The prep-to-pro pipeline is likely returning to the NBA, and with it will come major changes in how college basketball teams operate.
Shams Charania of The Athletic reported Monday that the NBA and its players association are “expected to agree” to change the league’s age eligibility for the NBA draft from 19 to 18 in its new CBA, a move that would kick in “as early as the 2024 NBA draft.” That change would open the door for players to go directly from high school into the draft, bypassing college and other development options like the G League’s Ignite program.
So much has changed from both an NBA and college perspective since prep-to-pro was last allowed in 2005, but in the final three years in which it was allowed, 22 total players were drafted directly out of high school. That’s an average of just over seven per year.
At that time, there were eight total G League teams (known then as the National Basketball Development League), which limited the NBA’s ability to develop unproven talent internally. Now there are 30, and all but two NBA franchises have an affiliated G League team they can send players to. There’s also far more information available for NBA teams to work with, thanks to easy access to film and stats from high school and AAU games, especially given the consolidation of top talent at high-profile prep schools. Plus, the last two years NBA scouts have been permitted to attend Nike’s Peach Jam, the premier AAU tournament of the summer, with many even flocking to 15U games this summer to evaluate highly touted 2025 prospects Cooper Flagg and twins Cameron and Cayden Boozer.
From a college standpoint, roster-building strategy is completely different from what it was two decades ago, thanks to the explosion of transfers. Between the transfer portal and players being allowed to test the NBA draft waters before returning to school, rosters are in flux later than ever. Teams are built far more on a year-to-year basis than via the long-term building processes taken on by coaches of old.
That’s where the return of prep-to-pro should have its biggest impact. Inevitably, there will be a few prospects clearly on a pro trajectory who won’t ever be seriously recruited by college teams. Losing those players—the Zion Williamsons and Cade Cunninghams of the world—hurts college basketball’s mainstream hidden in the regular season, but it doesn’t have huge downwind impacts on the sport as a whole. It’s the fringe NBA prospects (guys who will likely have full college recruitments and make commitments in the fall of their senior years of high school and then test the NBA draft waters that spring), who will really shape a new era of men’s college hoops.
Will Duke and Kentucky, the two biggest one-and-done recruiters in recent years, pivot roster-building strategies to avoid that uncertainty? Does it make sense for Kentucky to recruit, say, the No. 40 player instead of the No. 10 player in a given class, knowing that it might not get clarity on whether the No. 10 player will actually matriculate until late May or early June? The impact of that might be exaggerated in the first few years of this change as top high school players figure out just how much draft stock they actually have. These numbers will likely fluctuate from class to class, but there might be five surefire prep-to-pro kids in a given high school class and 20 more who go through the NBA draft process in the spring in search of an NBA combine invitation. In turn, that could lead to fewer combine invites to go around for college players, particularly upperclassmen who’ve been evaluated heavily at the college level. Essentially, what was already a chaotic predraft process for teams trying to finalize rosters just got even more complex, and the cost-benefit analysis to recruiting top prospects is now a lot murkier.
It’s also worth wondering whether the value of recruiting surefire NBA prospects drops if the truly elite ones are skipping college. A Duke team whose best freshman is AJ Griffin instead of Paolo Banchero would probably have even more trouble beating more veteran-laden teams come March. The other side of that argument, of course, is that a world where Duke and Kentucky still get the best college talent but more frequently gets them for multiple years is a scary sight for the rest of the country. There’s inevitably going to be some trial and error here as programs figure out the optimal strategy, just like there was with the advent of the one-and-done. Duke, for instance, took nearly a decade from the 2005 rule change to land a one-and-done in Jabari Parker.
In the short term, the possibility of a “double draft” in 2024 looms large. That draft, should these rule changes go through, would include the best players from both the ’23 and ’24 high school classes. And while several college coaches Sports Illustrated spoke to this summer believe the ’23 high school class is one of the weaker classes they’ve seen in recent years, that’s still enough to make that ’24 draft a crowded one. If a player is on the fence between staying in the draft in ’23 or returning to college, they’ll likely face less resistance in getting a roster spot if they turn pro earlier.
The end of the one-and-done era wouldn’t be devastating to college basketball. Having less overall talent is never good for the game, and this change makes a sport that was already diverging stylistically from the NBA even less pro-friendly. At the same time, one-and-done players’ influence on the highest levels of college hoops has more often than not been minimal. In fact, in the last seven years, just seven one-and-done recruits have played in a Final Four. So while missing out on the occasional superstar’s brief college stint isn’t ideal, it’s far from a death blow. But at a time when high-major coaches are already navigating massive changes in roster-building thanks to one-time free transfers, brand new transfer portal windows and NIL’s influence in recruiting, this could be yet another landscape-altering shift in how the biggest programs build their teams.
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