When Cameron Johnson left Pitt after three years for North Carolina, he set off a minor firestorm of controversy. But Johnson parlayed his two years as a graduate transfer for the Tar Heels into a lottery pick, and the 11th overall selection in this year’s NBA draft is now averaging 8.2 points in nearly 17 minutes a game for the Phoenix Suns.
Kiara Leslie left Maryland for North Carolina State after graduating in three years. She had missed a season for the Terrapins with an injury and had two seasons of eligibility remaining. Leslie was drafted 10th overall by the Washington Mystics this summer, and though she missed the Mystics’ season with a knee injury, she’s still a WNBA champion.
Johnson and Leslie are paradigms of the growing trend of athletes transferring as graduate students to keep their pro dreams alive. In 2013, 38 men and 13 women transferred as graduates. In 2018, those transfer numbers had skyrocketed to 121 men and 48 women — increases of 218 percent and 269 percent, respectively.
When athletes switch schools, they typically have to sit out a year before playing for their new team. But earlier this decade, following quarterback Russell Wilson’s high-profile transfer from North Carolina State to Wisconsin, the NCAA appeared to relax its rules for graduate transfers — those going straight from undergraduate studies into a master’s program — allowing athletes to play immediately, so long as they had completed their undergraduate degrees and had at least one year of NCAA eligibility remaining.
The rapid increase in the number of graduate transfers has led to intense scrutiny from schools whose programs have not benefited from the trend and from coaches who see it, in the words of Purdue men’s basketball coach Matt Painter, as “free agency.” The NCAA looked into curtailing the movement by proposing a rule change1 this past offseason that would have taken away a scholarship from the school gaining the graduate transfer if the student didn’t obtain his or her secondary degree within a year. This would have been a clear disincentive for schools to accept graduate transfers, since many graduate degrees take two years to complete. But the proposal was struck down earlier this year by the NCAA Division I Council.
For athletes, the transfer rule provides the flexibility of another year of eligibility in deciding when to go pro, as well as another year to sharpen their skills in front of pro scouts. Leslie recorded career highs in points, assists, rebounds and steals in her final year with the Wolfpack, while Johnson finished tied for ninth in box plus-minus last season in Division I.2
But coaches are decidedly split. Baylor women’s head coach Kim Mulkey is one coach who seems to have been won over. The rule “can devastate a program when you lose a graduate transfer that you spend all this time with,” she said during the NCAA Tournament last season. “But yet, there’s also those programs that reap those rewards on the other end. And we understand it could happen to us.” Led by Chloe Jackson, a fifth-year graduate transfer from LSU, the Lady Bears became NCAA champions two weeks later.
Of the teams in the men’s preseason AP Top 25, 11 schools added at least one graduate transfer to their roster for the upcoming season, while seven of the women’s preseason AP Top 25 added at least one graduate transfer.
Top teams bring in more grad transfers than they lose
Number of graduate transfers who in the 2019 offseason joined or left programs ranked in the preseason Associated Press Top 25
|Men’s Grad Transfers||Women’s Grad Transfers|
|12||Seton Hall||0||0||Florida State||0||0|
|17||Utah State||0||0||Michigan State||0||0|
|20||St. Mary’s||0||0||Arizona State||1||0|
Despite the number of top programs adding graduate transfers to their rosters, these students still represented just 3 percent of players in the men’s game and 1 percent in the women’s game in 2018. And though Johnson and Leslie heard their names called on draft day, they are relatively alone: Johnson was the only grad transfer drafted this year in the NBA, and Leslie was one of three taken in the WNBA. The trend may be for more students to take advantage of the grad transfer loophole, but if coaches are worried that students are just using it to jump to the pros, they likely shouldn’t be.