The NBA no longer allows players to go directly from high school to the NBA, hasn’t since 2005. The NBA drafted 40 high school players from 1995 through 2004 and that doesn’t count all the prepsters who declared and went undrafted but played professionally anyway. That puts a lot of top-tier players into the college ranks who wouldn’t have bothered 15 years ago.
But it’s not just the top end of the prospect pool. The NBA has a cachet it has never had before and high-school players want to get there as soon as possible.
At least many of the players that Duke recruits. Mike Krzyzewski has always gone after the best players who fit the program’s profile, from Dawkins to Ferry to Battier. Now, those players come to Duke to dominate for a year and move on.
It probably started with Kyrie Irving, whose toe injury kept him from winning any individual honors. But there was no question he was the ACC’s best rookie in 2011. Austin Rivers followed him in 2012 and became Duke’s first freshman to make first-team All-ACC.
There was a gap in 2013 when Amile Jefferson and Rasheed Sulaimon were Duke’s only freshmen. But Jabari Parker upped the ante in 2014, not only winning rookie of the year but also making first-team All-America and finishing second in ACC player of the year voting to NC State’s T.J. Warren.
Jahlil Okafor went him one better in 2015, becoming the first freshman to be named ACC Player of the Year. He also was a first-team All-America.
And, oh yes, he was the leading scorer and rebounder for Duke’s fifth NCAA title winner.
Brandon Ingram won the award in 2016 and was named second-team All-ACC. NC State’s Dennis Smith won rookie of the year in 2017 over Jayson Tatum, with Tatum making third team All-ACC. But Marvin Bagley in 2018, Zion Williamson in 2019 and Vernon Carey in 2020 all were All-Americas in addition to rookie of the year. Bagley and Williamson were ACC players of the year, Williamson consensus national player of the year. For good measure freshman R.J. Barrett was a first-team All-America in 2019 and like Bagley captured one national player of the year award.
Bagley was the first freshman to lead the ACC in scoring since Price and is the only freshman to lead the ACC in scoring and rebounding.
And not one of them surprised anyone by declaring for the NBA draft. Duke has had at least one freshman selected in the top three of the NBA draft in each of the last six drafts, a streak likely to end this season.
But not the streak of early-entries. Duke has had (at least) 19 freshmen declare for the NBA draft over the last 10 years.
About that top-3 streak. According to the most reliable mock drafts middle of the first round seems to be the best-case scenario for Vernon Carey, with some projections having him barely making it into the first round. But Carey came to Duke with the expectation of being a one-and-done and nothing has changed. That’s the lure of the NBA to today’s elite young basketball players.
There’s been lots of chatter about the NBA allowing high-school players back in the draft sometime in the next couple of years. That would take some elite talent out of the college equation. But unless the next collective bargaining agreement requires players to stay in college for more than one season—possible but not likely—I suspect we’ll still see the top freshmen in leagues like the ACC heading for the NBA after one season.
That’s the new normal.