By SCOTT CHIUSANO
Last week, Duke’s star freshman forward Jabari Parker wrote a personal essay in Sports Illustrated about why he was deciding to declare for the NBA draft. It was a class act by Parker, who seems to have the right attitude about the game and his future as a part of it. The day before Parker’s article ran, ESPN.com reported that NBA commissioner Adam Silver has made pushing the age minimum in the league to 20 a top priority. Whether or not Parker provides an argument against this change remains to be seen, but Silver’s decision to bring up the discussion has made this a hot topic in the NBA.
After Duke’s shocking first-round exit from this year’s NCAA tournament, Parker writes in his essay that he was faced with “one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in my life up to this point: Whether to remain in school or enter the NBA draft.” We have to remember that a 19-year old is making this decision; it pales in comparison to the choice of what college to attend. So if the NBA did in fact change the minimum age to 20, it would prevent teenagers from having to make such a life-altering decision. But still I’m conflicted over whether or not this is a good idea. Parker and others of his caliber of talent deserve to be rewarded, and while a college basketball scholarship is certainly a reward in itself, the spoils of the NBA are often too enticing for an 18 or 19-year old to turn down.
I’ve asked a lot of people what they think about this issue, because I believe it’s an important one. I started with my family, and though my dad had no idea who Jabari Parker was, he felt inclined to weigh in anyway. As a high school English teacher who has spent 35 years trying to prepare underprivileged students for college, he takes a college education very seriously. He simply could not understand why anyone would want to leave college if they could end up in the same place three years later, but with a degree. To my father, college is about being exposed to as much information as possible and taking advantage of it. It’s an idealistic perspective, but it seems that Parker shares it to some degree. “My days as a Duke student are not [over]. I intend to graduate from Duke while I’m in the NBA. I was an honor student when I arrived at Duke, and I’d like to graduate as one,” Parker writes in the article.
Parker acknowledges in his essay how much he learned in a year at Duke. But it is simply unrealistic to consider finishing another three years at the University. The NBA season extends from the end of October to the middle of April with no playoffs, which leaves just a summer session of classes. And the prime time for staying in shape in the offseason is during the summer. Would Parker forego the restraints of his team’s offseason workouts in order to complete a Duke degree? It’s highly unlikely, and it’s unfortunate at the same time. If there are elite players like Parker who value an education, the NBA should not encourage them to be “one-and-dones.” It hurts the basketball program (with Kentucky being a rare exception to this), and there is no shortage of “one–and-dones” who turned into busts, hurting the NBA in the process as well. So where is the happy medium?
One of my friends suggested that instead of an age minimum of 20, the NBA should consider following baseball’s example. The MLB requires three years of college before entering the draft, unless a player declares at the end of high school. There is no reason why the best basketball players coming out of high school who have no interest in an education should be forced to spend one year in college.
For most of them, that one year hurts more than it helps (take Marcus Smart as an example, whose biggest headline in his lone year at Oklahoma State ended up being his altercation with a fan). Smart had no need or desire for that year, and it only caused his draft status to plummet.
At the same time, there are ways for the three years in college to backfire as well. Michigan’s star center Mitch McGary decided not to enter the draft after his freshman year, ended up getting hurt his sophomore year, and then failed his drug test from marijuana consumption. Now he is forced to enter the draft. College inevitably poses distractions that will entice athletes, but if that player becomes a bust either way, I think a college degree outweighs the consequences of a few juvenile mistakes in four years.
There are certainly downsides to bringing the MLB’s policy to the NBA. If a baseball player comes out of high school, he has time to develop in the minor leagues. A basketball player is thrust onto the scene, and while many of them have turned into stars (see Kobe and LeBron), an equal number have become busts (think Kwame Brown and Sebastian Telfair). There really is no way to tell how an 18-year old kid will pan out in the NBA, but at least he has the opportunity to sign a significant contract, provide for himself if he has no desire to go to school, and learn from the best in the business. A “one-and-done” has none of these upsides. He is playing with the sole purpose of improving draft status, and therefore has little investment in his team or his school. It’s a disappointment for the school, for the fans and for the students to see him go after a year.
So while I’m skeptical that Parker will go back and get his Duke degree now that he has made this decision, I still believe he has the right idea on the issue. You don’t see many NBA prospects explaining their decision in writing, and you definitely don’t see many expressing a desire to publish a children’s book (Parker says this in the essay as well). Jabari may be heading to the NBA next season, but his words are a cry for change in how the NBA treats and respects a college education.