NCAA’s dominance in player development faces stiff challenge from NBA’s G League
It wasn’t that long ago when I wrote that the NCAA was a dinosaur, just waiting on its proverbial comet to come to earth and destroy it.
The comet is approaching.
One thing that this pandemic has created is opportunity to re-evaluate the way we live, work, and construct our institutions. Some things will be better. Some worse. Some will never return.
Earlier this week, 7-foot-2 four-star recruit Kai Sotto became the latest high schooler to sign with the NBA’s G League. He becomes the fourth highly-touted prospect to join the league’s select squad.
Another may be on the way. Chet Holmgren, a 7-footer from Minnesota is the number two ranked player in the nation. He’s being recruited by the likes of Kansas, Michigan, Memphis, North Carolina, Georgetown, and many other of the country’s bluest of blue blooded programs.
Though Memphis and Georgetown seem to be Holmgren’s preferred destinations, there is no doubt that G League President Shareef Abdur-Rahim has the big man in his sights.
Already, five-star recruits Jalen Green, Isaiah Todd, and Daishen Nix have made their commitments to spend a year preparing for the 2021 NBA Draft while earning real money. Reports are that Green will make at least $500K this season, and have access to educational opportunities and life skills programs coordinated by the G League.
Both Todd and Nix will earn at least $250,000 this season, and each player will have the strength of the NBA marketing machine behind them.
Playing for free and giving that old college try haven’t been practical for some time. Wilt Chamberlain had to leave Kansas after his junior year in order to earn money with the Harlem Globetrotters for a year before joining the NBA in 1958.
Eleven years later, Spencer Haywood challenged the system by attempting to go pro after his sophomore season at Detroit Mercy. He ended up fighting the NBA all the way to the Supreme Court; giving players the right to be drafted before their classes graduated.
In 1974, Moses Malone became the first player to go from high school to the pros and dominated from the outset, averaging 19 points and 15 rebounds as a 19 year-old.
Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas both left college after their sophomore seasons, with Johnson entering the league in 1979 and Thomas joining a year later.
As we moved through the 1980’s and early 1990’s, early entry candidates became the norm rather than the exception.
Then, in 1995, there was another seismic shift when Kevin Garnett became the first high schooler drafted since 1975.
That ushered in the era of more high school players going straight to the NBA. From 1995 to 2005, 39 of the best prospects in the country declined the opportunity to go to college. Players from different backgrounds, financial situations, and skill levels, all made the jump.
The motivation was simple. Elite athletes wanting to bank on their abilities and not take a risk of injury.
“When you’re projected to be a top-10, possibly top-five (pick), you don’t want to sacrifice (it by) going to college at that point, or going anywhere else, because you could get injured or anything else could happen,” said Jonathan Bender, who was picked fifth in the 1999 draft out of high school. “So you want to take that opportunity when it’s presented.”
Suddenly, that opportunity was taken away.
In 2005 the NBA reached an agreement that limited draft eligible players to those aged 19 and at least one year removed from high school. It is what we refer to now as the “one and done” era.
In the years since, momentum has been building to eliminate the artificial gap year that requires talented individuals to perform essentially as indentured servants while universities and the NCAA reap the benefits.
Since 2006, more than 100 players have entered the league with one year of college experience or less (international players and post graduate academy players included). In 2018, 9 of the first 11 players taken in the draft were freshman, while Luka Doncic had been a pro overseas since the age of 16.
Fast forward to last season when two of the top prospects for the 2020 draft, LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton, decided to go to Australia rather than attend college. Both made six figures and neither had their draft stock affected.
Add the NCAA’s long-standing fight against player’s controlling their likenesses and receiving compensation to the mix, and it’s easy to understand why the college basketball world is crumbling.
Current NBA players are taking notice, and offering support for the changing dynamics. Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum understands why more players would consider bypassing college. In an interview on Showtime’s All The Smoke with Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson, Tatum stated:
“It’s tough because knowing what I know now, I think I still might have went to Duke. But if you just rewind four years and I’m 18 coming out of high school from St. Louis and there’s $500,000, I’m going right to the G League, for sure.”
The NCAA took the small step of creating an avenue where players can earn money off of their images and endorsements, but that impacts a small number of players. Most won’t see a penny.
The quality of college basketball has deteriorated as the best players have looked at campus as a stopover. The integrity of college education has come into question with scandal after scandal involving boosters, bag men, useless classes, and low graduation rates.
The game no longer prepares players for professional careers. While the talent level has increased, the game has become less diverse in style of play to compensate for the lack of on-court knowledge that young players possess.
While it may be a trickle of high school athletes today, the storm is coming. If not the G League, then Australia. If not Australia, the Professional Collegiate League.
And the list is likely to get longer as more businesses see the void in the market waiting to be filled.
NCAA basketball isn’t dead yet, but the G League and others have their shovels ready to bury the sport when the opportunity arises.
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Sports 1280am host/CCS reporter
David Grubb has more than a decade of experience in the sports industry. He began his career with KLAX-TV in Alexandria, La. and followed that up with a stint as an reporter and anchor with WGGB-TV in Springfield, Mass. After spending a few years away from the industry, David worked as sports information director for Southern University at New Orleans…