- Dana O'Neil, College Basketball Reporter
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The future of college basketball is actually in the past and its name is Nerlens Noel.
As soon as Dr. Naismith decided five men were enough per side, basketball became a sport that offered the allure of the game-changer, the one player who could alter a season or perhaps even a franchise.
When the NBA decided to dip its toes into college rules by instituting an age limit, the game changed for the game-changers. The Nerlens Noels of the world are the ultimate quick fixes in the new world order of drive-through college. Nowadays you can't even rub the dust off of college basketball's crystal ball without considering the impact of these flyover players. The programs that can and have recruited them and more, won with them and will win in the future.
It's that simple.
But as we continue to debate the merits and fairness of the one-and-done rule, it also may be time to step back, look at Nerlens Noel and ask a more direct question: What's the point of that one year?
"I don't need to see [Kentucky's] Julius Randle play anywhere," one NBA scout said. "Him, [Kansas'] Andrew Wiggins, [Duke's] Jabari Parker, those guys would have been lottery picks if they came out this year and they'll be lottery picks when they come out next year."
For every reason to stop by a college campus there is an equally sound argument to bypass it; for every way to improve, there is the risk of failure.
That was certainly true, too, of Noel. Instead he went to college as the rule dictates and emerged as both sides of the conundrum -- a player who was a lottery pick despite a serious injury that limited his college career to 24 games, and yet the projected No. 1 pick whose draft stock dipped significantly because of an injury suffered during his short time on campus.
He is somehow a winner and a loser.
Did anyone, save Kentucky fans, really benefit from his pass through Lexington? Noel said he did, parroting the company line most folks give when arguing the merits of the one-and-done rule.
"I learned how to play and got to see how much it takes in terms of hard work," he said. "Coach Calipari busted on me in practice. He was all over me and I needed that. In high school you've got coaches kissing your butt and telling you how great you are. You need to find out that you're not that great."
So Noel is wiser, stronger and certainly more comfortable in the spotlight.
And his wallet is a few million dollars lighter. Under the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement, top draft pick Anthony Bennett's slotted salary will go from $4.43 million in his first year to $4.64 million in the second to $4.84 million in the third. Noel, as the sixth pick, will get $2.64 million in the first, $2.76 million in the second and $2.88 million in the third.
All because he got to/had to go to college for a portion of one year.
"It really helps the NBA," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "The NBA does not want high school kids but the one year doesn't help them get ready any more or less. It doesn't help them basketballwise. It helps the NBA."
And therein lies the rub. The arguments in favor of the one-and-done rule all sound altruistic and well-intentioned -- a chance to mature, the opportunity to measure your game against legitimate competition, a year to get stronger and better.
But that's not really what's behind all of this.
In a draft world obsessed with potential and upside, an age-limitless NBA was a mess. Despite a litany of high schoolers who never lived up to their billing (Kwame Brown, poster child), franchises kept taking risks so long as those risks came with lanky, athletic bodies.
It really helps the NBA. The NBA does not want high school kids but the one year doesn't help them get ready any more or less. It doesn't help them basketballwise. It helps the NBA.
"-- Louisville coach Rick Pitino
So the NBA took away the temptation for their own good, and told the athletes that, like castor oil, it was good for them.
Not that it's all bad. Experience matters and time helps in any profession, in any trade.
It's just not necessary, especially for the elite of the elites, the 1 percent, if you will.
Caught in the middle are the players, without options save a still unproven road through Europe, and often overwhelmed with bad information.
It's a system perhaps not as broken as the college model in its entirety, but one that is inherently flawed, forcing a one-size-fits-all rule on everyone from the next LeBron to the next LeBust.
"We can do better," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams. "There's no perfect answer but I guess I'd like for us to do better because we can do better."
Bill Self has watched Andrew Wiggins in individual workouts. He's also seen him, as of this past week, against his teammates at Kansas. The kid, Self will readily admit, is more athletic and more innately gifted than anyone he's coached.
He's also like a lot of athletic prodigies. His talents are unrefined, raw even, teasing with spurts of jaw-dropping greatness and then disappearing.
"He hasn't dominated anybody here yet," Self said. "Nobody. Could he have handled going straight to the NBA? Sure, he can handle it. A lot of kids can handle it but that doesn't mean they're prepared to play."
Despite his coach's honest assessment, the question for Wiggins -- even six weeks before he's played his first collegiate game -- is not if he will be drafted, but will he go first. Barring a cataclysmic disaster that would include a sinkhole swallowing him whole, he will be a lottery pick.
So what can he gain at Kansas, besides a chance to model the new unis for GQ?
Plenty, college coaches and even some NBA execs, say.
"How much can they improve?" one NBA personnel director said. "They can improve a lot."
Wiggins already has logged hours and miles in basketball, crisscrossing the country with his Huntington Prep team during the school year and in the summer with his CIA Bounce crew. But he's never been exposed to a full-time strength coach or nutritionist.
He's gotten good coaching, maybe, but not from anyone with Self's credentials.
He's played against some of the best in his class and still emerged as the nearly consensus No. 1 player among them. But he's never had his skills measured against those of say, Syracuse's C.J. Fair, or other more established players.
"A couple of years ago, I asked our players 'Ever heard of [College of Charleston's] Andrew Goudelock? They had no idea who he was," Roy Williams said. "I told them he might drop 30 on you. He got 28. The point is, these guys have no idea. Yeah, they play in the McDonald's All-American Game and all that, so they know the other top 25 or 30 guys, but they have no idea what the competition level is in the real world."
All of that exposure, experience and opportunity no doubt makes for a more well-rounded player than the unformed clump of dough coming out of high school.
But it's 30 or 40 games at best, an Instagram shot of a career. For all the talk about development and maturity, in the end the NBA hasn't changed all that much.
The buzzwords are still potential and upside, who a player promises to be more than who he is, especially who he is after just one collegiate season.
"Thirty years ago, I was on a plane with [longtime NBA coach] Gene Shue," the scout said. "He said to me, 'At the end of the day, just draft talent. Forget will he fit or can he do this or who he's playing against. Screw all that. Just draft talent.'"
He was hustling back in a rout of a loss, trying to stop a fast break.
That's how Nerlens Noel got hurt. It was an ugly injury, made all the more painful by the anguish on Noel's face.
"I was worried because you don't know what will happen," Noel said. "But then as the draft got closer, I knew I was going to play basketball and be drafted and that's all that really mattered."
He was right, of course. Noel was drafted, and that is what really matters.
Except that would have been true in 2012, before he headed to Lexington, before an injury cost him $2 million.
So really, what was the point?
The health of a college program could be altered by the one-and-done. But to the player, to the star, does that one year matter at all?