Can You Play in the NBA Without College?

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One of the ever-changing NBA rules was about draft eligibility. It has undergone a massive overhaul since the days of Darryl Dawkins down to the draft classes of LeBron James (2003) and Dwight Howard (2004). Based on the current rules, can you play in the NBA without college? It’s a controversial topic and one that should capture the interest of real basketball fans. 

Can You Go Into the NBA Straight Out of High SchoolCan You Go Into the NBA Straight Out of High School?

Current NBA eligibility rules prevent anyone from going into the NBA straight out of high school. That rule was imposed back in 2006 under the 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement. It has been adapted in every CBA since then. 

There are two basic rules in that agreement. First, all drafted players must turn 19 years old at the year of the draft. A simple way to figure out if a player is eligible is to subtract 19 from the current year. If the player is born on or before that year, then he is eligible. For example, Chet Holmgren will enter the NBA draft in 2022. Subtract 19 years from 2022 and we have 2003. Holmgren was born on May 1, 2002, so he is definitely eligible.

Second, anyone who is considered an “international player” must be at least one year removed from his high school graduation. The current CBA which runs through 2023-24 has the definition of who qualifies as an “international player.” The maximum age to join NBA for international prospects is 22.

In short, to qualify for the NBA draft, a player must be one year out of high school and  at the right age. If he does not meet any of the two requirements, he won’t be able to enter the draft. An excellent example was the case of OJ Mayo. Mayo was already 19 in 2006, but he was still six months away from graduating high school. Since you need to be out of high school for at least a year, he was not qualified to enter the NBA draft until 2008.

Can You Go Into the NBA Straight Out of High School

Then-commissioner David Stern stated that the rules were business-related, citing the need to see players perform against higher-level competition before evaluating them for valuable draft picks. The NBA needs to test the product, so to speak. The rule effectively required players to attend college for at least one year. High school players who would have otherwise gone straight to the NBA were instead spending the required year in college before leaving and entering the draft. The process is usually called “one and done.”

What is the NBA's One-and-Done RuleWhat is the NBA’s One-and-Done Rule?

The NBA one and done rule states that athletes must be at least 19 years old and at least one year removed from their high school graduation date. It is designed to prevent basketball players from jumping straight to the NBA from high school in order to hone their skills in college or anywhere else.

The one-and-done rule got its name because athletes usually spend one year in college before declaring for the NBA draft. Players often openly declare their intention to play only one year of college basketball, stating unequivocally that they would much rather be in the NBA if the rule was not imposed.

Going to college for a year, however, is not the only option. Some choose to play in professional leagues overseas such as Australia’s National Basketball League. The NBL does not have an age restriction in place so fresh high school graduates are allowed to sign to a team and play.

The one-and-done rule has always been controversial since it was approved. Ever since Spencer Haywood won his case against the NBA back in the early 70s, there were a handful of players that went directly from high school to the pros. Darryl Dawkins made the jump in 1975 followed by Kevin Garnett (1995), Kobe Bryant (1996), and Jermaine O’Neal (1996) over 20 years later.

What is the NBA's One-and-Done Rule

While it’s understandable that the NBA wants better and more mature “products,” the one-and-done rule restricts players’ freedom of choice. Basketball players should have the autonomy to choose their career path rather than being dictated by such a spurious rule, even if doing so would have a negative economic impact on college basketball. Still, it’s important to note that college basketball was still thriving even when the rule was not in place.

How Many Players have Entered the NBA Without a College DegreeHow Many Players have Entered the NBA Without a College Degree?

According to Rothstein Murman, approximately 21% of current NBA players have undergraduate degrees. That leaves 79% of NBA players without a degree.

Still, even when these players leave college early to earn money in the NBA, the majority of them did not completely forget their education. Many NBA players got their degrees years after. For example, Steph Curry graduated with a bachelor’s degree 13 years after he left Davidson College. Vince Carter completed his college studies three years after entering the NBA Draft in 1998.

A very unique and interesting case was that of Tim Duncan. Duncan completed his Psychology degree in 1997, playing for four years at Wake Forest. He probably would have made the league earlier based on the NBA Draft eligibility rules, but decided to stay in college because of a promise he gave to his mother on her deathbed. Duncan earned a degree in psychology and graduated with honors. He even co-authored a chapter in a psychology book during his time at Wake Forest.

Other curious cases were that of Lloyd Daniels and Shawn Kemp. Kemp infamously left Kentucky without ever playing a game for the Wildcats and transferred to a community college for which he never played.

How Do You Get Into the NBA Without a College DegreeHow Do You Get Into the NBA Without a College Degree?

How Many Players have Entered the NBA Without a College Degree

A college degree is not needed for one to get into the NBA. Most NBA players are undergraduates and simply finished their degrees long after getting drafted. Twenty-one percent, or over two in five NBA players, finished undergrad courses and have undergraduate degrees. Still, with the one-and-done rule in place, going to college is the safest route to the NBA.

5 Best NBA Players Who Made Directly from High School

5 Best NBA Players Who Made Directly from High School

1. LeBron James

James is in the conversation as the Greatest of All Time and for a good reason. His longevity is unheard of and has a chance to become the all-time leading scorer next season.

Achievements: Four-time NBA champion; Four-time MVP; Four-time NBA Finals MVP; 18-time All-Star; 15-time All-NBA

2. Kobe Bryant

Many people call Bryant the second coming of Michael Jordan and they were probably right. Kobe’s shot-making is second to none and has the ability to knock down shots when it mattered the most.

Achievements: Five-time NBA champion; NBA MVP; Two-time Finals MVP; 18-time All-Star; 15-time All-NBA; Two-time scoring champion; 12-time NBA All-Defense

3. Moses Malone

Malone is probably one of the more underrated greats. He was a terrific rebounder and a strong inside presence. Malone is one of only five players in NBA history to win at least three MVP awards.

Achievements: Three-time MVP; NBA Champion; Finals MVP; 12-time All-Star; Eight-time All-NBA; Six-time rebounding champion

4. Kevin Garnett

Probably the best pick-and-roll big man defender ever, Garnett’s intensity resonates every time he was on the court. He was known as a ferocious defender who can collect stats like they were stamps. KG once recorded 35 points, 22 rebounds, four steals, and five blocks in Game 7 of the 2004 Western Conference Semifinals.

Achievements: NBA MVP; NBA champion; 15-time All-Star; Defensive Player of the Year; Nine-time All-NBA; 12-time All-Defense

5. Dwight Howard

Howard was unanimously the best center in the NBA during a good chunk of his prime. While others like Shaq beg to disagree, it’s hard to disprove that with D12’s body of work. He was named Defensive Player of the Year for three consecutive years and led an underdog Orlando Magic team to the Finals in 2009.

Achievements: Three-time DPOY; Eight-time All-Star; Eight-time All-NBA; Five-time NBA All-Defense; Five-time Rebounding Champion; Two-time Blocks Leader; Slam Dunk Champion; NBA Champion

Wrapping Things Up: Can You Play in the NBA Without College?

There are more or less 450 players on NBA rosters and most of them got at least a taste of college. That’s because the NBA draft eligibility rules say that a player must be at least 19 years old and one year removes from his high school graduation to qualify. This rule is colloquially known as the one-and-done.

This has not always been the case. Before 2006, the NBA allowed players straight from high school to enter the draft. Darryl Dawkins, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O’Neal, and Dwight Howard come to mind. However, David Stern imposed a rule that prevented high schoolers to make the direct jump to the pros.

Because of that reason, many NBA prospects opt to go to college for one year, wait it out, and declare for the draft. Others go a different route, such as playing professional basketball overseas. That’s the NBA one and done rule in a nutshell.

With that being said, can you play in the NBA without college? Technically, you can. However, you must be at least 19 years old and a year removed from high school. If not, then you must wait for the next NBA draft to be eligible. Be reminded that not going to college is the road less traveled. Most prospects do go to college for exposure and to hone their skills, not to mention the precious education they receive.

Hoops Addict
Hoops Addict

Hoops Addict was created to help basketball fans of all ages learn more about the sport and find the best basketball gear to improve their ability to hoop. He has been a huge basketball fan for decades, watching thousands of basketball games through the years to learn the ins and outs of the game.

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