For several years now, the NBA has not allowed precocious high school stars to enter the league’s draft immediately after high school. The league mandates that high school players must wait at least one year after graduation before declaring for the draft. Players of Lebron James’ ilk have two choices: one, they can go play overseas for a year before declaring for the draft; or two—and this has been the most common road taken—they can accept an athletic scholarship, play collegiate basketball for a year, and then declare for the draft. This new mandate has eliminated the possibility of risky draft busts out of high school like Kwame Brown, and, in theory, it forces academically benighted players to get an education—or at least some semblance of an education.
The obverse side of this issue, however, is the way in which the NBA’s new rule has transformed the face of college basketball. Indeed, it has engendered a new, and highly popular, recruiting paradigm amongst collegiate coaches. With impunity and without resistance from athletic directors at their schools, coaches can now recruit players who have no intention to stay in school beyond one season, players who are well aware of their potential as professional basketball players. Generally, only top-tier coaches at top-tier programs can recruit this kind of player. Players like Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker become the subject of fierce competition between the Caliparis and Krzyzewskis of college basketball. This new paradigm, as such, privileges immediate impact over future potential.
Some well-known coaches still prefer the conventional way of recruiting and see players as projects rather than finished products. That is not to say that a one-and-done player (as these new recruits have been dubbed) cannot and does not benefit from the tutelage of coaches like John Calipari or Mike Krzyzewski. However, coaches like Tom Izzo of Michigan State have a penchant for recruiting raw players who will leave school as wholly different players than when they came. This strategy has its advantages, not the least of which being that coaches can carefully assemble squads with seasoned upperclassmen. Age and experience, according to this strategy, trump any sort of potent athleticism or scoring ability.
What strategy, then, is more effective in the quest for a championship? Of course, each batch of new recruits is wholly different from the last one, and all 5-star recruits are not created equal, so there is no simple yes or no answer to this question. For every Anthony Davis-led Kentucky Wildcats, there is an O.J. Mayo-led USC Trojans. But that comparison is unfair: Davis has blossomed into an elite NBA player, and Mayo has not; a talented core of players surrounded Davis at Kentucky; Mayo had no such core. Given that example, the issue is not about recruiting strategy per se, but whether or not one recruiting strategy produces a better team than the other.
John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats provide a lucid point from which to look at this issue and parse the pros and cons of each recruiting paradigm. With his class of recruits that included Anthony Davis, John Calipari struck gold. Aside from Davis, Michael-Kidd Gilchrist and Marquise Teague, who are both in the NBA, accepted scholarships to play at Kentucky in 2011. With these signings, Calipari had, undoubtedly, the best incoming class of freshmen in the nation. This 2011-2012 Kentucky Wildcats team cruised through the SEC regular season and dominated the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats were the prohibitive favourite to win the championship all season long, so it was fitting that they decimated the opposition they faced in the postseason. However, the key to the Wildcats’ success was the team’s well-rounded nature. Both Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones, who also play in the NBA, chose to stay in school after their freshmen season. On top of those players, Darius Miller—yes, he is in the NBA as well—was an experienced senior for that squad. The latter three players went to the Final Four the year before Davis’ class matriculated, so they brought a good deal of experience back to campus with them. The success of the 2011-2012 Wildcats, then, was not due solely to Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, and Teague. The attendant advantages of the very recruiting paradigm that Calipari appears to have spurned amplified the advantages of recruiting NBA-ready prospects.
The latter point becomes clearer when considering the success of the team that followed the 2011-2012 Wildcats. After winning the NCAA Tournament, all the aforementioned players declared for the NBA Draft. In the wake of that exodus of talent, Calipari had to rebuild his squad entirely, as only one player returned who had played any minutes of consequence for the championship-winning team. The uniform looked the same for the Wildcats in the 2012-2013 season, but the faces of the players were wholly different. As a result, Calipari’s team full of inexperienced freshmen floundered all season long, missing out on the NCAA Tournament’s last at-large bid. A disappointing defeat in the first round of the NIT Tournament compounded the team’s absence from the NCAA Tournament. In just one year, the Kentucky Wildcats went from hero to, well, zero.
Two points arise from this discussion of the Wildcats. The first and foremost point is that experience not only matters, but it is eternally valuable to a collegiate team that wants to be successful. Although the season may be long and arduous, wins and losses are decided in those fleeting moments of basketball games, when readiness and preparation trump quantifiable skills like shooting percentages and leaping ability. For instance, Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans made their 17th straight NCAA Tournament appearance this season. From 1998-2014, Tom Izzo assembled a team that ranked in the top 64 of the nation each season, but his former players have not had the degree of professional success that players from other programs have had. Unlike Calipari, Izzo routinely recruits groups of players that he then molds into powerful units. In other words, he looks for constitutive pieces of the larger puzzle as opposed to trump cards. Izzo, of course, has lost players early to the NBA—namely, Zac Randolph and Jason Richardson—but for the most part his recruits stay until their junior and senior seasons. This strategy is effective in that it enables consistency. Izzo does not have to worry about one season being a smashing success and another being a decided failure.
The second point, then, is that this new recruiting paradigm, which Calipari espouses, can lead to inconsistency from season to season. Few programs have experienced the vicissitudes from season to season that Kentucky experienced from their championship season to the next. The lack of stability in a program, which appears to engender these wild fluctuations, can amplify the pressure that the media and fans invariably put on the shoulders of talented one-and-dones, since these players are supposed to give their respective teams such a dramatic boost. This pressure, especially as it accretes throughout a given a year or over the course of seasons, can make it harder and harder for a program to get back to the Final Four. And given the single-elimination nature of the NCAA Tournament, the formidable pressure put on these one-and-dones, while preparing them for the scrutiny that awaits them in the NBA, can lead to disappointing seasons. Indeed, when a team like Kentucky restocks with talented one-and-dones, fans’ and experts’ expectations tend to become turgid, and anything short of a complete success might be viewed as a colossal failure.
One obvious conclusion to draw from this discussion is that teams are more effective than players. While teams full of one-and-dones are worthwhile risks, as Calipari has proven, that strategy can lead to incomplete teams and long-term precariousness. With the parity in today’s NCAA, no team can ever feel secure, and teams always want to vanquish the teams that attract the most media attention. Like anything in life, the key is balance. An experienced upperclassman goes a long way in creating unity on a squad full of talented individuals. Moreover, the pain of losing stays with players, and, in turn, it makes those sagacious upperclassmen hungrier and more motivational. In most cases, a coach will not be able to imbue a player with the same level of pride in his basketball program that an older player will, a player who bleeds his team’s colours.
This year’s NCAA Tournament was interesting because of this very issue. With Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Duke’s Jabari Parker garnering so much media attention all year, talented squads like Wichita State and Florida have flown slightly under the radar. On the one hand, both Kansas and Duke were eliminated rather early on in the Tournament; Wiggins and Parker have probably played their last collegiate games. Florida, on the other hand, made it back to the Final Four, and a seasoned group of seniors who experienced three Elite 8 defeats lead the Gators, ultimately falling to the champion Connecticut Huskies. There was something timeless and poetic about the Gators this season, however: players who have fought their entire collegiate career united in their last chance for glory. Indeed, this year’s Gators encapsulated the beauty and sanctity of collegiate sports. As amateurs, they played for a championship—not a cheque. So when highly touted recruits, especially the future one-and-dones, announce their intent to attend a given school, pay attention to the team that those freshmen will join. Beyond helping a good player blossom into a better one, experienced players can direct attention away from a good player and keep it squarely on the team in its entirety.