They enter college with great hype and great expectations, then leave less than a year later with great promise often going unfulfilled, at least from a team standpoint.
We are talking about so-called “one-and-done” college basketball players, ones who are talented enough to get drafted in the first round of the NBA draft after their freshman season.
They might never have gone to college, but starting with the 2007 NBA draft, players had to have spent a season out of high school and be at least 19 to be eligible. The one-and-done player was born.
For Washington, one-and-done has also meant one-and-none. None, as in no NCAA tournaments.
No team has been worse with one-and-done players than UW, which has had the most of any school without reaching the NCAA tournament with one on the team.
It started with Spencer Hawes in 2007, then came Tony Wroten in 2012, Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray in 2016, followed by Marquelle Fultz, who was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2017. All were first-round picks and all left UW without going to an NCAA tournament.
The Huskies finished last in the Pac-12 this season with two one-and-done players, Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, who both declared for the NBA draft this month. The only thing that kept them from joining the list of UW one-and-dones who failed to make the NCAA tournament was having it canceled.
UW predictably lost its first game in the conference tournament, a day before the event was canceled and a couple days before the NCAA tournament was canceled amid coronavirus concerns.
Still, the allure of one-and-done players remains because the prevailing theory seems to be that teams need to have them to be successful. But is that true?
We tested the theory by looking at every one-and-done player who has been taken in the first round of the NBA draft since the start of 2007 and examined how those players’ college teams did.
We also examined the 52 teams that have been in the Final Four in that time, researching the makeup of those teams by looking at what year in school the top five scorers were.
What the data shows is that in most cases, experience trumps youth. The vast majority of teams (35 of 52) who made it to the Final Four were experienced teams (more than half their top scorers being upperclassmen).
“I am not surprised at all by what your research shows,” said Don MacLean, an analyst for Pac-12 Networks who scored a Pac-12-record 2,620 career points in four seasons at UCLA (1988-92). “Experience is beneficial at any level in any sport. You’ve been there and you’ve experienced it. So it’s not surprising, because when you go from level to level, whether it’s high school to college or college to the NBA, there is so much to learn.
“Most of these one-and-dones just dominate in high school with their physical tools and don’t really learn how to play and don’t really need to learn how to play because they are just so physically dominant. But when you get to the college level, now you have to understand defensive schemes, screen-roll coverage and all kinds of stuff you never had to deal with. So, does it happen for you in 30 games before you get to the NCAA tournament? For some it probably does and some it probably doesn’t.”
If you’re relying on one-and-done players to get to the Final Four, it appears you’d better have several of them, like Kentucky and Duke had in 2012 and 2015 when they won titles. Even then, there are no guarantees. Just ask Duke’s Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, taken No. 1, No. 2 and No. 10 in last year’s draft after failing to reach the Final Four.
The numbers show that while the Huskies have been the least successful with one-and-done players, they are not alone in one-and-done misery.
There have been 121 one-and-done players selected in the first round of the NBA draft starting in 2007. Twenty-five of them (including the five Huskies) never reached the NCAA tournament, and another 42 never reached the Sweet 16.
Just eight teams have gone to a Final Four with a one-and-done player, and only Kentucky has gotten that far more than once. Only two teams with a one-and-done starter have won an NCAA title, Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2015.
Kentucky has had 24 one-and-done players drafted in the first round, 10 more than the next-highest (Duke). But the Wildcats, for all that talent, have just one title in that span and they haven’t made the Final Four since 2015.
Six times in the past 10 years, Kentucky has failed to reach the Final Four when it had multiple one-and-done first-round picks. In 2014, the Wildcats had four of them and were still stopped short.
Why? Because experience matters.
There have been 52 teams in the Final Four in the past 13 years. With the exception of four Kentucky teams and the 2015 Duke team, almost all have something in common: a lot of experience among their top players.
Michigan State has been in four Final Fours in the one-and-done era, tied for Kentucky with the most, and all without one-and-done players. The Spartans have had just one one-and-done player drafted in the first round, and they lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament that season. Not a single freshman was among their top five scorers in their Final Four seasons.
Kansas has had one-and-done first-round picks in five seasons, failing to make the Final Four even once in those years. But the Jayhawks have three Final Four appearances in the one-and-done era, all when they had experienced teams without a freshman among their top five scorers.
Experience has been even more important recently. In the past four years, 15 of the 16 teams to reach the Final Four have had more upperclassmen than underclassmen among their top five scorers, and only one freshman in that time has been among his team’s top three scorers.
In last season’s Final Four, there were no freshmen and only five sophomores among the four teams’ top five scorers.
The last two one-and-done players drafted in the first round to play in the Final Four were a bit different from the rest, in that they were role players coming off the bench on experienced teams.
That was in 2017, when Tony Bradley, averaging 15 minutes a game in his reserve role, helped North Carolina beat Gonzaga for the title. Gonzaga had its only one-and-done first-rounder that year, Zach Collins, who averaged 17 minutes a game in a reserve role for an otherwise very experienced team.
Those teams had the type of balance that MacLean said leads to success.
“I think you want the talent and the size of one-and-done players, but they can’t be your end-all, be-all,” said MacLean, who played a season for Seattle SuperSonics in 1998-99 during a nine-season NBA career. “They have to be led by upperclassmen. You have to have a blend of real talent and real experience with good players. Just because you’ve been there three or four years, doesn’t mean you’re not a good player. It’s just that you weren’t that highly thought of by NBA people coming out of high school.”
Collins and Bradley are rare, as almost all of the other 121 one-and-done first-rounders took prominent roles on their teams. Many have had good seasons for themselves, but team success has been more elusive, even for teams with multiple one-and-done players.
Now, back to Washington. The Huskies have made the NCAA tournament seven times in the past 15 years. In each of those seasons, the majority of the Huskies’ top five scorers were upperclassmen. The Huskies are 0 for 5 in making the NCAA tournament during that span when the majority of their top five scorers are underclassmen. And it would have been 0 for 6.
Experience doesn’t guarantee success, but it appears you need a slew of really talented young players to make up for it. Two projected first-round picks were certainly not enough this season for UW.
The value of experience was evident for Washington last season when it won the Pac-12 regular-season title. The Huskies had just one player drafted in the first round — Matisse Thybulle — but they had a core of seniors and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
MacLean said constructing a team with both experience and talent is difficult, because occasionally players who are not projected to leave after one year end up doing so because of excellent seasons. Murray and Chriss for UW in 2016 could be considered in that category.
But there was little doubt that Stewart and McDaniels would be here for only a year after coming in ranked high in 2020 NBA mock drafts.
There was plenty of hype for UW when they signed, but then reality hit during the season, as it often does for teams with one-and-done players.
“Where is the kid’s head when he goes to college when he knows he’s only going to be there for a year?” MacLean said. “Is he just there for a pit stop and he doesn’t really buy into the program and is only there because he has to go? I think that’s a case-by-case basis.”
Should Washington continue to recruit one-and-dones? Hopkins, like any coach, has to be tantalized by the talent.
But buyer beware. You can make an argument that the downfall of Lorenzo Romar at UW began with one-and-done players. Romar was fired in 2017 after 15 seasons.
Hopkins’ first season with one-and-dones didn’t go well. The question is, what will he do next?
This story has been updated to say that two Huskies were drafted in 2019. Jaylen Nowell was drafted in the second round.
The class of the top-five scorers on each of the Final Four teams in the one-and-done era.
Florida: Jr., Jr., Jr. Jr. Sr
Ohio State: Fr., Sr., Fr., Fr., Jr. (three one-and-doners)
Georgetown: Jr., Jr., Jr, Fr. So. (no one and dones)
UCLA: Jr. So. So, So. JR
Total: Sr. 2, Jr. 10, So. 4, Fr. 4
Kansas: So, Jr., Jr., Sr., So
Memphis: Jr. Fr., Jr. Jr. Sr. (one one-and-done)
UCLA: Fr., So., Jr., Jr. Jr (one one-and-done)
North Carolina: Jr., So, Jr., So, So.
Total: Sr: 3, Jr. 10, So. 5, Fr. 2
North Carolina: Sr., Jr., Jr., Sr., Jr.
Michigan State: So, Jr., Sr., So. So
Connecticut: Sr., Sr., Jr. Jr. Fr.
Villanova: Sr., Jr., So., So. Sr.
Total: Sr. 7, Jr. 7, So. 5., Fr. 1
Duke: Sr., Jr., Jr., Sr. So
Butler: So., So., Jr., Sr. So.
West Virginia: Sr, So., So., So., Sr
Michigan State: Jr., Jr., Sr. So, Jr.
Total: Sr. 6, Jr. 6, So. 8
Connecticut: Jr., Fr. So., Fr. Fr. (no one and dones)
Butler: Jr., Sr., So., Sr., Fr. (no one and dones)
Kentucky: Fr, Fr. Fr, Jr., Jr. (one one-and-done)
VCU: Sr., Jr., Sr., Sr., Sr.
Total: Sr. 5, Jr. 5, So. 3, Fr. 7
Kentucky: Fr, So., Fr. So, Fr. (three one-and-dones)
Kansas: Jr., Sr, Jr., Jr. Jr.
Louisville: Sr., So, Sr., Fr, So (no one and dones)
Ohio State: So. So, Sr. So., So.
Total: Sr. 4, Jr. 4, So. 8, Fr. 4
Louisville: Jr., Sr., Jr., Jr., So.
Michigan: So, Jr., Fr, Fr., Fr (no one and dones)
Syracuse: Jr. Sr. So, Sr., So
Wichita State: Jr., Sr., Sr. Sr., Fr. (no one and ones)
Total: Sr. 6, Jr. 6, So. 4, Fr. 4
UConn Sr., Jr. Jr. Sr, Sr.
Kentucky Fr., Fr., Fr, Fr, So (2 one and dones)
Wisconsin Jr. Sr, So., Jr. Jr.
Florida Sr, So, Sr., Sr, So
Total: Sr. 7, Jr. 6, So. 3, Fr. 4
Duke Fr., Sr. Fr, Fr, Jr. (3 one and dones)
Wisconsin Sr., Jr., So., So. Sr
Kentucky: So, Fr, Fr, So. Jr (three one and dones)
Michigan St.: Sr., Sr., Jr. Jr. Jr.
Total: Sr. 5, Jr. 6. So. 4, Fr. 5
Villanova: Jr,. Jr., Sr., Sr., Fr.
North Carolina: Sr., So., So, Sr. Jr.
Oklahoma: Sr, Jr, Sr, Sr. So.
Syracuse: Sr., Fr., Sr., Fr. Jr (one one-and-done)
Total: Sr. 9, Jr. 5. So. 3, Fr. 3
North Carolina: Jr. Jr. Sr. Jr. Fr (one one-and-done)
Gonzaga: Jr. Sr. Jr, Jr. Fr (one one-and-done)
Oregon: Jr., So, Sr. Jr. Sr.
South Carolina Sr. So, Sr. So. Fr.
Total: Sr. 8, Jr. 6, So. 3, Fr. 3
Villanova Jr., Jr., So. Fr. Jr.
Michigan Jr. Jr. Sr. Sr. So.
Kansas Sr. Sr. So. So. Jr.
Loyola Jr. Jr. Sr. Sr. Fr.
Total: Sr. 6, Jr. 8, So. 4, Fr. 2
Virginia Jr., So, Jr. Jr. Jr.
Texas Tech So., So., Sr. Sr. Sr.
Michigan State Jr, Jr. So. Sr. Sr.
Auburn Sr, Jr, So, Jr. Jr.
Total: Sr. 6, Jr. 9, So. 5, Fr. 0