A version of this story appears in the Nov. 14 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Talking about one-and-dones may seem like a moot point now that an NBA season looks more and more doubtful. (The list of issues to discuss, with the age rule ranked significantly lower than revenue sharing, is presently at a standstill.) But heading into the 2011-12 college hoops season, with star sophomores like Harrison Barnes (UNC) and Jared Sullinger (Ohio State) bucking the trend, we thought we'd ask guys with some insight.
We reached out to all 39 one-and-done players (since 2006, when the age limit was implemented by the NBA) to see what they thought about their decisions and transitions in retrospect.
Shawne Williams, Memphis (F, New York Knicks)
"It's really tricky because at the end of the season, we lost to UCLA in a low-scoring game, no one made buckets, and I felt like we should've won the championship that year. It was tough. I wanted to win a national title, so I told everyone I was coming back. But I had lost my brother, and I come from nothing. I took all that into consideration, and I had an opportunity to go get some money. In the NBA, I've felt like a vet at one point, a rookie at one point, and there was no win for me at one point. I never knew I'd have to try out again. But because of my background, a lot of people were scared to touch me. I felt like the odds were against me. But I've grown up a lot. I feel like I've come a long way."
Greg Oden, Ohio State (C, Portland Trail Blazers)
"Not winning the championship was actually a big factor. I definitely wanted to win. But another big factor was my partner in crime for a long time: Mike Conley. He had a chance that not a lot of people would get, and I would have been selfish to tell him not to take it. He was the best player on that team. He ran everything as the point guard. Him not being there would make it a lot tougher to get back (to the championship game). That was a major factor for me. We wanted to win, but you have to take the opportunity to play in the NBA."
Mike Conley, Jr., Ohio State (G, Memphis Grizzlies)
"The biggest difference from college and high school to the NBA is the fact that you are your own man, you're a grown man, and you have to make decisions on your own. That's the part I didn't think about as much. You just think about the basketball side of things. But at the end of the day, you're like, 'Man, I gotta manage my bills, I got all these other issues that come with all this money and all the attention, the responsibility of being an NBA player.' It's hard to deal with especially at 19 or 20 years old. Most people don't deal with that until they're 30 or 35 years old, so it's a different kind of world. I had the thought, 'Why didn't I stay in school?' at least 10 or 20 times that first year in the league. I think what got me mentally and physically right was just being able to play. Once I got out there and was able to have fun and not be injured, not be on the sideline watching, it was like what I had dreamed of, what I wanted to be growing up. My motivation to keep getting better and playing well against these great guys. That's what turned it around for me."
Brandan Wright, North Carolina (F, New Jersey Nets)
"The age rule was relief because it definitely took a lot of pressure off me being 18 years old and deciding whether to go to the NBA straight out of high school or to college. If a top prospect came to me and asked what he should do as far as the college situation, going to Europe or playing professionally, I think you should just follow your heart. It depends on what type of person you are. If you're not as mature as you need to be, I think you should go to school, learn that maturity, learn how to be on time, go to class and be held accountable. Because if you just jump straight in you'll probably get yourself in a lot of trouble by having a lot of money in your pocket and getting into the wrong situations."
Spencer Hawes, Washington (C, Philadelphia 76ers)
"A couple of teams, when I worked out for them, said: We think it'll be in your best interest to go back to school. But at the end of the day, I didn't really ask people, 'Do you think I should go or stay?' I processed it myself. And I was lucky to have my passion drive me to the decision as opposed to a lot of external factors some guys have to consider. There was pressure from teammates to stay, but they respected the decision. They understood. You don't grow up saying, I want to be a college basketball player when I grow up. You want to be Michael Jordan. Guys understood that more than fans and media."
Thaddeus Young, Georgia Tech (F, 76ers)
"There were times when I doubted myself and said, 'I don't know if I'm ready for the NBA,' but at the end of the day, that's the decision you have to make. A lot of people have financial situations, a lot of people feel they're ready and a lot of people don't want to go to school. I said I was ready. I think I'm a much better pro player than I was in college. I think my game is made for what I did throughout high school and now at the pro level, which is running and gunning and getting out in transition. At Georgia Tech, we played a lot of half-court basketball and that wasn't really my style of play.
"If you're going to go, make sure you're all in, two feet in, because you can't walk halfway through the door and expect to be all the way in. You can stay outside and do what you're going to do in college, but when you come here, it's a whole different ballgame. It's time to be a professional and it's time to grow up."
Daequan Cook, Ohio State (G, Oklahoma City Thunder)
"Mike Conley and Greg Oden were my AAU teammates from the second grade. We grew up together, played together from then on. We never really talked about the age rule, because when it happened we were still really young. We still had a lot of learning, so it didn't really affect us as much. We knew that our goal, our dream was to play in the NBA, we just didn't know how long it would take. So then when we realized we had to go to school, we made the decision to play together at the college level. That helped. I do think LeBron had an effect on them making a rule. There were a lot of guys who probably weren't going to go to college at the time, who wanted to go straight to the pros, and I guess they felt like guys like LeBron should go to college at least a year. There ain't nothing wrong with getting a year of college."
Derrick Rose, Memphis (G, Chicago Bulls)
"The biggest adjustment was to the NBA lifestyle -- paying bills, taking care of my family, the women coming at you. I'm just being honest. I was 19. I'm glad I had BJ [Armstrong] to prepare me for all that. On the court it was knowing all the play calls, knowing how to talk to your teammates, learning to play through your mistakes. I was lucky -- I was allowed to do that. Other people who came out with me didn't have the same opportunity and it took them a lot longer to get comfortable."
DeAndre Jordan, Texas A&M (C, Los Angeles Clippers)
"When I first got my apartment I was 19 and I just sat in there alone and was like 'Who am I gonna hang out with?' In college, the guys you hang out with are your age and they don't really have anything to do after practice besides homework and just stay at the apartment, so I had to get used to staying at home by myself and picking up new hobbies. In the NBA, once practice is over everyone goes their separate ways because some people have families, some people have other issues going on, wives, girlfriends and things like that so you can't hang out with them as much as you hang with your college buddies."
Kevin Love, UCLA (F, Minnesota Timberwolves)
"There were people telling me not to go. They didn't say those exact words, but they said, 'Listen, if you come back, you'd be National Player of the Year, you'd take this team to the Final Four again and compete for a national championship.' That was intriguing. But this was a chance to achieve my dream at 19 years old and make an impact on the NBA as quickly as possible. I had to have tunnel vision and make a decision that was in my best interest.
Like with all aspects of life, something that potential one-and-done players should definitely look out for is people in your life that are Yes Men. Ask yourself, who are the people that are challenging you? Who's giving you a different perspective? Who is challenging you and making you think about the things that you do? Listen to those people. It makes you look at things differently. That's only going to help your decision-making."
Anthony Randolph, LSU (F, Timberwolves)
"It was the SEC Tournament, the first game, and I remember one of my family friends coming and telling me that Pat Riley was in the stands. So that let me know a little bit that if I've got one of the most famous guys in the history of the league -- playing, coaching and being in the front office -- there watching my games, then there must be some truth that I've got a chance at being a lottery pick."
J.J. Hickson, North Carolina State (F, Sacramento Kings)
"Looking back at it, I think that year was very helpful to me. I learned a lot of things under coach Sidney Lowe. He coached in the league so he runs like a league offense and he coached like a coach in the NBA, so I learned a lot from him. And I gotta say college helped me a lot with my transition. I got bigger, faster, stronger, I learned a lot about the game of basketball."
Kosta Koufos, Ohio State (C, Denver Nuggets)
"Being a one-and-done meant living the dream sooner. Being able to play in the NBA, going up against the best athletes in the world -- Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O'Neal and guys that you used to look up to in high school -- it's exciting. When you play with talent like that every day, your skills go to the next level. I would smile after every workout, thanking God for every opportunity He's given me."
Donte Green, Syracuse (F, Kings)
"I would stay in school one more year. I love Syracuse, bleed orange, still go back, love the city, love the fans. I would've stayed one more year and been with Jonny [Flynn], Scoop [Jardine] and Rick [Jackson], and all the guys. I think we would've won a national championship for sure. Those guys went far, but I would've gotten them over the hump. Just being able to be young and not have responsibilities ... once you leave college, it's real life out there. You have bills. You have responsibilities. Not saying I wasn't ready, but it would've been nice to have another year to be a kid. That said, I'm still in the league, still getting paid. There are guys from my class, at my position, that are out of the league right now and fighting to get back in. Guys that were drafted ahead of me."
Tyreke Evans, Memphis (G, Kings)
"I was talking to my brothers. They were the ones who pretty much helped me with my decision to go to school, so after my season at Memphis, which I thought I had a great year, we sat down and talked: Should I leave or not? We came to an agreement that it was okay for me to leave, a good time. I had a good chance of being a top pick. We sat down as a family and said: Let's do it. And that's what happened. I got drafted No. 4. It was a great moment for me."
DeMar DeRozan, USC (G, Toronto Raptors)
"You never know of a guy's situation going into college. Maybe he needs the means to take care of his family. So I've always been against the age rule. It was tough when I found out about it. I think I was 17 at the time and every kid when they were in high school, the first thing they talk about is going pro. I always talked and bragged about it. I remember before they made the rule, on one of the mock drafts I saw my named listed as top-three, and it was cool. I'd joke around, 'Yeah, I'm going to come out and be a top-three pick.' I didn't know if I was going to come out or not, but it was fun to think about."
B.J. Mullens, Ohio State (C, Thunder)
"The rule, it's taking kids' years away from playing in the NBA. If a kid is good enough to play in the NBA at age 17, let him play. You know, the ball isn't going to bounce forever. Guys think they have 15, maybe 10 years of being a superstar player, but the average NBA career is about 4.5 years. You're not getting any younger. Myself, growing up in homeless shelters and 15 different houses, 15 elementary/middle schools, if I see a kid that has a talent like that, I'll tell him to go. If I see a rich, suburb kid, why does he have to go straight to the NBA if he already has money? Get your education, enjoy life."
DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky (C, Kings)
"I was in middle school when the rule came about. When I first learned about it, I had mixed opinions. In a way, it's good because a kid needs that college experience -- to go through those changes and being closer to being an adult and learn that responsibility at the college level. At the same time, I don't believe the rule should be put in place because it's predicting somebody else's life -- you should be able to make your own path because you never know what that person's situation may be at home or with their family. By the end of my first year in college, I was seriously thinking about coming back. I loved playing for Kentucky so it was a tough decision but at the end of the day, I had to do what's best for me and my family."
Xavier Henry, Kansas (G, Grizzlies)
"I don't think I can look back with any regrets. I had a good year in the NBA. Unfortunately I got hurt early, which took me out for a while. But if I would have gotten injured in college, I wouldn't even be in the position to make that decision now, so it was a good decision for me. I tried to have as much fun with it as I could."
Eric Bledsoe, Kentucky (G, Clippers)
"Yes, I did think I was going to come back. I really did. I thought I'd be there about three years. I wasn't even known before I got to college, and people were still saying that he's just playing behind John Wall, so in the back of your head, you're like, they might be right. But I knew I always played with my heart -- I just try to leave it all out on the court."
Avery Bradley, Texas (G, Boston Celtics)
"As a one-and-done guy, people know that you're not experienced. Right when you get to the NBA, people just assume that you don't know as much about the game as other players, which you don't. But if you're a college guy that's done three or four years, you're gonna know a lot about the game. A lot of the Texas fans were excited. But as my rookie season went on and I wasn't playing, they started saying that I should've stayed in school. My whole life I've always been the underdog, so I take that as motivation."
Kyrie Irving, Duke (G, Cleveland Cavaliers)
"My father's advice to me was to make the best decision for me. He also knows that I was considering him and my little sister at the time, but make the best decision for me and when I do make the decision don't have any regrets. I can't make such a big decision like that in my life asking, 'what if?' So you know when I made that decision I had to go with it and really put the time in to be the No. 1 pick. The talent is always going to be there regardless of age. I'm only 19 years old and I was fortunate and blessed enough to be the No. 1 pick. It's not going to stop recruiters from recruiting. It didn't stop Coach K from recruiting me. Coach K told me I was a pro right out of high school -- hearing that from a great coach, it still didn't keep him away from recruiting me. He knew that I wanted to go to college and be a part of a great program. It all depends on the kid."
Tristan Thompson, Texas (F, Cavaliers)
"No other guys played a factor for me. Not at all. My process was about Tristan Thompson and what he's capable of doing. Obviously you look up to guys like KD, but I'm not Kevin Durant. I'm Tristan Thompson. Cory Joseph is like a brother to me. When it came time for the draft process, I told him to do what was best for him. A pro knows when he's a pro. If you think you're a pro, you're a pro. Don't come back to school because people are telling you you're not ready or you're not going to get drafted in the first round."
Brandon Knight, Kentucky (G, Detroit Pistons)
"The biggest pressure not to go came from the Kentucky fans. They want their players to stay and try to build a dynasty. They don't want you to leave. That's a positive, and one of the reasons I love Kentucky."
Tobias Harris, Tennessee (F, Milwaukee Bucks)
"Coach Pearl's one of the main reasons I came to Tennessee, so him leaving really did affect my decision. I took a little step back and decided if I should stay or go. I was about 50/50, but I just kept working out and getting better. I worked out with John Lucas in Houston, and he saw a lot of things in me that I didn't get to show NBA scouts during the year."
Cory Joseph, Texas (G, San Antonio Spurs)
"I never really had any say in the rule. I would probably leave it how it is right now. I think the one year in college really helped me out. There are some players, like LeBron and maybe John Wall, exceptionally great players, you know, maybe they could have made the leap from high school, but I think that college helped me out a lot. The weight room in college is much different than high school. Just learning different game speeds, coming from high school to college. You just gotta be ready for that next leap -- try to get a step ahead."
Josh Selby, Kansas (G, Grizzlies)
"To be honest, I thought the lockout was going to happen, but I thought it would last a month. I didn't think it was going to stop training camps and preseason games. I wasn't able to interact with the coaching staff, the GMs, the trainers -- that's the biggest thing that's messed up this process. No rookies were able to sign anything yet. It's kind of like we're unemployed right now, just doing what we can do, working out. Texting our teammates, meeting up with them when we can, just because we have a little bit of money to fly to work out and spend a little bit of time with the guys."
Editor's Note: The following players declined be interviewed for this article: (2007) Kevin Durant, Javaris Crittenton; (2008) Michael Beasley, OJ Mayo, Eric Gordon, Jerryd Bayless; (2009) Jrue Holiday; (2010) John Wall, Derrick Favors, Daniel Orton, Hassan Whiteside and Tiny Gallon.