Thursday was a night of big smiles and the promise of big paychecks to come for college stars like Duke’s Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett and Murray State’s Ja Morant.

Those were the top three picks in the 2019 NBA draft, and they’ll have every opportunity to succeed.

But it will be a much different story for the 45 players who left college eligibility on the table to declare for the draft that weren’t picked in the two rounds.

Most of those players will likely bounce around the G League for a while, maybe play abroad, and probably never finish their degrees. That’s sad because an opportunity to earn a degree on an athletic scholarship is still a great thing, no matter how many stories you read of the NCAA exploiting players to earn millions.

Not only do the players lose, so does college basketball.

Kansas junior forward Dedric Lawson, who led the Big 12 in scoring and rebounding in 2018-19, would be a candidate for NCAA player of the year if he had returned for his senior year.

Iowa State guard Lindell Wigginton, the Big 12’s sixth man of the year, would have been an All-America candidate if he had returned for his junior year.

Minnesota forward Amir Coffey would have been a contender for Big Ten player of the year in 2019-20 if he had returned for his senior year after averaging 16.6 points as a junior.

Syracuse guard Tyus Battle would have been a candidate for ACC player of the year as a senior after averaging 17.2 points as a junior.

At least juniors who declare for the draft have a reasonable chance to finish their degrees, but that’s a much shakier proposition for freshmen and sophomores.

With NBA rosters limited to 15 players, landing one of those coveted jobs is tough, even for the 30 first-round draft picks. Some of them end up in the G League to gain some experience before getting another crack at making the big leagues. Others will never make it.

Since 2006, the NBA has ruled that players must be at least 19 years old to play in the league, which set in motion the one-and-done college player and eliminated high school players from coming out for the draft.

But the ruling has had a Pandora’s Box effect on both the NBA and college basketball. Many of the one-and-done college players are not experienced and physical enough to compete in the pros. Zion Williamson is an exception, a once in a generation player. But most of this year’s draft choices will be on the fence whether they can sustain a long NBA career.

I remember talking to an NBA scout about 10 years ago who said it’s nearly impossible to project how good some of these players who turned pro with a year or two of college experience will be in a few years. He was right because lot of them have been busts.

College basketball fans have seen great talents like Williamson, Arizona’s Deandre Ayton and Washington’s Markelle Fultz play for one season. But imagine how fun it would have been to watch that trio – the No. 1 picks in the last three NBA drafts – develop their skills at the college level for a few more years.

The NBA has reportedly submitted to the National Basketball Players Association a formal proposal to lower the draft age to 18 by the 2022 draft.

But that will lead to even more unprepared players going pro before they’re ready. For every LeBron James, who signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers directly out of Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in 2003, there will be dozens of high school players with big dreams but not enough talent and perseverance to enjoy a successful NBA career.

More than ever, kids tend to get inflated opinions of themselves from agents, AAU coaches, and parents who live vicariously through their children. Once they try to play against grown men in the NBA, reality usually hits them fast like LeBron bearing down on them for a slam dunk.

The NBA should implement a rule like Major League Baseball in which players at four-year colleges must complete their junior or senior year or be 21 years old to be eligible for the draft once they enter college.

Both the NBA and college basketball would win. They would get more experienced players who would enhance the quality of play at both levels.

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