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Should NCAA serve as NBA's minor league?

Mark Cuban thinks one-and-done prospects would be better off spending a transitional year in the D-League. Is he correct? Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The vast majority of NBA players prepare for life as a professional during their time in the NCAA. The basketball approach is far cheaper than baseball's minor league system. In fact, it doesn't cost the NBA a penny.

The problem, according to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, is that "we're getting what we pay for."

As outspoken as any owner in sports, Cuban has been on the warpath on this issue for the past couple of years. In the wake of this year's March Madness, he called the physical, slow-down, low-scoring style prevalent in the college game "uglier than ugly," adding that it harms the NBA because prospects enter the league not knowing how to "play a full game of basketball."

Cuban has also harped on the "hypocrisy" of NCAA rules and regulations, particularly regarding so-called student-athletes who arrive at their chosen college basketball powerhouse planning to leave as soon as their season ends. He has suggested that such one-and-done prospects would be better off spending that transitional year in the NBA Development League.

The question is whether this is a case of Cuban being Cuban or whether the NBA's loudest owner speaks for many.

Cuban's answer: "Everybody knows it's a problem. We just don't know what the solution is."


College basketball isn't turning a deaf ear to the complaints about the methodical, grinding style of play that has become prevalent in its game, which has seen historic scoring lows over the past few seasons.

The NCAA has approved several rule changes designed to quicken the pace and improve the game offensively. Included among the changes are reducing the shot clock from 35 to 30 seconds, expanding the restricted area arc from 3 to 4 feet and reducing physical play to allow greater freedom of movement, changes that should take the college game a step closer to the NBA style.

"It's a step in the right direction," Cuban said, "but it doesn't really change all that much."

Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who built mid-major Butler University into a national power before jumping to the NBA, actually wonders whether college basketball as a whole will truly benefit from trying to speed up its game.

"I actually think that will hurt [college basketball], because you're talking about 347 teams, not 12," Stevens said. "I think that certainly teams with the most talent, the most ability to space, the most shooting, that will really be helpful, but there's a lot of other teams, too. It's different when you're comparing 30 teams against each other versus 347 all under the same umbrella."

"I'm just not sure there's much you can do," Detroit Pistons coach and president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy said. "In college, in general, there's not enough of a talent and skill level for them to be able to play a lot differently."

Coaches of traditional college powers have pushed for the changes, with Kentucky's John Calipari publicly challenging referees to "have the stomach" to consistently call fouls that wouldn't have been whistled in the past.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose program has developed a reputation as bruising bullies while advancing to seven Final Fours during his two-decade tenure, is among those who believe the emphasis on opening up the college game is long overdue.

Izzo said he has been lobbying for 10 years for college basketball and the NBA to do a better job of working together to make the transition for players easier. Part of that is college basketball playing with rules similar to the NBA's.

"College is a way to develop to get to the league," Izzo said. "If we've got to tweak some rules -- the 3-point line, the 35-second shot clock to 24 -- if that benefits both parties, I'm up for all of those things. If it benefits the NBA even more than us, I'm still for it, because I think that's where our kids want to end up."


"I think the question that players have to start asking themselves is, 'Where is the best use of my time if my vocation is to play basketball?'" said a Western Conference general manager who also said he believes AAU games resemble the NBA style of play much more than college basketball's do.

"The question is, where is their time better spent? On a campus where they're going through the motions academically and they're playing a style that probably does more to hinder their chances?

"The daily lifestyle in college, if that's not what you're interested in, just pulls you away from the game. If that's going to be your profession, that's what your goals are, one year in college is not making you a student, OK? Especially not when half of them start leaving in the middle of the second semester whenever their teams are eliminated. So let's be honest about what it really is. It's about continuing to promote the college game."

Many NBA executives say they cringe when they watch college basketball. They don't see elite prospects being developed for the NBA. They simply see them delaying a year before declaring for the draft and believe those players would be better off under the NBA umbrella, playing an NBA style, speaking NBA terminology, learning how to live as a pro and working on their game with unlimited practice time.

"One of the real bad things about this situation is we have a lot of kids going to college who have no interest in getting a college education," said a high-ranking executive with an Eastern Conference team, who would prefer to make high school graduates draft eligible again and allow franchises to stash players in the D-League without committing NBA roster spots to them.

"It's not because they're dumb; it's just because they want to play basketball. Why would we have a system that makes a kid go to an academic institution to further their basketball career? I mean, baseball and hockey don't do that. Football and basketball do.

"In baseball, if you don't want to go to school and you just want to become a baseball player, you just go to the minors. Same thing in hockey. And I think it should be the same way with us, so that guys who just want to play, they should have a place to do that, and we should provide it."

Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, chairman of the new NCAA Division I Council, railed against the one-and-done culture at the Big Ten spring meetings, expressing disgust that colleges have allowed the NBA to dictate the rules on the issue.

"Personally speaking, I don't want to be the minor leagues," Phillips said at the May meetings. "I cringe that we're considered and that people look at us that way."


Many of the NBA executives interviewed for this story point to the D-League as the potential alternative, if the league and its owners can be persuaded to invest in the higher player salaries that would be required for top NBA prospects.

In Cuban's opinion, likely lottery picks aren't opting to go from high school to the D-League, because the NBA hasn't marketed the possibility and put programs in place that would be tailored to elite teenage prospects.

"There's still the element of you don't want to seem like the big ogre stepping on everybody," Cuban said. "It's not like we're going and visiting the top recruits and saying, 'Why don't you consider the D-League? Don't go to Kentucky and be one-and-done. Come play in the D-League. Yeah, you might compete and be in the championship game in March Madness, and you won't play in front of more than 2,000 to 5,000 people in the D-League, but you're going to be better prepared for your profession. You've already got a foot in the door, and that's your chosen profession.'

"We're not out there marketing and competing, and I can see why. People love college basketball: the romantic side of it, March Madness and the Final Four. So there's going to be a lot of people who aren't going to take to it. Being a good corporate citizen, we can't just dive in and say we're going to compete. You have to talk to the NCAA and just come to some agreement."

Cuban envisions a system in which straight-out-of-high-school prospects are provided living arrangements in the D-League, required to take life-skills courses and given the opportunity to pursue their college degree through partnerships formed with local universities. The franchises would hire extra support staff, such as counselors and tutors, to assist in the preps-to-pros transition.

"It's not like the kids are getting paid in college," Cuban said. "At least most of them aren't. Look, you wouldn't just say, 'Here's your check, figure it out.' The whole point is to have an infrastructure in place.

"It's not about the money. We're not trying to compete financially to say, 'You'll make more money.' That's not the point. Rather than paying them more, I'd rather invest more in the kid. They can go to Europe for [money]. Feel free to go there. If a kid wants to go and maximize his dollars, that's not going to be us."

Point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, a projected top-five pick in the upcoming draft who attended high school at Prime Prep in Dallas, chose the overseas option. After committing to SMU, Mudiay signed a one-year, $1.2 million contract to play for the Guangdong Southern Tigers of the China Basketball Association.

"That'll happen more and more," an East general manager said. "I don't think people are doing it because it will develop them faster, but that will happen more and more."

Other NBA executives disagree, noting how difficult the cultural transition can be for a teenager who travels across the world to play with and against grown men in a foreign country while dealing with a language barrier.

To this point, the only lottery pick whose journey to the NBA included an overseas stop between high school and the NBA draft is Brandon Jennings, who did not enjoy his season in Italy despite a seven-figure salary.

"They treat me like I'm a little kid," Jennings wrote to The New York Times from Italy in a January 2009 email. "They don't see me as a man. If you get on a good team, you might not play a lot. Some nights you'll play a lot; some nights you won't play at all. That's just how it is."

Jennings added, "I don't see too many kids doing it. It's tough man, I'll tell you that. It can break you."

In other words, there's likely an opportunity to keep such players closer to home, if the offer is at all attractive.

Said an Eastern Conference executive: "[Owners] may not all see the value in that right now with some teams losing money and the cap going up and all of that. But I think, over time, they would all come to the realization that it's money very well spent."