This article is part of the “Take Notice” Column. View other Take Notice pieces here.
A revolution is underway in college basketball.
The sport has seen its share of game-changing (literally) movements: the rise of UNLV basketball in the early 1990s, the fame of the Fab Five at Michigan from 1991 to 1993, the three-point revolution that Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated analyzed in depth earlier this year.
But the revolution that college basketball is undergoing right now is hurting the system more than it is helping, and if the trend continues, we’ll be watching a very different game five years from now.
College basketball players are challenging the system. More specifically, there’s a movement against the rule that players must be one year removed from high school to enter the NBA.
We’ve seen it in the past few years at schools like Kentucky and Duke–players using college basketball simply as a stepping stone to hop to the pros. Some flourish after only one year in college (see: Karl-Anthony Towns), and some are still struggling to find their place (see: Austin Rivers).
Some have successfully bypassed the NCAA in the past–Brandon Jennings and Emmanuel Mudiay both spent the year after high school playing abroad, and made it to the NBA after that. But generally speaking, the NBA has a preference for players who play at least a year at the college level.
The posterboy for the next wave of this movement is LSU freshman forward Ben Simmons. In fact, he’s not just the posterboy; some say he’s just as much the problem.
For those who haven’t paid attention to LSU’s ugly downfall this season, it began as most disappointing seasons do: with overhyped and high expectations. The Tigers started the season ranked in the Top 25, and many predicted that Simmons, a 6’10 forward from the Montverde Academy in Florida (one of the top powerhouses in high school basketball) hailed by LSU great Shaquille O’Neal as “the best player in the world”, would single-handedly lead the Tigers to an SEC championship and more.
On March 13, LSU ended their season in a much different place than anticipated: a 71-38 loss to Texas A&M in which the Tigers scored the least amount of points by a major conference team this season. That 34-point massacre was a pretty accurate representation of how this entire year has gone for LSU: full of inconsistent effort, an erratic offense, and even poor coaching.
The argument here isn’t that Ben Simmons isn’t a fantastic basketball player because that’s simply not true. He scored a total of 86 points and collected 26 rebounds in his last five games. He averaged 19.4 points and 11.8 rebounds per game as a freshman, and left his legacy (if you can call it a legacy) at LSU by scoring a total of 43 points in a single game and joining Shaq and Pete Maravich on the list of Baton Rouge greats.
He’s been considered the top candidate for the USBWA National Freshman of the Year Award since before the season even started.
He put so much into his game that he couldn’t be considered a finalist for the Wooden Award (given to the best player in college basketball) because he presumably spent more time on the court than in the classroom, and as a result, his GPA was lower than a 2.0.
LSU couldn’t adapt quickly enough to win against the system this year, but Ben Simmons sure could. Who needs a high GPA when, in just a few months, according to the rumors floating around the NBA Twittersphere, you’ll have a $50+ million shoe deal and likely be the number one pick in the NBA Draft?
Some say that college basketball players aren’t as smart as they used to be. TIME Magazine conducted a study last season that highlighted the academic side of every team in the 2015 NCAA Tournament, and some of the numbers from the big-time athletic schools supported that argument. But if there’s one thing that’s for sure: basketball players are getting better at playing the system for their own benefit.
Ben Simmons did what the NCAA wanted. He spent a year at a school that had gone a long time without real success in basketball (LSU made just three tournament appearances in the past ten years) and made sure that the media was paying attention to him at all times: he said he “definitely wanted to be the No. 1 pick” before the college season had even started, and he caught the attention and acclaim of Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson.
But the NCAA isn’t the winning side in this. Simmons has, as Chris Korman wrote earlier this year in a USA Today column, “made a mockery of” the NCAA’s requirement that all draft prospects must play a year in college before moving to the NBA. He’s shown that even though the NCAA system of mandatory college service has good intentions of keeping “student-athletes” in school for a year, it also has major flaws when the said student-athletes probably won’t return to finish their degree.
Every revolution needs someone to make a sacrifice, and that someone for this movement against the NCAA will be Ben Simmons. There’s a very high probability that Simmons will be the first No. 1 pick whose team won’t play in the NCAA Tournament since 1998, and the fact that one of the best players in college basketball won’t be playing in the postseason (unless LSU is invited to the NIT) won’t make the NCAA happy.
Ben Simmons is going to inspire the next generation of athletes for not just the fame he will likely achieve in the NBA, but for also what he did (or didn’t do) during college.
In February, top high school prospect Jonathan Isaac, who is committed to play at Florida State, told SI that he would explore ways to jump straight from high school to the NBA. Nine of the fifteen players chosen in the Top 15 of last year’s NBA Draft entered the pros right after their freshman year of college, and in one 2016 Mock Draft, six of the first ten projected picks are freshmen. The predicted ninth pick, Washington (19-14, ranked eighth in the Pac-12) freshman Dejounte Murray, won’t play in the tournament, either.
In the years to come, we’ll see the number of one-and-dones start to rise. We’ll also start to see the number of one-and-dones who don’t have great seasons, and don’t make it to the tournament, rise.
In a few years, we’ll see a protest against the rules that make it extremely difficult for players to go from prep-to-pro. We might even see a change in those rules, if college basketball gets to the point where teams are lucky if they have more than five upperclassmen on their roster.
In reality, the public struggles of Ben Simmons may not do much to change the broken system of college basketball. But if anything, he has shown that the system is broken and in need of fixing. And that alone should make the NCAA nervous.