The Athletic

Change in NBA Draft’s rules will put Duke’s one-and-done model to the test

Here we go (again).

On Monday morning, The Athletic‘s Shams Charania reported that the NBA and the NBA Players Association are discussing the specifics behind a new CBA.

Among the key conversation points? Lowering the age limit for NBA Draft eligibility from 19 to 18. If enacted — and it sure sounds like it’s going to be — high schoolers will once again be able to jump directly to the NBA, without having to be one year removed from graduation. That option hasn’t existed since 2005, when the current status quo was established … and as a byproduct, the one-and-done era was born.

Now we get to find out what one-and-done looks like in a world where it isn’t required.

And perhaps nowhere will those effects be felt more than in Durham, deep in the bowels of Cameron Indoor Stadium. Is there any school, save for Kentucky, that has been more dependent on one-and-done players than Duke over the last decade? Since Kyrie Irving got the ball rolling in 2011, the Blue Devils have sent 23 one-and-done players to the NBA, 18 of those into the first round. (For reference, fellow blue-bloods Kansas and North Carolina have had 14 combined one-and-done players since the onset of the current rules.) Those players haven’t just been essential to Duke’s success over the last decade-plus; they’ve directly dictated it.

But that relationship has been symbiotic. For as much as Duke has thrived because of its one-and-done studs, said stars have also reaped the benefits of one of college basketball’s better programs. For example: Duke has a pro-like strength and sports science staff, which studies, measures, and enhances player performance. It also has the largest social media reach of any college program — more, even, than Alabama football — and you’re kidding yourself if you think the Duke brand hasn’t amplified individual players’ prestige. Zion Williamson is the perfect example. Could he, the No. 5 recruit in his class, have hopped straight to the NBA from high school? Safe. Perhaps. But does he arrive in the pros as the No. 1 talent, as a national star with a signature shoe deal after his exploits as a Blue Devil? Far more debatable.

Therein lies the crux of Duke’s one-and-done model: the benefit to both sides. It’s almost business-like, if you think about it. Duke benefits, obviously, from having elite talent on its teams. Those players help the program win games, stock trophy cases, and continue building a larger brand. For the players, they get what amounts to the best internship they could ask for: nine months in a semi-professional setting, where the world revolves around and caters to them, and where they have access to one of the best staffs (and sets of teammates) in the country. They get better, which pays dividends down the road. Win-win for everybody.

For a long time, that was an elite prospect’s best pathway. Door 1: Go to an elite college, ball out, and then bolt for the NBA as soon as legally possible. In recent years, a second option has presented itself. Door 2, if you will: Choose an alternative way to spend your “gap” year — one which you’re compensated for, be it playing professionally overseas or for one of the pro leagues in America (G League Ignite or Overtime Elite). The introduction of NIL to the college athletics space in the last year blurred the lines between those two options, but it was still two doors.

Lowering the age limit back to 18, though, means there’s a new, shiny Door 3 for top talents to walk through — only this one, unlike the other two, expedites everything. You’re a pro faster. You get paid faster. You chase your dreams faster. You don’t risk injury, or stumbling at the college level. You’re a year closer to a second NBA contract, and a third, and all the generational wealth that comes with it. Who’s turning that down?

That is what remains to be seen — and it’s the bet Duke, over the last decade, has been bracing for. Not every high schooler will make the leap to the NBA just because they can. You go undrafted, and… well, good luck. We’re talking about the top 1 percent of the 1 percent, maybe the five best players in any given high school class. Paolo Banchero probably would’ve fit that mold, but even a healthy AJ Griffin, someone with tremendous measurables and NBA pedigree? Eh. It’s more up in the air, at the very least.

The problem is, those are the kids Duke goes hard after. And as has become clear the last few seasons — both at Duke and across the country — not all one-and-done talents are created equally. Starting four freshmen ranked Nos. 1, 2, 5, and 15 in the country is not the same as starting four freshmen ranked Nos. 6, 12, 29, and 37. Same umbrella, drastically different outcomes.

It’s unreasonable to think all of Duke’s targets will still opt for the college route. The appeal of immediate paydays and stardom are too enticing to turn down — and for players of that caliber, that’s completely reasonable. Go get your bread: all day, every day. The reverse of that also applies; there are certain top talents who grew up watching Kyrie and Jayson Tatum and Zion, and want to have the same experience. Maybe they recognize their games could use more seasoning. Whatever the individual logic, it’s also entirely valid.

What Duke is betting on is that over the last decade, it has shown that nine months in Durham are valuable from both a basketball and long-term life perspective. It’s the blueprint. If you’re a top-five player in your respective class, you don’t have to guess what Duke can do for you; it’s been shown time and time again, year after year, by players of all positions and skill levels. You can call Banchero or Williamson, or any of the like, and they’ll all tell you: I entered the NBA in a better position because I attended Duke. That’s the best possible sales pitch Duke has.

And really, it’s the best possible sales pitch any college program can offer.

Because if superior support staff, teammates, brand amplification, education — and as of last year, NIL earnings — from a place like Duke aren’t enough to entice top high schoolers to come to college anymore, then nothing will. That simple.

Instead, we’ll enter a new (old?) era of college basketball. Players ranked 20 and on will move up the metaphorical big board, and become the new objects of every blue blood’s affection. The transfer portal will become even more popular than it already has; experienced talent is already superior to young talent, and if that young talent isn’t as terrific as it once was? Then the cost-benefit analysis of taking high-schoolers changes.

Jon Scheyer’s recruiting acumen is a large reason he’s in the seat he is now, so if there’s someone Duke wants overseeing this could-be change, it’s him. But even a recruiter of his caliber will have to adjust how he thinks about roster construction. Perhaps that shift is already somewhat underway; in Jacob Grandison and Ryan Young, Scheyer is committing two spots in the top eight of his rotation to graduate transfers, instead of developmental freshmen like in years past.

Duke has shown over the last decade that its model has value. It can help good players become great, and great players become stars. But that was when Duke only had to present itself as the most-attractive internship. What if you can get the job without one at all?

In that case, Duke has to hope that the finish line — making the NBA in any form — isn’t the end-all, be-all for future generations. The journey, as the Blue Devils have come, can be just as worthwhile.

(Top photo of Trevor Keels, left, and Jon Scheyer: Rob Kinnan/USA Today)

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