The Arizona Wildcats have relied heavily on their freshmen this season.
The trio of Lauri Markkanen, Kobi Simmons, and Rawle Alkins lead the 18th-ranked Wildcats in both points and minutes per game, as they’ve jumped out to a 10-2 record.
But leaning on the production of younger players is nothing out of the ordinary in today’s college basketball landscape.
With the one-and-done culture — the tendency for student-athletes to go pro after one season — that is prevalent in the sport, incoming freshmen are getting more opportunities to play in their first season than ever before because, well, the freshmen from the previous year don’t stick around in school.
As a result, incoming freshmen often arrive in college expecting to not only play a lot, but to play well from the get-go. Arizona head coach Sean Miller called that type of culture “completely upside down.”
Here’s his full take on the matter:
“I think freshmen come to college basketball with more unrealistic expectations than ever before. That statement is the most obvious that a college basketball coach can make, that nobody truly understands the process that’s going to be required to achieve what they want to achieve. The one-and-done model is completely upside down in any area of civilization. You don’t become a lawyer and go to law school for a year. First of all, you have to do an incredible job as an undergraduate student to even get into a law school. Then you have to take the test to establish that you’re further qualified and then you have to get all the way through it. And then when you get to be a lawyer, you don’t own your own firm. You’re the low man on the totem pole. Then 15 or 20 years you’re like ‘look what I’ve established’ and now you’re prepared and you have experience and that process is well-defined.
So why in God’s name would anybody think that taking a 17 or 18-year-old kid, and, most of the time, what nobody understands except for the college world, their thought process on becoming an NBA player starts in tenth grade. It’s not about college. And then when you’re in college and the bump in the road happens, it is a true test of humanity. Are you going to blame the coach? Who are you going to blame? And then if you’re not going to blame someone, are you going to stick to it and understand that you’re doing great? And it’s just a matter of time before you’re finally going to get there. We’re very fortunate this year that we have three freshmen who are very, very good players and each of their cases, they all have things that they really need to improve on. They all bring things to the table initially that you can stamp them as really talented.
Rawle, physically, it’s hard to believe he’s only 18. Lauri, skill-wise, it’s hard to believe somebody that size can shoot the basketball the way he can. Kobi, his incredible athleticism. And now in each of their cases, they’re working hard to add to what they already established, but it’s just really a hard dynamic in college sports. It’s very, very difficult in college basketball. I don’t think it’s good for anything, but that’s the way of the world and we’re going to do our best that we can, but no, incoming freshmen are no more prepared than they were 20 years ago. It’s just that the process is completely upside down.”
Sean Miller also disagreed that freshmen are better now than they used to be.
“No. If Sean Elliott was Sean Elliott as a freshman, you guys would never have gotten to know who he became. He was going to leave by today’s standards in his one or two years. And the greatness of Arizona, just like the other program’s we’re compared to, a lot of those teams and those players that you just marvel at and you have great feelings about. I’ll use Damon Stoudamire as an example, who was with as a coach. How good was Damon Stoudamire at Christmas of his freshman year? He was just kind of a little guy on the team. And there’s a lot of people that when I talk to (say) that Damon Stoudamire is arguably the greatest guard to play at Arizona statistically and who he was at the end. His NBA career speaks to that.
If you judged Jason Terry at Christmas of his freshman year, if he was disgruntled about his opportunity to play and he left Arizona in the spring of his freshman year, think about how different that is. That’s the culture not at Arizona right now, but in college basketball. I’ve seen Malik Monk score 47 points as a freshman and it’s just incredible talented he is, but to think there would’ve been a Malik Monk a decade or 15 years ago that would’ve been Kentucky’s seventh or eighth man, it’s just a different game right now. I guess for those guys who are really, really talented their upside in making money because they leave and are in the NBA for a longer period of time, you can make the case that’s great for them, but they’re the one percent. The other 99 percent, it’s a hard situation.”
Still, Miller has to deal with the situation being a head coach at one of the nation’s top college basketball programs. And recently, Arizona has had more than its fair share of one-and-dones, including Aaron Gordon, Stanley Johnson, and Grant Jerrett as well as a few players that left after just two seasons, such as Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Derrick Williams.
“I’m not even frustrated. It is what it is. We’re recruiting five players a year. We take inventory every day. We’re led by three freshmen in scoring. We’ve embraced it. If somebody wants to be one-and-done, we’re going to do whatever we can to help them get there. I try to be honest. We’ve had players that talk about that and if you see that that’s not the case you have to step forward and say that’s not the case. Sometimes they don’t come to Arizona.
The other thing that’s tricky is sometimes somebody surprises you. If you could have predicted Derrick Williams would have been the number two pick in the draft after his second year, there would have ben a lot of takers on that bet after he left high school. Sometimes it happens unexpectedly that way.”
My take on the one-and-done culture is that it’s simply a product of the makeup of the NBA. Players are making more than ever — the salary cap rose by $22 million this past offseason alone — and front offices often draft players based on potential rather than their current makeup.
Therefore, it is beneficial to enter the league at a younger age, and, as Miller said, it also maximizes a player’s earning potential if they are in the NBA for longer.
Plus, getting paid millions or hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop and improve your game is inarguably better than playing for a free education at the collegiate level.
Is it bad for college basketball? No doubt. The talent level is watered down when you compare it to previous decades.
But the one-and-done culture is here to stay, as the only way it’s going anywhere is if the NBA changes its early-entry rules and/or minimum age requirement, which isn’t happening initially in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that was recently agreed on.
You just have to embrace it, just as Miller and other college basketball coaches have done.
You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire