA floors, Zion was dominating media headlines and securing big money deals with Nike, while Anthony Davis played for USA national team. Telling these guys they are not ready and mature enough to have an actual job at the age of 18 just seems patronising and hypocritical. After all, nobody complains about guys working in factories and construction sites to support their families and make a living, so why is this different. Obviously, they are just selling the image that this policy is here for the benefit of the player, while in reality it benefits the NCAA and limits the financial risk for the NBA general managers. All the young athletes in high school ask for is the same opportunity which is given to their peers in other fields, and it will be very interesting to see for how long will their voice be ignored.

Couple of years ago, Kevin Durant was asked about this in an interview. His response was simple and logical: “You should let these kids make a decision, however they want to. If they want to come out of high school, it should be on them. You can’t control everything. So if they feel as though they’re ready, that’s on them. They want to make a decision on their life, that’s on them. If they don’t get drafted, it’s on them”. He also went on to say he would have gone straight to the NBA if he had that choice, because some guys just need the money at that time.

From the NCAA’s perspective, the views are significantly higher each year with growing talent level compared to the time without “One and Done”. 2017 NCAA tournament was the most watched college basketball event in 24 years. But, even with boosted money, ticket sales and television revenue, some important voices in NCAA circles aren’t completely sold on this rule. Some coaches have been frustrated by the unpredictability of having to completely reshape the roster and tactics each year due to losing key players.

The biggest criticism, however, comes from the president of the NCAA himself, Mark Emmert. He said on multiple occasions: “The one-and-done rule is something I’ve made no secret about how much I dislike it. It makes a farce of going to school. What is this about? Is this about someone being part of a university and playing basketball or any other sport with that school’s jersey on, representing that institution or is (it) about preparing me for my career, my professional career as a ball player. If it’s the latter, you can do that inside a university, and that might be a really good way to go. But if you don’t want to and you don’t think you should and you don’t think that’s right for your family then don’t come. Don’t be a part of this. Don’t muck around in the system. Just go. Have a good life. But let’s not confuse those two things”.

So let’s get to David Stern’s reasoning for this policy. Originally, soon after the rule’s introduction, he often cited the social aspect of the decision.  Apparently, he thought that too many of young urban Americans are looking at the NBA as a viable path –to financially secure their families, which it often isn’t in his opinion. However, that explanation was received terribly by many players, some of whom even blamed the rule on racism.

So he tried to clarify his true purpose in a later interview: “Our rule is that they won’t be eligible for the draft until they’re 19. They can play in Europe, they can play in the D-League, they can go to college. This is not a social program, this is a business rule for us. The NFL has a rule which requires three years of college. So the focus is often on ours, but it’s really not what we require in college. It’s that we say we would like a year to look at them and I think it’s been interesting to see how the players do against first-class competition in the NCAAs and then teams have the ability to judge and make judgments, because high-ranking draft picks are very, very valuable.’’

Basically, the idea is that for every few Lebrons and Zions, there are many guys who just never get accustomed, and whom everybody forgets about in a few years. The league is coming from an angle where in a business where you invest millions of dollars in teenage prospects, you have to be careful enough and base your decision on a bigger body of work. This rule offers them that chance to judge how young talents fare against grown men, how they accept demanding coaches, and how they deal with adversity.

What is Adam Silver’s view on one and done?

Current commissioner Adam Silver, very popular and highly regarded as just and thoughtful, has opted to take his time regarding any possible changes. He admitted on a number of occasions that he is well aware that “one and done” is currently failing both the NBA and college basketball. “My sense is, it’s not working for anyone,” Silver said a couple of years ago. “It’s not working certainly from the college coaches and athletics directors I hear from. They’re not happy with the current system. And I know our teams aren’t happy, either, in part because they don’t necessarily think that the players that are coming into the league are getting the kind of training that they would expect to see among top draft picks in the league. So we’re going to come together with everyone who is interested in the community, whether it be the colleges, our union, agents, lots of points of view out there, and see if we can come up with a better system.”

The reason he’s still standing still even though he admits changes have to be made is the conflict of beliefs between the players’ association and the league offices. Both parties agree that “one and done” era should come to an end, but the former want the age limit completely removed, and the latter raised from 19 to 20, which would force the players to stay in college for 2 years.

“We all agreed we need to make a change,” Silver said after the talks. “It’s one of those issues we need to come together and study. … My sense is, It’s not working for anyone.”

One thing is for sure, Silver is looking at new and better ways how to fix player development structure, and we’ll probably hear from him sooner rather than later.

List of players who went from high school to the NBA:

Successful cases:

  • LeBron James– Not much to say here. Arguably one of the greatest players of all time, multiple times MVP and Champion and still at the top of his game. He transitioned to the league smoothly and was an all-star in his second year.

Career stats: 27 points, 7 assists, 7 rebounds

  • Kobe Bryant– Also one of the greatest. Maybe his transition was a little slower than James’, but he reached the same “Mount Rushmore” heights. Also MVP and a champion.

       Career stats: 25 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds

  • Kevin Garnett- Easily the best player of his draft class. He revolutionized the big man position in the early 2000s by adding drives and jumpers to the mix. He could do it all on the floor, and did it all with unrivalled passion. Retired also a champion and an MVP after 21 successful years.

       Career stats: 18 points, 10 rebounds

  • Dwight Howard: His recent struggles shouldn’t fool you, we are talking about the  most accomplished center of the 2000s. Multiple times defensive player of the year, a slam dunk champion, an NBA finalist and a true superstar during his peak years.

Career stats: 17 points, 13 rebounds

  • Tracy McGrady: He was the league’s leading scorer 2 times, also a 7- times All-Star. Most notably known for his scoring and that time he scored 13 points in half a minute. Elected to the Hall of Fame in 2017.

Career stats: 20 points, 4 assists, 5 rebounds

Other notable successful cases: Lou Williams,  Monta Ellis,  Amar’e Stoudemire,  Jermaine O’Neal,  Rashard Lewis,  Al Jefferson,  Darryl Dawkins,  Shaun Livingston, Tyson Chandler

Unsuccessful cases:

  • Ousmane Cisse: In his senior year in high school, Cisse averaged; 29 points, 16 rebounds and 12 blocks. Drafted by the Denver Nuggets in 2001 and unfortunately never played a single game in the league.
  • Korleone Young: Averaged 21 and 10 in high school, but only played 3 games for the Pistons. He is mostly known as the poster boy for David Stern limiting the minimum age to 19.
  • DeSagana Diop: The Cavs drafted him in 2001 before Joe Johnson, Richard Jefferson, Tony Parker and Gilbert Arenas. Averaged 2 points and 4 rebounds.
  • Thon Maker: Bucks gambled on his potential and after a couple of seasons gave up on him. He is now with the Pistons and it’s still too soon to call him a failed experiment, but he definitely has lived up to the hype so far.
  • Kwame Brown: The first overall pick in 2001 and also a poster boy for age limit being 19 years or more. He averaged 10 points in his best season, which is bad for a first pick, but not nearly as bad as some people seem to think.

The alternative routes to college:

One option for young high school talents which emerged recently and has gained popularity in a short period of time is the National Basketball League – the professional basketball league covering Oceania. The NBL is made up of eight Australian teams and one team from New Zealand, offering two key things players want: real salary and focus on only basketball. For guys whose only dream is to play in the NBA, it’s easy to see how this option makes perfect sense, and so there was no surprise when even a 5-star recruit chose to go down that road. Instead of accepting offers from popular colleges in Kansas, Texas Tech or Memphis, RJ Hampton decided to compete for the New Zealand Breakers in the NBL. Even though Brandon Jennings and Emmanuel Mudiay skipped college and went abroad themselves, this case was the first of its kind when it comes to Australia, but it could be a very interesting path moving forward.

RJ Hampton went on to explain his move, saying to ESPN: “My No. 1 goal is to play in the NBA. I wanted to be an NBA player before I ever wanted to be a college player. This is about getting ready for the next level faster and more efficiently. Both of my parents went to college. My mom got her master’s degree. Education is a big thing in our family, but this is about focusing 100 percent on basketball. You can always go back to college, but there’s only a short window as an athlete where you can play professional basketball, and I want to take advantage of that. I think that challenging yourself on a daily basis is the best way to improve.”

Hampton is currently projected as the number 6 overall pick for the 2020 draft by ESPN. If his experiment turns out to be a success story, others will surely follow, which can potentially make NCAA think twice about their paying policies.

New California rules:

As things stand, NCAA regulations do not allow their athletes to sign any endorsement deals or accept payments. But, having in mind the increasing pressure on colleges from many sides, this is expected to be a subject of major changes. The first such step is scheduled for 2023, and that is the new California law, which will prohibit the NCAA punishing players for said endorsement deals. This will allow players, ones who actually provide the product, to get their share of the revenue worth billions of dollars.

The signing of this bill took place on the HBO program called “The Shop”, where democrat Gavin Newsom signed the bill alongside LeBron James, host of the show, and a loud supporter of students getting paid.

However, the NCAA will probably not go away without a fight. Their board of governors commented on this bill, calling it “harmful and unconstitutional.”

What awaits is a certain and unavoidable series of law battles and conflicts by the time 2023 comes. One thing is for sure though – players’ voices are no longer ignored.