On Tuesday night in Chicago, under the benevolent watch of NCAA men’s basketball and something called the State Farm Champions Classic, top-ranked Kentucky lost to second-ranked Michigan State and fifth-ranked Kansas beat fourth-ranked Duke. The games, both of which were excellent, felt like March come early for college hoops and June come early for the NBA, as the combined 80 minutes of basketball featured eight of the projected top 13 picks in next year’s draft, according to Draft Express. As LeBron James himself tweeted as Kansas was closing out its victory: “GM’s wish the draft was tomorrow.” (The NCAA has since banned James from postseason play, and stripped the nearly 10,000 people who’ve retweeted him of their scholarships.)
Of all the young men spending a typical college-student Tuesday night playing for free on national television, none drew more attention than a skinny 18-year-old Canadian named Andrew Wiggins. This soon-to-be-former resident of Lawrence, Kan., towers over one of the world’s most powerful sports leagues to such a degree that it’s easy to forget that the NBA has barred him from actually playing in it. The NBA’s age limit, which stipulates that draft-eligible players must be 19 years old and one year removed from their high school graduating class, has been in place since 2006. But never has its farcical nature been as exposed as in the case of next year’s draft, which boasts the deepest freshman class of the “one-and-done” era—four of the projected top five picks (Wiggins, Kentucky’s Julius Randle, Duke’s Jabari Parker, and Arizona’s Aaron Gordon) are freshmen, and the fifth, Australia’s Dante Exum, is younger than all but one of them.
In anticipation of this bumper crop, billions of dollars’ worth of NBA franchises have rewritten their business models to win by losing, in the hope of earning the top spot in the league’s draft lottery. Over the summer, the Boston Celtics, a franchise valued at more than $700 million and winner of the Atlantic Division in five of the last six seasons, jettisoned two Hall of Fame players and a legendary coach for a wheelbarrow’s worth of draft picks, some expensive detritus, and a 37-year-old Indianan with no NBA bench experience. The team’s fans, of which I am one, now nod along enthusiastically as we join (at least) a half-dozen other teams rushing to the bottom, visions of Wiggins dancing in our heads. The phrase “fantasy basketball” has never seemed more apt.
Wiggins is a mindboggling talent: skilled, long, explosive, and any number of other adjectives that draftniks mutter in their sleep. In a recent issue of Sports Illustrated, he’s depicted alongside a ghostly image of Wilt Chamberlain—another player who enrolled at the University of Kansas with rather large expectations. Wiggins is an aesthetic experience unto himself, 200 pounds of lithe, fluid grace, a prodigy in the most breathless and romantic sense. The last 6-foot-8 phenom to so dazzle NBA imaginations was LeBron James, but Wiggins has none of James’ preternatural bulk; he resembles a real 18-year-old, just a tall and freakishly gifted one. The more apt comparison is Tracy McGrady, drafted by Wiggins’ hometown Toronto Raptors when Wiggins was 2, and who until his career was derailed by injuries seemed the evolutionary pinnacle of the NBA small forward.
The crucial difference between Wiggins and these predecessors is that he’s going to college: unjustly, probably reluctantly, and if he’s smart, exceedingly cautiously. Wiggins’ position as 2014’s top pick seems a foregone conclusion—he would have been the top pick in the 2013 draft, were he eligible. But sports don’t go in for foregone conclusions. Duke’s Parker has a more advanced build and a more advanced game. Julius Randle, Kentucky’s own super-freshman, could likewise have a more dominant season than Wiggins, and positional need could nudge the 250-pound power forward to the top of the draft. There’s also precedent for much-hyped wing players losing luster after high school: Rudy Gay and Harrison Barnes are recent examples of small forwards who spent time at or near the top of their prep classes but failed to end up atop their draft classes. And of course there’s the threat of serious injury, a possibility so cruel and so obvious that it sickens to even float it.
Or Wiggins could slip simply because everyone gets tired of agreeing on him, the victim of draftnik culture’s insatiable appetite for what’s-not-to-like. Consider the case of otherworldly South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. The NFL’s age strictures are even more rigid than the NBA’s, mandating that players be three years removed from their high school graduating class before they can earn paychecks. Had Clowney been allowed to enter the 2013 NFL Draft, after his sophomore year—and after this play—he would have been the first overall pick. Had he been allowed to enter in 2012, after his freshman year, he probably would have gone in the top three.
This year, the consensus No. 1 pick is maybe losing that consensus. His numbers haven’t been as great as usual, and controversy has swirled around his decision to sit against the University of Kentucky on Oct. 5. Clowney had been nursing injured ribs and bone spurs in his foot, and the Kentucky Wildcats are one of the worst teams in the SEC; a young man with such a valuable future could be forgiven for taking a week off. But big-time college football isn’t much for forgiveness, at least among those actually making money off it. Clowney’s coach, Steve Spurrier, made thinly veiled accusations of selfishness; various commentators castigated Clowney for being “soft,” a “quitter,” and a “joke.” On ESPN, draft analyst Todd McShay wondered, “Why create this question mark for NFL scouts? Why not just go through the process as if you’re a college football player, and you care about the team most, and you want to go out every single week and do what’s right? … It’s just not the way to handle your business.”
Yes, he actually said that—“the way to handle your business.” I would counter that an athlete worth untold, uncollected millions declining to participate in one of the most violent sports on Earth for no compensation while already injured is the only appropriate way for him to handle his as-yet-unincorporated business. In Clowney’s no-win position, his failure to adhere to exploitative amateurism is perversely seen as a poor reflection on his future professionalism, rather than what it actually is: a wise business decision.
The NBA’s age limit is less draconian than the NFL’s, but the shorter waiting period throws its absurdities into starker relief. Anyone looking for an ideal college experience for the league’s one-and-done age should glance at the NCAA career of Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star Kyrie Irving, the top pick in the 2011 draft. The premier point guard in his high school class, Irving signed to play for Duke, but early in his freshman season suffered a toe injury and played only 11 games. Irving’s injury wasn’t career-threatening, and his lack of college experience failed to diminish his draft stock—glaringly so. Irving’s 11 games as a Blue Devil were an extended pre-draft workout, one he passed with flying colors before his big toe shut it down. In the words of Marla Daniels, you can’t lose if you don’t play.
Unless, of course, you’re Nerlens Noel, last year’s unquestioned top pick until he tore his ACL 24 games into his first and only season at the University of Kentucky. Noel’s injury was more serious than Irving’s and caused him to slip to the No. 6 spot, where he was snatched by New Orleans and promptly traded to Philadelphia—where he’ll enjoy a leisurely rehab timetable as the 76ers try to lose enough to position themselves for Andrew Wiggins.
Wiggins has nothing to gain from playing college ball, as Clowney, Noel, and Kyrie Irving could all tell him. He could live up to expectations, or fail to; he could win a national title, or tear his ACL; he could leave town the most popular person in Lawrence, or be labeled a malcontent on account of some purported misdeed.
Only the bad will matter. His draft position cannot improve, nor can his negotiating power, since the NBA’s rookie salary structure mandates the terms of his contract. Some will argue that a year of exposure at Kansas will increase his star power, but hop on over to the KU online store and you can already buy an official NCAA-licensed Andrew Wiggins replica jersey for $55; his name’s not on the back and he won’t see a cent from the sales, but his star power is doing just fine. Adidas is reportedly preparing a $100 million-plus endorsement contract for him, and Nike is ready to match it—but not quite yet, not until he declares himself a pro.
In the meantime, we’ll attentively track the “riggin’ for Wiggins” derby and smirk knowingly every time some guy in an expensive suit with a team logo behind him holds forth on “rebuilding” and “the long term.” And all the while we’ll do our best to ignore the fact that an 18-year-old kid has one billion-dollar business dining off his unpaid labor while another billion-dollar business deliberately sabotages its product on his (and our) behalf. Andrew Wiggins can’t lose if he doesn’t play, but everyone else is winning just fine without him, even when they’re trying not to.