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Pro Leagues Comin’

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High School Basketball: McDonalds High School All American Games Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

In last year’s season preview, I wrote a chapter talking about how the G League is changing the math on who decides to declare for the draft. This year, we saw the first major D-I recruit opt to skip college and enter the G League in Darius Bazley. Originally a Syracuse commit, the McDonald’s All-American & 5-star forward decided it was a better use of his time to start earning money playing pro ball than to spend a year at Syracuse ostensibly playing for free. Bazley is definitely the first 5-star recruit to go this route - though it appears he’s now skipping the G League and practicing on his own in preparation for the 2019 NBA draft - but he may not be the last. Well, he could be, as the NBA is signaling that the days of the one & done are coming to an end, perhaps as soon as the 2021 season. A player of Bazley’s stature could skip college and the G League altogether in the next few years, going straight into the NBA Draft out of high school. You may not like this change and there are valid criticisms of the change, but it’s imperative for college basketball fans to understand this change is inevitable. The one and done players will cease to exist sooner than later.

This seems like a good time to revisit the math at play here, so let’s start with the NBA Draft math. While the deals are still slanted towards the top five picks, there is no longer an enormous income gap between first and second-round picks due to the NBA rookie pay scale; consider that Landry Shamet (picked 26th by Philly) signed a 4-year deal worth approximately $9.5 million. The first two years of Shamet’s contract are guaranteed, the last two years are club options. Jalen Brunson was picked in the second round (33rd) by the Dallas Mavericks for four years and $6.1 million with the first three years guaranteed. While Shamet is in line to make $3.4 million more if both players have their options picked up, Shamet only has $3.7 million in guaranteed money compared to $4.3 million in guaranteed money to Brunson. These deals are not as far apart as they would have been 5-10 years ago, as the first half of the second round is more likely than ever to get guaranteed deals just as Brunson did. In fact, players as far down as the 56th pick got at least one year guaranteed in their contracts this year. The few players below Ray Spalding were mostly signed to the two-way deals we discussed last year, which can net a player up to $385,000 in their first year. That’s not the vow of poverty most minor-league baseball players take, it’s a viable profession with a chance to showcase their skills in front of the people who talk to NBA front offices most: G League coaching staffs. This exposure matters, as over 40% of NBA rosters in the 2017 season had spent time in the G League. The intermingling of the two leagues intensifies each passing year, and as more high school & college players see successful call-ups the more they’re willing to consider shortening (or skipping) their college tenures to play pro basketball for a living. It may only be a trickle now, but there’s a good chance losing quality D-I players to the G League turns into a steady stream. Programs will have to adjust to this new reality.

There’s another aspect here, which seems interesting and could be another potential talent usurper: the NBL. You may vaguely remember the NBL, it’s the Australian pro league the Texas Longhorns played preseason games against in the summer of 2017. It’s not a place you might think about much as it relates to the NCAA talent pool, but they’re aiming to change that. Sam Vecenie had a really interesting piece on The Athletic about Brian Bowen, who you may remember as the Louisville commit who was at the center of the FBI probe into the Louisville Cardinals. He’s now playing in Australia under the NBL’s ‘Next Stars’ program, which is aimed squarely at the sort of player who is on the fringes of NBA ability but who wants to get paid for their time while they prep for the NBA draft rather than play as an ‘amateur’ in the US. They set aside a roster spot on each team in the NBL and structure contracts for these players with an easy out if they get drafted by the NBA. It’s an interesting play; the NBL is acknowledging they are a stepping stone to the NBA and are trying to create the most productive path to the NBA they can. They had success using a prototype of this deal in 2016 with Terrance Ferguson, who played for the Adelaide 36ers for a year before being selected in the first round of the NBA draft the following year. Whether they can lure more players to Australia over the colleges remains to be seen, but it does seem like they’re trying to make the experience as pleasant & productive for the players as possible. Contrast that to the NCAA’s approach, which spent the last year reading the headlines and decided that the status quo was good enough.

‘But what about the college experience?’ someone definitely said while reading this. If we’re talking about academics, the G League has a system in place where players can work towards an undergraduate or graduate degree through Arizona State up to five years after they retire from the league. A player can skip college, go to the G League, and still end up with a degree. Somebody should alert the NCAA that it’s possible to pay a basketball player AND give them the ability to earn a degree. It will boggle their minds.

So what’s left? The main part would be the “college experience” of partying and potentially being treated like a rock star on campus, which is arguably the main draw for high school athletes to pick college. A Fort Wayne Mad Ants point guard is not going to get the sort of treatment he would at Kansas or North Carolina, sure. If that’s important to the player, then college probably still has the upper hand. Another aspect would be the travel; a player who really wants their family to be able to go to his games might stick to D-I if there are no G League affiliates nearby. With the increasing availability in streaming games - G League and most European leagues stream games through Facebook Live or similar - that may not matter quite as much as it did 15 years ago.

It’s worth putting context on the players we’re discussing here, because the majority of D-I basketball players are not likely to fall into the relevant category of potential G League/NBL/early NBA draftee. There are 351 D-I teams and 13 scholarship players per team, so out of the 4,563 basketball players in D-I every year this discussion really only applies to a fairly small slice at the top. There were 77 early entrants to the NBA Draft in 2018, they are the lion’s share of the players we’re talking about. There are up to 50 more players in a given year (probably less) who are at least considering jumping ship to an increasingly viable G League/NBL/European league. It’s not a huge chunk of D-I...but the Venn Diagram overlap with the talent a program like Texas tends to attract is large. This is an issue that can disproportionately impact the top 30-40 programs in D-I; even without the G League involved Texas has had its fair share of players (J’Covan Brown, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, CJ Miles, etc.) leap to the pros early. This is why I’m bringing the subject up for a second year in a row, it impacts a program like Texas more than most and Longhorns fans need to be aware of the shifting dynamics in the pro basketball marketplace. I can assure you the coaching staff is watching which way the NBA wind is blowing because they will have to adjust their recruiting to match. Other leagues are continuing to optimize their approach to encroach upon the D-I talent base; and while the success has been minimal for many years, the dam is starting to leak. It’s entirely possible 5-10 years from now the likes of Andrew Jones or Jordan Hamilton never set foot on a college campus because the benefits another league offers are productive enough for them to skip the 40 Acres entirely, and the NCAA will have nobody to blame but themselves. Take heed, Texas fans.

UPDATE: One day after posting this, the NBA announced they’re creating an alternative path for 1 & dones that will pay $125k for the year. This could be the intermediate step before ending the 1 & done rule, or it could be a compromise that targets the top high school seniors without ending the 1 & done rule. Either way, it’s a significant upgrade in competition for the NCAA.