IT WAS baby-face night at the National Basketball Association draft Thursday. For the first time in league history, the top three picks were freshmen — Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Florida’s Bradley Beal. Freshmen were five of the first 10 picks, including Connecticut’s Andre Drummond and Duke’s Austin Rivers, the son of Celtics coach Doc Rivers. Freshmen and sophomores were 12 of the first 15 picks.
The draft was the product of a charade in which players with no interest in higher education get recruited by universities with no intention of educating them — just featuring them on the court for one season, after which they flee to the riches of the NBA. This “one-and-done” phenomenon is the result of a 2005 NBA rule that mandates that players cannot be drafted until a year after their high school graduation, or they turn 19. The NBA instituted the rule to assure that players are old enough to handle the pressures of professional sports. But it has backfired, producing shotgun marriages between players who are just waiting until they’re old enough to be drafted and college teams that can’t resist exploiting the talent for momentary glory.
The departure of Rivers from Duke was particularly noteworthy because, while one has come to expect basketball-factory exploitation from the likes of Kentucky and UConn — the latter of which is banned from postseason play next season for poor graduation rates — Duke’s men’s and women’s basketball teams have a 100 percent graduation rate. If young players are good enough to jump into the NBA — as sure as teen phenoms continue to grace Wimbledon tennis — they should not face artificial employment restrictions that force colleges to pretend that they care about the player’s diploma. The draft was one more reason why the “student-athlete” model in big-time basketball is flunking out.