The NCAA brought 19 college basketball athletes to Indianapolis this past weekend for the Elite Student-Athlete Symposium, an educational program that attempted to tackle head-on "the challenges and pitfalls" highly touted prospects face, with an eye toward helping them pursue a career in professional basketball.
The NCAA invited prospects who could become NBA draft-eligible for the first time in 2018, such as 17-year old Udoka Azubuike (Kansas) and other underclassmen: Tyus Battle (Syracuse), V.J. King (Louisville) and Rawle Alkins (Arizona). They were joined by upperclassmen such as Jalen Brunson (Villanova), Allonzo Trier (Arizona), Ethan Happ (Wisconsin), Trevon Bluiett (Xavier), Kelan Martin (Butler), Anas Mahmoud (Louisville), Angel Delgado (Seton Hall), Dean Wade (Kansas State) and Jevon Carter (West Virginia), among others.
The NCAA "selected participants based on publication news surrounding upcoming draft prospects, from individuals linked to future NBA careers and from a list of individuals who expressed interest in turning pro but decided to return to school."
Although no freshmen were in attendance, the symposium (held from Friday to Sunday) appears to indicate a shift in NCAA philosophy. While in the past, the topic of an underclassman declaring for the draft may have been taboo, the NCAA seems to be evolving to the current realities of the college basketball landscape, instead focusing on helping "young men when and if they have to make key decisions on steps after college," in their words.
The symposium was also notable for the increasingly strong relationship that appears to be developing between the NCAA and the NBA. It wasn't long ago that the NBA commissioner openly mocked the NCAA, and then-commissioner David Stern went as far as to say, "A college could always not have players who are one-and-done -- they could do that. They could actually require the players to go to classes."
Current commissioner Adam Silver has since struck a much more conciliatory tone, telling USA Today in 2014, "I believe strong college basketball is also beneficial to the NBA and to the game generally," while generally demonstrating a fondness for college basketball's place in the basketball ecosystem.
The NBA and NCAA have begun more formal cooperation and dialogue since Silver became commissioner. One example is in the form of the NBA's Undergraduate Advisory Committee, which attempts to give college basketball athletes reliable information about their NBA draft stock directly from team executives. The NCAA has changed its calendar for allowing players to enter and withdraw from the NBA draft, now giving prospects the chance to attend the NBA combine and conduct private workouts with NBA teams before making a final decision. A strong relationship between both parties clearly benefits both sides.
The Elite Student-Athlete Symposium may have been just a drop in the ocean in terms of the quantity of players invited to Indianapolis, but putting these 19 participants in front of such a large group -- NCAA staff, ex-NBA players, former NBA executives, and representatives from the league office and the NBA Players Association -- has to be considered a step in the right direction.
Some of the topics that were discussed include loss of value and disability insurance, a scouting panel with ex-NBA executives (exploring what teams look for in prospects), a meeting with Ron Klempner of the NBPA (including a conversation about navigating the agent-selection process), Financial Awareness (with Antoine Walker telling his story and personal struggles), Social Media best practices, entering the NBA draft while retaining NCAA eligibility (from an academic and amateurism standpoint), ex-NBA/NCAA players (Eddie Gill, Jahidi White, Malik Rose) discussing realistic expectations for post-college careers, and the "tips and traps of being a college basketball athlete" from the NCAA enforcement staff. The keynote speaker was Derek Anderson, who told his unlikely story of how he emerged as a top-shelf high school prospect, NCAA champion, NBA lottery pick, and then successful businessman following his basketball career. At night, the athletes played pickup at Butler's practice facility.
Due to the NBA's strict no-contact rules, the NBA was forced to decline the NCAA's request to include current NBA team executives. But former NBA All-Star Shareef Abdur-Rahim, the NBA's associate vice president of basketball operations who was previously the assistant GM of the Sacramento Kings, attended the symposium.
"It was a wonderful experience," Abdur-Rahim told ESPN.com. "I wish I had all of that information when I was at the stage they are. You have to applaud the NCAA because they took the initiative and reached out, making a point of collaborating with us at the NBA. We don't like operating in a vacuum either. We're past that. I think we all know that if we aren't proactive about educating the kids, someone else will. That's where trouble will come in. For the two of us to not cooperate and collaborate doesn't make sense. It's not in the kid's best interest, either."
The NCAA will likely attempt to build on this program down the road, bringing in more top prospects and hoping the word spreads and makes it easier to lure college basketball's elite next year and beyond. It will be interesting to see if the NCAA elects to bring in potential "one-and-done" freshmen prospects, and whether some of the collegiate superpowers who weren't represented this year, like Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina, elect to participate.