Some of the most fun moments of any college basketball season happen right after a less heralded underclassman — a guy who isn’t a surefire “one and done” — shows flashes of brilliance. Whether a reserve big registering a double double or a guard coming off the bench and lighting the nets ablaze, those moments cause us to stop and say “just imagine how good he’ll be like next year.”
In North Carolina, perhaps no three first year players fit that role better than Ted Kapita at NC State, Tony Bradley at UNC, and Frank Jackson at Duke. All three seemed just a tier below the “One and Done” cohort of freshmen and spent most of the season coming off the bench. Each one had distinct “Man he’s gonna hit another level as a sophomore in a starting role” moments – from Bradley’s string of double doubles to start the season to Jackson’s explosive scoring late in conference play to Kapita dropping 14 and 10 on Duke in Cameron.
The problem is, none of them are coming back. And that’s bad for college basketball.
Before you drag me to the stockades, let me clarify that in no way do I blame Jackson, Bradley, and Kapita for staying in the NBA draft. In the case of Jackson and Kapita, neither was guaranteed a starting spot next season – Kapita would be battling with senior Abdul Malik Abu and Jackson would have likely been forced to cede primary ball handling responsibilities to freshman Trevon Duval.
Bradley on the other hand was guaranteed to play a huge role as Carolina’s primary option in the post. However, given the shift away from low post scorers at the NBA level it’s debatable whether a year of double-doubles would have significantly boosted Bradley’s stock. Just look at Caleb Swanigan – a sophomore who returned to school, put up a dominant season of low post scoring and rebounding, yet will likely fall to the second round of the draft because those skills just aren’t as important in the modern NBA.
No, while blaming “selfish”, “entitled” or “misguided” players and parents is more convenient, the real blame lies on the institution of college basketball as currently structured. With the expansion of NBA rosters to include “two way” NBA-D League contracts and the continued increasing popularity of NBA basketball, suddenly being drafted in the first round isn’t as much of a requisite to being well compensated playing basketball.
While Division 1 college athletes enjoy many benefits as part of their scholarships – comfortable living arrangements, meal plans, etc – they still receive no monetary compensation despite acting as the driving force of a lucrative industry. Putting aside the very real pressures many college athletes feel to help improve their family’s quality of life, the chance to start making money at age 19 instead of age 22 is not inconsequential – especially when you factor in that those players will be up for a second, potentially much more lucrative contract at an earlier age as well.
The traditional counter-argument has always focused on the value of a college education and degree. Yet, how many college degrees are valuable to the extent that they would eclipse the value of to making even $125,000 a year for 3 years that early in life? The ones that might be – biomedical engineering, chemistry, and business – demand a workload that is almost incompatible with the demands of practice and travel schedules during the season. So those majors aside, is an undergraduate degree in Psychology (which was my major, for what it’s worth) really that valuable? Throw in the fact that most major college athletics programs offer athletes the opportunity to have scholarships honored if they choose to come back and complete their degree and the idea that a major college athlete should stay in school 3-4 years to get a degree over professional prospects is laughable.
Unfortunately this is a problem without obvious solutions. Implementing a two-and-done rule or adopting the college baseball path of either being drafted out of high school or staying at least three years in college could work but would undoubtedly receive significant criticism and opposition from players unions and others. While some like Jay Bilas advocate compensating college basketball players on a free market basis to correspond to their value, the long term implications of such a shift would be incredibly complicated – do salaries reset after each year or are you stuck paying a 5 star recruit who doesn’t pan out way more than a lower rated upperclassman who turns into an All-American?
But just because paying players is complicated doesn’t mean that it should be dismissed whole-cloth. One potential idea that I haven’t seen too many places would be graduated stipends – perhaps $10,000 per year for all freshmen, $20,000 for sophomores, $30,000 for juniors and $40,000 for seniors. While not on the level of NBA contracts, those numbers are competitive with D-league compensation and still enough to potentially make a difference for struggling family members.
Either way, the answer definitely isn’t blaming the players or their families for leaving early. Having guys like Kapita, Bradley and Jackson return for their sophomore season would undoubtedly be good for sport. However the responsibility to incentivize such players to return falls upon the institution of college basketball. Pining for the “loyalty” of yesteryear is both impractical and unfair. College basketball needs to adapt. Otherwise “just wait til next year” will become a thing of the past.