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October 29, 2009
Is One-and-Done Done?

by John Gasaway

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Buzz Bissinger has sparked renewed discussion of one-and-done by doing something remarkable. He pitched an op-ed about the NBA's eligibility requirements to the New York Times and actually got a green light. Cool! Here's hoping the Gray Lady's op-ed page will henceforth teem with discussion of the important stuff: Zone vs. man, when to shoot that three, and continuing Waiting for Godot-styled coverage of the Renardo Sidney Lockout, Day 147. I salute Bissinger for securing space for hoops in some fairly snooty discursive real estate.

Now I must tell you that, perhaps like many of you, my first encounter with Bissinger was that infamous YouTube clip where he dropped on Deadspin founder Will Leitch like a jaguar out of a tree on HBO's "Costas Now." Go figure, that encounter in April of 2008, in which Bissinger gave free rein to what he has termed his "abiding hatred" of blogs, did not predispose me to think particularly well of him. Indeed at the risk of being branded as callous or depraved I actually liked Deadspin in the Leitch era. Maybe it's the fact that Will's from Mattoon, I'm from Springfield, and we're fellow University of Illinois graduates. All I know is I didn't enjoy seeing him on the receiving end of a tirade.

That was then. In the interim a lot has changed. Leitch left Deadspin, and so, as a reader, did I. In Leitch's absence his former site would intrude upon my awareness only occasionally, and in one of two ways. Either Deadspin was doing something interesting and informative enough for someone to bring it to my attention, or, conversely, the site was being roundly abused for having said something contentious yet sloppy in that oppressively formulaic and oddly dispiriting Gawkerese that I find fatiguing after about the second verb. Alas, over time I saw more of the latter and less of the former, until last week Deadspin recorded a new and unfathomable low in the field of dispiriting content.

Which brings me back to Bissinger. I still think he decried savagery savagely and that a couple of well-aimed rifle shots would have been preferable to his mad spray of buckshot. But I have to admit that Deadspin in 2009 does not exactly constitute a compelling refutation of his charges. He may have been further ahead of the proverbial curve on this one than I initially thought. Duly noted.

Maybe Bissinger's clarion call in the NYT for the swift and pitiless strangulation of one-and-done will prove equally farsighted. Calling upon David Stern "to abolish the NBA age limit," Bissinger asserts that "raising the minimum age to 19 hasn't helped the players in any way."

Certainly Bissinger and I share a vision of the utopian ideal here. Allow me to quote myself (from last year's book):

[On] a number of levels the best system for both college basketball and the NBA would be to allow players to enter the draft directly from high school and for the pro teams to be properly wary of these prospects. As my colleague Kevin Pelton has pointed out in his previous writing, there was once such a time. In the late 1990s, NBA teams largely stayed away from high school prospects. But when noncollegiate players like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Tracy McGrady started to show their undeniable worth, the teams that had passed on them kicked themselves and said, in effect, never again. Thus the high-school-heavy drafts of the early 2000s. In this sense, one-and-done was a correction to a correction.

In other words, Buzz Bissinger and I agree. One-and-done needs to go. Why, then, did I find so much in his piece that made me wince? I guess my reasons are different than his. Let's take a look.

The first wince occurred when Bissinger noted that players who entered the NBA straight out of high school have historically performed better as rookies than have their counterparts who were drafted as college juniors or seniors. Good grief, of course they have. The NBA may not be my beat--it says college hoops on my business card--but even a tyro like me knows that in any statistical comparison between two sets of NBA rookies, the group that includes LeBron, KG, Kobe, McGrady, Dwight Howard, and Amar'e Stoudemire is probably going to fare pretty well.

So let's be clear. The fear that permeated the air around the NBA draft in the old days before one-and-done was never that these players plucked straight from high school would fail to pan out as a group. It was that the high-schooler that your team drafted might fail to pan out. And in this sense it's revealing that Bissinger was able to perform the not inconsiderable feat of penning a 1300-word piece on one-and-done without using two words in particular, "Kwame" and "Brown."

One-and-done was born on July 29, 2005, in the searching aftermath of Brown. The NBA's front offices wanted to avoid the occasional Ryan Leaf-level misfire at the top of the draft and thought that seeing players in college for two seasons would help them better evaluate the talent--hardly a strange notion at the time. The Players Association, on the other hand, wanted to keep the status quo. During the negotiation of the current collective bargaining agreement, one-and-done emerged as the compromise solution. For the most part the NCAA has been but a hapless, albeit very interested, bystander in all of this.

Though not in Bissinger's telling, which brings me to wince number two. Bissinger suggests that Stern and the NBA raised the age limit in part to help the NCAA and its member institutions with their bottom lines: "My guess is [Stern] also did it to appease the National Collegiate Athletic Association; you could hear the whining that the NBA's version of cradle-robbing was denying the college game great players who could sell out arenas."

Actually, with one mildly surprising exception, one-and-done players appear to have had little impact on actual gate receipts, for a couple of very mundane but nevertheless important reasons. First there's the fact that a not insignificant portion of one-and-done players choose to play at blue-chip programs where the games already sell out and the officially licensed merchandise already flies off the shelves. Second, one-and-done players just aren't as glamorous as Bissinger thinks they are. While we tend to instantly think "Rose" or "Beasley" or "Durant" when we hear "one-and-done," we would be on more solid footing to think "Koufos" or "Crittenton" or "Jordan (DeAndre)," for even among the elite fraternity of one-and-done players the latter far outnumber the former.

Nevertheless I was intrigued by Bissinger's version of events, so I went looking for measurable jumps in attendance that reasonable people could attribute to the arrival of a one-and-done star. (Though of course short of administering interviews at the turnstiles, we can never really know what motivated the attendees.) Here's what I found.

The economic consequences of phenoms
Changes in home attendance with selected one-and-done stars
Conference games only

                                With star    Year after
                                (% change)   (% change)   
O.J. Mayo (USC, 2008)              +20          -25
Derrick Rose (Memphis, 2008)       +13           -2    
Oden/Conley/Cook (Ohio St., 2007)  +12            0
Kevin Durant (Texas, 2007)          +5           +6
Michael Beasley (Kansas St., 2008)  +2          -11

Again, we can't know for certain that these players drove these numbers, but the dots do line up in an awfully interesting way for O.J. Mayo. Not only was there a 20 percent jump in attendance at Pac-10 home games the year he played at the Galen Center, there was an even larger drop in turnout the next year. This despite the fact that still another one-and-done star, DeMar DeRozan, was in uniform for a team that went 9-9 in the Pac-10 and made the NCAA tournament. Mayo didn't always wow me with his performance on the court, but I will say this for him: He put bodies in the seats.

A 20 percent increase in attendance is nice, and I'm sure USC was glad to have that bump. Still, in this case we're talking about a difference of about 1600 fans per game. And the notion that the NCAA is fretting about the NBA's minimum age requirement for fear of losing 1600 fans in the Galen Center is almost touchingly naive. The NCAA's revenue stream is a little more substantial than that, and it's locked in years in advance, whether the minimum age requirement for the NBA is 18 or 80.

The NCAA gets the lion's share of its revenue from selling the broadcast rights to the Division I men's basketball tournament. The current contract with CBS is winding down and one of the most important agenda items facing the NCAA's men's basketball committee is deciding how many teams to include in future tournaments. This is information the NCAA needs well in advance to negotiate the next contract. In those negotiations the NBA's minimum age requirement is very likely to be a non-issue. The advertisers don't care, therefore the networks don't care.

One-and-done needs to go away, but not because it was a corrupt bargain hatched by a duplicitous David Stern in cahoots with an avaricious NCAA. It needs to go away because for a very tiny minority of the most elite 18-year-old prospects, the NBA really is the proper place for them to play. To force them to wait a year not only leads to all kinds of messy mishaps, it's also, well, wrong. Let that tiny elite navigate the transition to the next level as best they can, unfettered by any limitations that stagger out of collective bargaining instead of emerging through trial and error. Let the NBA worry about drafting Bryants instead of Browns. And let the college game be played by those who aren't just killing time.

Follow John on Twitter: @johngasaway.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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