Brandon Jennings rolled the dice and won in 2009 when Milwaukee chose him with the 10th pick of the NBA Draft. Emmanuel Mudiay made a similar gamble and came out on top last year when Denver picked him at No. 7.
Neither player spent a second in college before landing in the lottery, working around the NBA rule designed to prevent prep-to-pro scenarios. Instead of toiling for one season at the Kentuckys and Dukes of the world, Jennings and Mudiay bounced overseas, where they played in Italy and China, respectively.
Last week brought us the curious case of Thon Maker. He took his chances and watched them pay off – though only figuratively in this instance – when Toronto selected him out of Orangeville Prep with the 10th pick.
We haven’t seen a draft pick enter the NBA directly out of high school, with no professional experience in-between, since the class of 2005. But the league doesn’t list Maker’s last stop as “Orangeville Prep;” that would be too jarring.
No, NBA.com lists “Athlete Institute (Canada)” as Maker’s prior “Club/Team.” That makes his experience sound a lot more international, like 18-year-old Dragan Bender, drafted fourth overall out of “Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv (Israel).”
Maker qualified for the draft by exposing a newly dubbed “prep school loophole” that has caused consternation among college hoops aficionados. The 7-1 power forward met the age requirement to be drafted (19) and successfully argued that he’s two years removed from high school but stuck around for an extra season at Orangeville Prep, aka Athlete Institute.
Fifth-year high school seniors aren’t uncommon when players need more time to improve their grades before entering college. But Maker is the first to use a year of prep school in lieu of a year on campus before entering the draft.
“College basketball may suffer if the NBA doesn’t close the Thon Maker prep school loophole in its next CBA,” Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Eisenberg tweeted.
“Top 10 kids would be silly to not at least consider the idea of just hiding at prep school for a year instead of going to college,” tweeted Scout.com recruiting analyst Brian Snow.
Before the NBA and NCAA get their shorts in a knot, it should be noted that Jennings didn’t spark a trend. Maker might not, either, though more prospects could follow his lead opposed to heading overseas a la Jennings and Mudiay.
Maker didn’t make $1.2 million in salary and more in apparel contracts by becoming an international pro like those two. But he also didn’t have to endure the shock of dealing with a foreign language and unfamiliar culture. Perhaps most importantly, Maker didn’t run the risk of being exposed against top-notch Division I talent like, say, Skal Labissiere.
If Labissiere had spent another year as a prep player after graduating from high school, he probably would’ve been a lottery pick Thursday night. He dominated against Maker at the annual Nike Hoop Summit in 2015 and was considered the top player entering college last fall. But he produced a totally underwhelming freshman season at Kentucky and slid to No. 28.
Two other blue-chip recruits, Maryland’s Diamond Stone and Kansas’ Cheick Diallo, also were less-than-impressive in their one-and-done stints. They plummeted all the way to the second round. Those drops cost Labissiere, Stone and Diallo millions of dollars, a fact that won’t be ignored when some prospects weigh their options.
In hindsight, Labissiere would’ve been better off if NBA teams didn’t have a year of film from his Kentucky days. He could’ve entered the draft in Maker’s position, an unproven but intriguing talent whose potential made him irresistible to some teams as a high risk-high reward wager.
By exploiting the prep school loophole, recruits can place the NBA back in the unenviable position it faced 20 years when a steady stream of high school players entered the league. The NCAA hated that model – unable to monetize the likes of Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James – and the NBA despised it.
Both organizations have made out pretty well, though.
A few players might slip through the cracks but that’s no reason to make the rules more restrictive. “It’s not going to be two-and-done,” NBA Players Association executive director Michele Roberts said in February, braced for an upcoming fight when the league tries raising the minimum age to 20 years old.
I’m a staunch proponent of higher education. But I find it curious (not really) why it’s only important for basketball and football players to play in college, opposed to athletes who play baseball, hockey, golf and tennis and can begin pro careers right out of high school.
You would think forces such as revenue and non-revenue were at work.
Given the option of staying in high school, crossing the ocean or playing in the NCAA, more than enough players gladly will be a Big Man on Campus, searching for one shining moment before cashing in at the draft.
For those who take the road less traveled, more power to them. There’s nothing wrong with a few beating the system.
Especially when the system is designed to beat them all.