As he dribbles quickly across the top of the key, Zion Williamson starts to plant his left foot, as if to begin a pivot, a move the Duke University basketball player has completed innumerable times in games or in practice.
This time, against the University of North Carolina on Feb. 20, 2019, the freshman's move turns out to be a nightmare: his sneaker blows apart and the 6-foot-7-inch, 285-pound forward twists his knee, threatening his status as the presumptive No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft – as well as the mega-million-dollar payday that comes along with it.
Before 2005, there was no age restriction on a high school basketball player's eligibility for the NBA Draft. Some of the NBA's greatest stars, such as Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, and LeBron James, never played a minute of college basketball. However, concerned that too many high schoolers saw the NBA as a stable path to a prosperous career, the league has required all players since then to be at least 19 years old. This has led many top athletes to attend college for only a single season before declaring for the draft, a habit commonly called "one-and-done."
It's easy to be cynical about "one-and-done." Many question whether college truly develops players' skills. So, when Williamson suffered the Grade 1 knee sprain, it brought the longstanding controversy regarding the NBA's age requirement to a fever pitch. Williamson is a phenom who wowed the basketball world with his high school highlight tapes. He might have been the first pick in the 2018 NBA Draft had the "one-and-done" rule not been in place. The 2019 draft takes place June 20.
Should Williamson have already been a professional? And while adults freely opine on the issue, where does Williamson's peer group stand? Should a 17- or 18-year old high-school senior be able to determine the course of his or her life?
NBA commissioner Adam Silver criticizes "one-and-done," and he has been publicly vocal lately about his desire to revert back to the league's pre-2005 policy after a National Collegiate Athletic Association committee advocated for the abolition of the rule last year. Shortly after Williamson's injury, the NBA submitted an official proposal to the National Basketball Players Association, or NBPA, to establish 18 years old as the new benchmark for professional basketball eligibility.
Obviously, this modification will allow numerous high school seniors to announce their intentions to play professional basketball earlier, thus forgoing the college recruiting process altogether. This seems logical to 18-year-old New Jersey resident Justin Esposito, who supports changing the eligibility rules.
"You can serve in the army at 18, so why is there a restriction on playing professional basketball?" said Esposito. "Any legal adult should be permitted to work any job they are qualified for."
Bobby Delgado, 18, from Texas, agrees.
"If they have worked for the opportunity to have a career playing professional basketball, then why should their pursuit be restricted? I believe if LeBron, Kevin Garnett, and Kobe didn't leave for the NBA as soon as possible, they would not be who they are today."
The players Delgado lists are NBA legends, and their choice not to attend college didn't hold them back. All three benefited by skipping college-level education.
Likewise, the NBA will also benefit heavily from high school seniors forgoing college.
"I don't think lowering the age requirement can negatively affect the NBA," said 18-year-old Connor Glunt from Pennsylvania. "If an 18-year-old high schooler is absolutely lighting it up and has the national media's attention, why wouldn't the NBA want to acquire the talent and attention around that prospect? The players who want to go straight from high school or do a 'one-and-done' type of path know the pros/cons of leaving too early, but they also realize the benefits of taking advantage of their stock."
Allowing 18-year-olds to enter the NBA Draft will hurt the NCAA more than it would the NBA or the players themselves.
"They already miss out on an extra year or two of Zion, Trae Young, and Lonzo Ball," Glunt notes. "A lowered age limit will likely cause a few highly talented prospects to leapfrog the collegiate level entirely, which will prevent the NCAA/universities from profiting off of their game."
However, eliminating "one-and-done" might not be the worst decision for college basketball. Joey Vacca, 17, from California, firmly believes the requirement is bad for both players and universities.
While the NCAA may lose out on profits from the country's top prospects playing in their organization, the move could contribute toward improving the overall competitiveness of the sport at the collegiate level.
"It has turned college basketball on its head and has changed the way coaches recruit," said Vacca. "I believe coaches have started recruiting for one year instead of four. And, in the end, it isn't benefiting them because the teams with upperclassmen are often in a better position to be successful during March Madness (the national championship tournament) and the Final Four."
Expect the issue to remain hot. The NBA and NBPA are motivated to make changes to the rule by the 2022 draft, and both sides prefer to get a deal done sooner rather than later. It's an enticing conversation that could reach a conclusion as soon as this summer. Until then, every basketball aficionado will be following the news closely in anticipation of the big decision.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Cole Topham, 17, is an iGeneration Youth reporter living in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Read more stories at igenerationyouth.com.