LEXINGTON, Ky. — This clearly was not high school anymore.
Five-star point guard Ashton Hagans stepped off the train to a crowd of more than 1,000 fans who had lined up to catch a glimpse of the newest Kentucky basketball team at a tour stop Sunday in Midway. One word described the scene for a player who might otherwise have spent the weekend practicing with his high school teammates in Georgia.
“Wow,” Hagans said as he looked at the line.
Just weeks earlier he had completed the academic work needed to graduate a year earlier than originally planned and enroll at UK.
Days before, five-star forward Charles Bassey, who starred at Louisville’s Aspire Academy, announced a similar move to reclassify and enroll at Western Kentucky.
Hagans and Bassey are the latest in a growing group of high-level basketball recruits choosing to reclassify in order to start their college careers a year early and often gain eligibility for the NBA draft after just one season.
Most of those players are actually moving back to the class in which they began their academic careers. Some had to or chose to repeat a year, and some enrolled in a high school or prep school that allowed a fifth, or post-graduate, year. Others come from international academic systems operating on a different time scale than the traditional American high school model.
But is the quest to reach professional basketball as early as possible compromising prospects’ normal maturation and academic work?
In its suggestions to the NCAA, the Condoleezza Rice-led Commission on College Basketball said it fears changes in the one-and-done rule might lead the reclassification trend to accelerate faster, bringing even younger players to college basketball.
Some college coaches who have boosted their rosters with reclassifying prospects, like Kentucky’s John Calipari, dismiss those concerns due to the demands of the college and professional games.
“You have to be academically ahead (to reclassify),” Calipari said. “Now there’s been a couple, ‘How did that happen?’ But it’s very few. They’re kids that are ahead academically. But the second thing is, if you’re not mentally mature enough or physically ready why would you reclassify?”
Future NBA players Andre Drummond (Connecticut), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Noah Vonleh (Indiana) and Wayne Selden Jr. (Kansas) are just a few of the high-level prospects who reclassified to play college a year earlier than initially expected.
Prior to Hagans and Bassey, Duke five-star signees R.J. Barrett and Joey Baker had already made the move from the 2019 class to 2018. A year ago, Duke forward Marvin Bagley followed that same route to play for the Blue Devils.
Calipari’s Kentucky teams have frequently benefited from reclassifications as well.
Nerlens Noel, Dakari Johnson, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jamal Murray and Isaac Humphries all reclassified before attending UK. Two other former Wildcats in the Calipari era — Tai Wynyard and Hamidou Diallo — graduated early to enroll at UK for the spring semester and practice with the team before making debuts the next season.
“I think how this happens is different in every case,” said 247Sports national recruiting director Evan Daniels. “Some of the kids are taking summer school classes to complete the necessary classes. Some are taking online courses. I think it just varies per situation.”
The possible benefits of such a move are clear.
The NBA’s current draft rules require American high school prospects to be one year removed from their graduation and to turn 19 at some point in the calendar year of a given draft to be eligible.
Drummond, Wiggins, Vonleh, Bagley, Noel, Towns and Murray were all selected in the first 10 picks of the NBA draft after just one season in college when they otherwise would have faced another year without being paid to play basketball had they stayed in high school. Wiggins and Towns were both No. 1 picks, and Bagley was selected with the second pick in the 2018 draft last week.
But why then wouldn’t every high-level high school prospect follow the same path?
“Not every kid is just ready to go to college,” Daniels said. “I think it depends on what you’re looking for. Honestly, it’s similar to how it gets done in a sense that every kid’s situation is different. And their body types and physical development factor in here, and also their emotional development. Are they ready to go to college now or not?”
How it works
Players looking to reclassify must satisfy the same academic requirements as any prospect hoping to gain eligibility on a traditional high school schedule.
The NCAA requires prospects to have graduated from high school while completing 16 core courses to be eligible to play immediately in college. Those courses include:
- Four years of English
- Three years of math, Algebra I or higher
- Two years of natural/physical science
- One additional year of English, math or natural/physical science
- Two years of social science
- Four additional years of English, math, natural/physical science, social science, foreign language and comparative religion or philosophy
Ten of those core courses, including seven in English, math or science must be completed before a prospect’s seventh semester of high school.
Students must earn at least a 2.3 GPA in core courses to be eligible to compete immediately plus an SAT or ACT score that meets a certain threshold on a sliding scale based on the core course GPA. The higher the GPA, the lower the test score needed to qualify.
Reclassification is not limited to basketball either. Most high-major football programs now include at least a few players in each signing class who graduate a semester early in order to enroll and participate in spring practice before their first season on campus. UK’s most recent spring roster included two mid-year 2018 enrollees. Louisville’s included five.
A variety of factors can make meeting the requirements for early graduation easier or harder for a prospect, including the player’s original class, when the decision to reclassify is made, previous academic work and age.
Noel and Diallo each moved down a class earlier in his high school career then reclassified back to his original graduating class before signing with Kentucky.
Towns announced his intention to move from the 2015 to the 2014 class when he committed to Kentucky in December 2012, almost two full years before he actually enrolled in college.
Johnson’s high school allowed him to reclassify since he was just a credit removed from being able to graduate after the end of what would have been his junior year and could easily obtain that credit in summer school.
Bassey, who WKU coach Rick Stansbury said in a news release earned a 3.9 high school GPA, and Hagans, who will turn 19 in July, fit many common traits among reclassifying prospects.
“When I found out how badly (Hagans) wanted this and had a chance to see him play, I told our staff what a great fit he would be whether he chose to come to school this season or next,” Calipari said in the news release announcing Hagans’ signing. “Ashton wanted this so much that he worked extremely hard in the classroom these last few months to finish up his high school requirements and graduate.”
Of the Kentucky players to reclassify, only Humphries, who moved from Australia to the United States during high school, was too young to be eligible for the NBA draft after one full season in college.
Noel, Towns, Murray and Diallo all turned 18 by the summer before they started college and Johnson turned 18 during the first month of his freshman year at UK, making them the same age as most of their classmates and lessening any concerns about not being mature enough to start college.
“I think that’s where there’s confusion,” Daniels said. “Obviously, there’s cases where guys are ready to leave school early and stuff like that, but the most typical scenario is they’re going back to their original class and/or they’re Canadian.”
Reclassification has been a recurring theme throughout the latest recruiting cycle for the 2019 class, even before announcements from Hagans and Bassey.
Bassey is not even the first 2019 prospect to move to WKU’s 2018 class. Four-star Canadian guard Dalano Banton had already made the move in November.
Barrett’s decision to reclassify from 2019 to 2018 came last July. Baker announced he was making the move in May.
Five-star forward James Wiseman, Kentucky’s top recruiting target and the player now ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the 2019 class by 247Sports’ composite rankings, has been faced with frequent rumors about possibly reclassifying to 2018 but finally seems to have shut down that storyline with repeated denials. Five-star forward Vernon Carey, the No. 1 2019 recruit in Rivals’ rankings, also shot down the possibility of a move to the 2018 class when asked at an AAU event in Indianapolis in April, saying he wanted another year to develop.
Five-star point guard Tyrese Maxey, one of UK’s two commitments in the 2019 class, publicly flirted with the idea of reclassifying to 2018 before ultimately deciding to wait another year to enroll in college.
“For me, it came down to me just wanting to be a kid for my last year of high school,” Maxey wrote in a USA Today blog. “I just wanted to be around all of my friends and all of my family one last year and I don’t want to pass that up. My dream is to be a McDonald’s All American too, so I’m just gonna take this year and work hard and do everything possible to make that dream a reality.”
Why were so many 2019 prospects considering reclassifying or at least rumored to be doing so?
Recruiting and NBA draft analysts, including ESPN’s Jonathan Givony and Rivals’ Eric Bossi, have cast doubts about the talent level in the 2018 class, perhaps leading college coaches to look to 2019 for more help.
“I think the 2019 class is pretty loaded,” Maxey said in April. “I think we have a lot of talented players who can go up to the next class and be ready to make an impact on a collegiate level right away.”
But the academic work needed to reclassify and the desire of prospects like Carey to physically and emotionally mature for another year has led the actual number of 2019 prospects reclassifying to be far less than once rumored.
“In terms of rumors, I think once a couple people do it, people just latch onto it and run with it,” Daniels said.
The 2019 prospects are almost certain to play under the current NBA draft rules regardless of whether they enroll at a college in 2018 or 2019, but future classes could once again be allowed to declare for the draft straight from high school.
“That’s the ultimate goal, so of course you’ve got to factor that in,” Maxey said.
Diallo’s reclassification decision might offer an early glimpse of some of those future draft implications.
As a fifth-year postgraduate student, he could have stayed at Putnam Science Academy and gone straight to the 2016 draft. Instead, he enrolled at UK for the spring semester and practiced with the team without playing in games.
He still tested the draft waters in 2017 but ultimately decided to return to school for an actual season of playing games.
Five-star recruit Anfernee Simons found himself in a similar situation after decommitting from Louisville in the wake of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. Like Diallo, Simons was playing a post-graduate season, but unlike Diallo, he elected to go straight to the draft instead of finding a replacement college for Louisville.
“Everybody is put in a different situation,” Diallo said of Simons’ decision. “I’m just happy I was put in a situation where I could make an either/or decision, go back to school or come out. I feel like I made the right decision, and (if) I have to do it again, I’m doing the same thing.
“… Coming out, some guys are just not into college as much. Some want to go on and be a pro. ‘It’s been his dream ever since he was young. He sees himself as one of the best players in the draft.’ … Maybe it becomes a trend, maybe it doesn’t, but for a guy to be chasing his dream, I can’t be nothing but happy for him.”
Among the recommendations made by the Commission on College Basketball to fix a recruiting scandal that has plagued the sport during the past year was the elimination of the NBA’s one-and-done rule, allowing prospects to enter the draft out of high school again.
But the commission also voiced concerns that the rule change and the reclassification trend could combine for an unintended consequence: “Creating a new generation of 17-year-old one-and-done players.”
Calipari and Daniels both dismissed those concerns when asked about the commission’s report.
Eliminating the one-and-done rule might make it more likely prospects like Hagans and Bassey would stay in high school another year with the option of immediate entry in the draft on the table. Or the ability to spend a year training against better competition in college like Diallo did might continue to make reclassifying an attractive option.
But under the current rules, the effect of reclassification fever will likely be clear next season.
UK’s Hagans and WKU’s Bassey are expected to be immediate impact players, said Daniels, who called Bassey “instantly the most talented player” in Conference USA and Hagans a “two-way player” who is already physically ready to play in college.
The returns from reclassifying can be high for players and colleges, but the pool of players for whom reclassification is a realistic option remains fairly low.
“Your body will tell you, and then your family should know your mind,” Calipari said. “You’re setting somebody up for failure if you’re mentally not ready to go into that man’s world. … Are you ready to be professional? And if you’re not, get yourself ready so you can make it.”