(Disclosure: I previously worked with a company owned by Mark Cuban on this project.)
Mark Cuban made two big mistakes. In his comments about college basketball, the NCAA, the one-and-done NBA age limit, and the NBA D-League, Cuban misspoke once:
“I think what will end up happening — this is my opinion, not that of the league — is that if the colleges don’t change from the one-and-done, we’ll go after the ‘one,’” Cuban said.
Reading that comment in context with the rest of Cuban’s points, I’m not even sure it means what Cuban is accused of: him forgetting that the NBA and the NBA Players Association set the age limit, not the NCAA. It could mean Cuban wants the NCAA to adjust its rules to combat the “one-and-done” mentality associated with players who are just doing their time before jumping to the NBA. If it is as simple as it sounds though, such a statement is inexcusable from an NBA owner.
Even so, it should not detract from the bigger point to be taken from Cuban’s comments. This is an NBA owner expressing his public displeasure with the NCAA as a development track. Plenty of owners have expressed displeasure with the preps-to-pros and one-and-done eras, including Cuban’s suggestion to bump the age limit to 21 from April 2012. This is different though, since Cuban is suggesting that perhaps more years of college basketball is not the answer.
The other thing lost in some of the criticisms of Cuban’s comments are that he is not talking about replacing college basketball with the current D-League. He is talking about competing with college basketball using a very different D-League, one which pays better, gets more attention from the NBA as a development track for young players, and which we presume would have a critical mass of talent.
But that’s where Cuban’s second and more fundamental mistake is revealed: he picked the wrong level of basketball to fix.
Cuban’s comments even hint at where the real problem might be:
“I don’t think a lot of (college) coaches like one-and-done,” he said. “I think it helps enable all the bastardized AAU scenarios. It helps create graft (corruption) with agents. I just think there’s absolutely no upside to one-and-done.”
College basketball is a mature system that does a lot well when it comes to developing basketball players. It provides a consistently higher level of competition, it introduces players to a national audience, and it can (when done well) provide a fallback option for players who will not be set for life after an NBA career. The NCAA has even made strides in the biggest weakness of college basketball by allowing summer workouts and lengthening the preseason practice period.
Prep basketball is a different story. High school basketball has the same structure and academic nexus as collegiate basketball, but cannot provide the level of competition or skill instruction. AAU might provide better competition but does little to help skill development or tactical instruction. The grassroots nature of AAU also allows for the corruption and graft to fester, with the NCAA and NBA limited in how they can deal with it.
By targeting prep basketball with an NBA academy league, NBA teams are more likely to find the Kevin Garnetts and LeBron Jameses at 18 while perhaps getting more out of the NCAA as a development track. A broad outline of such a league might include:
- 30 NBA academy clubs with 30 more run by USA Basketball and/or as affiliate clubs to cover more territory.
- At least two teams per club: U16 (high school freshmen and sophomores) and U18 (high school juniors and seniors).
- Full-time professional coaches and administrators.
- Full-time players who do not play for a high school or AAU team.
- A roughly three-to-one training to game ratio.
- 30–40 regular season games including showcase tournaments during traditional AAU recruiting periods.
- Playoffs starting in June culminating in a national championship in July.
This would eliminate AAU as part of the development track for elite players. They would be in a structure much more able to police corruption and enforce standards for member clubs. Even without a scholastic nexus, the academy league could still enforce academic standards. The NCAA would favor the academy league in its recruiting rules, allowing coaches to evaluate at academy games even when evaluating at other nonscholastic contests is prohibited.
All of this, the travel, the coaches, the uniforms, etc. costs money. But sponsors would line up to attach themselves to this project. Shoe companies would be ecstatic to lock up at least the top 900 or so youth players with one deal. If brands like Chipotle are willing to invest in MLS youth development, an NBA academy league would be just as attractive. That’s before selling the television rights to what would have to be one of the most valuable youth sports property in the country.
The biggest sticking point would be the reason NBA teams would want to do this in the first place: the ability to sign the players they have developed. The simplest solution would be to attached “homegrown” rights after a player has been with an NBA academy team for some time (maybe a year) and treat the signings as if they were free agents. A more complicated idea might involve some combination of the rookie salary scale, cap and tax exemptions, reserved (new?) roster spots, and forfeiting of draft picks.
The combination of academy teams and homegrown rights would eliminate the age limit in one way and raise it to the maximum in another. Teams would be permitted to sign their homegrown players at any age, with rights retained through college. Everyone else would have to complete their collegiate eligibility or wait four or five years. The argument that an age limit is necessary to evaluate a player does not hold water when the organization has watched and coached the player for at least a year.
This would be much cheaper and more effective than the NBA enticing players to the D-League. Baseball’s experience suggests that it takes a lot of money to get an athlete to turn down the benefits of college. This year, Phil Bickford, the number 10 overall pick in the MLB Draft (recommended slot value: $2.9 million) turned down a contract with the Blue Jays to play at Cal State Fullerton. Given that the advantages of college basketball over the D-League are currently greater than college vs. minor league baseball, it would likely mean even bigger contracts to get the critical mass of talent necessary.
An NBA youth academy league would be a much wiser investment. It would not have to compete with a successful, mature system like college basketball. It would solve some of the problems with youth and prep basketball. It might even make the NBA more competitive by giving small market teams a chance to groom and sign their own young stars. All while still getting free development and free marketing of young players from the NCAA.