UCLA Coach Ben Howland talks with freshman Shabazz Muhammad during a game… (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )
Seven months into his college basketball career, Shabazz Muhammad is glad he waited to turn pro.
The UCLA freshman has used his time in Westwood to improve on defense and make a few All-Star teams. He has learned a thing or two about living on his own.
"I'm giving it a thumbs-up," he said. "The college experience is good."
That doesn't mean it will last much longer. Muhammad is expected to leave school for the NBA draft this summer, joining the ranks of the "one-and-dones."
The NCAA tournament, beginning this week, features a number of freshman stars who could leave early. Ben McLemore of Kansas, Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State and Anthony Bennett of Nevada Las Vegas accompany Muhammad in the top 10 on various mock draft sites.
This dynamic — players turning professional after one season — has become commonplace in recent years. And it is altering the fabric of college basketball.
Traditional powerhouses have been more likely to lose young stars early, giving less prominent schools —widely referred to as "mid-majors" — a shot at winning with the type of players who stick around for three or four years. That's one reason why this year's tournament is expected to be as wide open and unpredictable as ever.
The flip side is that college coaches bemoan having to reload more often. They tell horror stories about players who ruined their careers by jumping to the NBA too soon.
But a surprising number of one-and-dones have succeeded as pros over the last seven years, and interviews with more than a dozen of these players indicate they like the current situation.
Last summer's No. 1 pick was Anthony Davis, who as a freshman was the national player of the year and focal point of Kentucky's championship team. For all of his prodigious size and talent, Davis said one year was a suitable amount of time to spend in college.
"I don't think I was ready to go to the league out of high school," the New Orleans Hornets forward said. "I wasn't strong enough. I wasn't fast enough."
It was 2006 when the NBA set a new minimum-age limit, requiring draftees to be at least 19 and one year removed from high school. Barred from jumping straight to the pros — like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwight Howard — some prep stars began to view the NCAA as a brief stopover.
Commissioner David Stern has since stated his preference for a higher age limit, but until the NBA and the players' union can agree on new language for the collective bargaining agreement, the rule will stand. And the recent trend is likely to continue.
From 2006 through 2012, 58 players entered the draft after one college season. About 41% were selected in the top 10 and an additional 34% went later in the first round.
The success stories include Kevin Durant, who led Texas to the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2007; Kevin Love, who took UCLA to the Final Four in 2008; and Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans, who carried Memphis deep into the tournament in 2008 and 2009, respectively.
DeMar DeRozan believes he matured at USC in ways that are harder to measure. The fourth-year Toronto Raptors guard, who guided the Trojans to a regional semifinal in 2009, credits his former coach, Tim Floyd, for giving him tough love.
"He would remind me and tell me, 'You're not ready for the league if you're still doing this or doing that,'" DeRozan said. "A lot of it was mental, understanding how hard you have to work to be a professional basketball player."
College can also help players acclimate to life away from home. They must do their own laundry and get to class on time. There is no one to clean their dorm rooms or make sure they eat right.
"If you are hungry, you have to go get food or make it," New Orleans rookie Austin Rivers said of his season at Duke. "You have to learn to parent yourself like on game nights or [if you've] got an early practice. Do you go to a college party or not? That's the first time you're faced with all these realities."
Lost in all this talk of NBA readiness are more traditional notions of getting an education and earning a degree. These things get overshadowed by the money that can be earned in professional basketball.
UCLA Coach Ben Howland, who dislikes the current age limit, understands that some players come from poverty and want to earn money for themselves and their families. He believes that part of the reason for college is to prepare young adults for a career and "if they can make a few million dollars, we're doing what we're supposed to do."
But one-and-done isn't for everyone, not even the highly talented.
Statistics show that, in the first seven years of the NBA's minimum age requirement, 17% of one-and-dones went undrafted or fell quickly out of the league. That group includes the injury-plagued Greg Oden and former Lakers first-round pick Javaris Crittenton, who has had numerous brushes with the law.