Opinion: Cade Cunningham may be last of his kind, and NCAA is to blame

You did not need to watch much college basketball this season to be drawn in by Cade Cunningham, the consensus No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft. If you caught him at any point over the last few weeks in a series of important Big 12 games, you saw a player who not only controlled the floor the way an elite-level prospect is capable of, but a freshman who completely bought in to being part of a college team even though his stay at Oklahoma State will be a short one. 

Cunningham has embodied what the one-and-done college experience is supposed to be like for the best high school talent. He’s elevated his program and his teammates, he’s made himself into a far more marketable prospect by playing on national television all season and he’s improved as a player by getting experience in high-stakes games. Whether he can lead No. 4 seed Oklahoma State to a deep run is one of the NCAA Tournament’s most compelling story lines.

And sadly, he may be the last of his kind.

After a decade of dawdling on name, image and likeness rules and trashing the entire one-and-done concept as an affront to higher education, the NCAA now has legitimate competition as the preeminent place for the most talented players in America to develop before entering the NBA. 

The two most impressive rookies in the NBA this year, LaMelo Ball and James Wiseman, did not play college basketball last season. Four of the top-20 recruits who might have been in this NCAA Tournament chose instead to play for a new developmental team in the NBA’s G-League. Media company Overtime announced earlier this month that it was launching a basketball league for high schoolers offering $100,000 salaries. 

Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham is the type of player who could lift the Cowboys on his shoulders and carry them deep into March. (Photo: Jay Biggerstaff, USA TODAY Sports)

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Year after year of incremental change has gotten basketball to the point where top prospects have more options than ever, almost no social pressure to play college basketball and aren’t penalized by NBA teams if they opt for a different path. College basketball, meanwhile, has been stubborn and flat-footed, to the point where it’s worth wondering whether we’ll ever see a player like Cunningham again in the NCAA Tournament. 

“Sooner or later, the pros are going to take away our talent because they’re going to go to the G-League or overseas,” said Iona coach Rick Pitino. “Unless we get smart enough to understand we need to protect our players and have the ability to make money while they’re in college, we’re going to lose our talent and that’s not good.”

But the NCAA, much to its detriment, has never seen it that way.

For the stuffed-shirt college presidents who are happy to collect the billions generated by March Madness while pounding their chest about the purity of amateurism, one-and-done players are viewed as an imposition. 

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It didn’t matter that Kevin Durant showed the world exactly who he was going to be for the next decade by averaging 26 points at Texas in 2007, or that Derrick Rose nearly led Memphis to a national championship in 2008 or that Anthony Davis was a consensus national player of the year or that Zion Williamson drew former president Barack Obama to Cameron Indoor Stadium. It didn’t matter how much acclaim they brought to their schools or the eyeballs they drew to television sets. 

Instead of looking at a decade-long run of great one-and-done players coming through their system and saying, “Hey, maybe this is good for us,” the NCAA went the other direction. It pretty much begged the NBA to change its one-and-done rule to allow high schoolers to enter the draft. And at every opportunity, NCAA president Mark Emmert sent the message to top prospects that if they wanted to be pros, they should go be pros and stop corrupting the system. 

In fact, at the 2018 Final Four, as college basketball was still trying to get its arms around the FBI investigation that rocked the beginning of that season, Emmert basically said that the NBA eliminating its age limit would solve a lot of college basketball’s problems. The rationale, as he explained it, was that agents try to pay players who seem like real NBA prospects at a very early age so that they can reap the rewards later from their first pro contract. If you allow them to go straight to the NBA, Emmert said, “to the extent that it's already known who is going to the NBA and that's clearly determined, then that just eliminates that component of the behavior.”

Beyond the gross oversimplification of how deeply corrupt college basketball recruiting has been for decades in ways that have nothing to do with agents and middlemen, it’s also a position the NCAA already is walking back three years later. 

Whenever the various name, image and likeness laws go into effect in certain states or there’s a federal law that is passed through Congress, players will be allowed to hire agents to help them secure marketing deals. Though the NCAA will attempt to construct a barrier between an athlete’s future professional representation and whoever is handling their contract to promote a sports drink on Instagram, it’s going to be a distinction without a difference. The NCAA has lost this fight. 

Meanwhile, general interest in college basketball is a real issue for the future of the sport. Though this year’s tournament could get a bounce after being canceled last season in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the sport is not now and has never been better off because some of the most talented college-age players who will eventually star in the NBA decided to go spend months in California training for the draft rather than playing on Big Monday. 

That’s why Cunningham, a 6-foot-8 ballhandling guard, has been such a breath of fresh air this season. Unlike an increasing number of his peers, he went all-in on playing college basketball, invested his emotion into the team and will reap the rewards for it at draft time. 

College basketball is still a valuable and viable path for the best prospects, but the NCAA hasn’t done anything to make it a more attractive one. Cunningham has added a lot to college basketball this season, and could be the kind of player who puts the whole tournament on his shoulders. 

If he’s the last great freshman to lead a team to glory in March, just know the NCAA did this to themselves. 

Follow columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

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