DURHAM, N.C. -- There was a different look to this year’s NBA Draft, a green tinge growing more pervasive with each passing season. In fact, the effect has become so pronounced, momentum is finally growing to reverse the trend.
To be clear, when we say green we refer primarily to inexperienced first-rounders. Ten of the top 11 picks were college freshmen in 2017. The first upperclassman chosen was North Carolina’s Justin Jackson midway through the opening round. Last year’s draft had 10 freshmen among the top 30, and that had been a record.
The 16 one-and-done talents taken in this year’s first round were a major story, an overwhelming trend that did not elude the notice of researchers at ESPN. They kept feeding host Rece Davis periodic updates on minor historic markers as they whizzed past. “You’ve never seen this before — five freshmen to start an NBA Draft,” Davis intoned, only to announce a superseding breakthrough moments later.
Add eight sophomores, starting with Duke’s Luke Kennard at No.12 to Detroit, and an amazing 80 percent of the first-rounders were underclassmen.
“The NBA Draft was once about performance,” observes Chris Ekstrand, a Chapel Hill-based NBA consultant with 27 years of draft experience. “Now it’s about potential, it’s no longer about performance. When it was about performance, we were drafting seniors and juniors primarily. Now, seniors and juniors are mostly in the second round, and the first round is primarily freshmen and sophomores.”
Ekstrand spoke prior to the ’17 draft. Further confirming his forecast, only eight of 30 second-rounders were freshmen — including Blue Devil Frank Jackson at No. 31 — and sophomores.
Given the overall prolife of the picks, with 32 of 60 underclassmen, you could argue the draft’s color scheme was green on green, or at least green lining the pockets of the green. That’s because in 2016-17 the NBA began realizing the proceeds from a large new TV contract, infusing team and player coffers with many more millions of dollars. Even marginal players now command breathtakingly large contracts.
Just counting standardized salaries, the 10 ACC players taken in the first round will command a combined $23 million next year, according to information supplied by the website, HoopsHype. We’ll go out on a limb and guess that’s a bit more than they took in for room, board, tuition, books and cost-of-attendance stipends at their respective schools.
The 10 first-rounders from the ACC, more a confederation these days than a conference, exceeded the previous output of any other league in history. The peak previously reached was eight in 1995 by the ACC, matched by the SEC in 2012. To lend a bit of perspective, the ’95 total came when the ACC had only nine teams and no one-and-done players.
Three of this year’s ACC first round choices came from Duke — Jayson Tatum third to Boston, Kennard 12th and No. 20 Harry Giles to Portland (later traded to Sacramento). Between them the threesome figure to make at least $8.6 million in 2017-18. Not that anyone’s counting. It’s all for the love of the game, although Tatum did say he wanted to take care of his parents and help single mothers better make a go of meeting day-to-day expenses.
This was the second time in the past three seasons a Blue Devil trio went so early: after the 2015 NCAA title, freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones were among the top two dozen selections. That exodus, and the one in 1999 following a national championship game appearance, set a precedent Duke will hope to break next season — results following heavy roster purges have not been all that attractive, at least according to the program’s high standards.
Over the last seven drafts Duke yielded multiple selections five times; among ACC teams only UNC had multiple picks during that span, and then only twice, with four players picked in 2012 (tying Duke’s high in 1999) and two in ‘17. Fourteen Devils were chosen in the first round since 2011. Kyrie Irving was the top pick in ‘11. Jabari Parker and Brandon Ingram went second in 2014 and 2016, respectively. Okafor and Tatum were No. 3 selections.
By the way, absurdly premature as such predictions may be, two 2018 mock drafts already had three and four Blue Devils going in the first round.
Since 2011 the only school that rivaled and actually surpassed Duke in producing first-round picks was Kentucky, with 18. Like the Devils, the Wildcats had three first-rounders this June, meaning the two deep-blue programs alone accounted for six of the top 20 picks. All but Kennard were freshmen. The showing gave coach John Calipari three chances to get on camera, then make it to a microphone to tout the glories of UK basketball. Hard to imagine Mike Krzyzewski, his counterpart at early-departure herding, similarly shilling his program like it was a fruit juicer or window treatment.
Meanwhile the trend toward ever more front-rank players using college as a pit stop on the way to professionalism has started to concern many NBA folks. They worry, wrote veteran analyst Harvey Araton in the New York Times, that the league “is getting too young, too lacking in fundamental skills and team-oriented basketball character.”
Prior to the NBA finals commissioner Adam Silver reiterated the league’s desire to raise the minimum age for players from 19 to 20, essentially encompassing two years in college, as NCAA coaches and probably most fans would prefer at a minimum. The players’ union insists on lowering the eligibility threshold to 18, allowing direct leaps from high school.
Potentially setting the stage for a new arrangement, and greater acceptance of a tiered pro path, the NBA has converted its D (for Development) League into the G (for Gatorade) League with higher salaries and more movement between minor and major league rosters. According to a G League press release issued on the eve of the draft, “Forty-four percent of players on 2016-17 end-of-season NBA rosters had NBA G League experience, while 65 percent of players selected in NBA Draft 2016 presented by State Farm® spent time in the NBA G League last season, including more than half of the first-round picks.”
As for the one-and-done status quo, Silver, a Duke alum and Trustee, said “my sense is it’s not working for anyone. It’s not working certainly from the college coaches and athletic directors I hear from. They’re not happy with the current system. And I know our teams aren’t happy, either, in part because they don’t necessarily think that the players coming into the league are getting the kind of training that they would expect to see among top draft picks.”
Whether that can be changed anytime soon is uncertain, given that a new collective bargaining agreement between the players’ union and the NBA doesn’t expire until 2023. Still, one suspects that if too many more drafts mirror 2017, a balance will be tipped. If we’re lucky, an equitable compromise will be reached that even college fans can love.