The Start of the G-League Generation?
On April 16, 2020's top college basketball recruit Jalen Green announced where he intended to take his talents. His talents are so undeniably off-the-charts that ESPN draft expert Jonathan Givony said he would be the top pick in this year's stacked draft class, despite only being a high school senior. Among his top choices were basketball powerhouses such as Auburn, Memphis, Kentucky, Oregon and California. So which team did he decide to play for in the 2020-21 season? California. Well, a new Los Angeles-based G-League team in California to be exact.
Traditionally, when we've said a top prospect is going straight to "the league," it's naturally meant the big leagues: the NBA. You know, your Moses Malones, Kobe Bryants, Kevin Garnetts, LeBron Jameses and, of course, your Kwame Browns (we won't talk too much about that blip on the radar, though). Ever since the eligibility rules were altered in the mid-2000s, players are ineligible if they aren't yet 19 years old, so we haven't seen too many guys coming straight out of high school anymore, and those we have seen haven't exactly been the most memorable. Not to say they couldn't have been:
Anfernee Simons was the 24th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, and had come straight out of a postgraduate year at IMG Academy. After the whole Louisville sex scandal, the five-star recruit didn't have much for college options, so he declared for the draft and has averaged a whopping 7.6 PPG in his 85 NBA games. Darius Bazley, on the other hand, initially committed to Syracuse, but soon rescinded that decision in favor of taking a glorified gap year to "train for the draft," as if playing for an elite collegiate team wouldn't be training enough. After being drafted 23rd overall in the 2019 draft, he's rode OKC's bench and posted 4.5 PPG and 3.7 RPG in an underwhelming rookie season.
Mitchell Robinson took a similar route to Bazley's but saw a tiny bit more success. And by tiny bit, I mean he's recorded a career 8.5 PPG, 7 RPG, and an astounding 2.2 BPG. He had initially committed to Western Kentucky after a McDonald's All-American berth in 2017, but after a couple weeks of training with the team, he violated NCAA rules and was suspended from the team for the season. He was, however, given permission to transfer, but would still have to sit out the year, so his decision was made clear: he threw college aside and began his year of "training for the draft," and really set that precedent for Simons and Bazley. Only difference is Robinson is already a franchise anchor two years in, albeit being an anchor for the James Dolan's sinking ship.
Never fear, there have been many options for those who wish to go against the grain and avoid the college route! The question is, how did the league develop to a point where it has a subdivision serving as a realistic competitor to the college route? Well, much like the infamous legacy of 2007 lottery pick Yi Jianlian, it started in China.
Well, that is to say the recent movement started in China. For the past decade, there's been seemingly no alternative to college for players graduating American high schools. Then, in 2014, a ray of hope shone upon the hopes of dissenters. Emmanuel Mudiay was ESPN's fifth ranked prospect in the nation, and despite receiving offers from basketball giants Kentucky and Kansas, he decided to play a year overseas for financial support. "Financial support" might be a little bit of an understatement, though, since the Guangdong Tigers of China awarded him a whopping $1.2 million contract. To put that into perspective, that's more than twice the NBA minimum contract from that year and more than ten times the scholarship money he could've earned. He ultimately was drafted 7th overall in 2015, and has carved out a role as a journeyman in the league after an All-Rookie Second Team berth.
This is eerily similar to ESPN's number one prospect of 2008, Brandon Jennings. After committing and decommitting to both USC and Arizona, he ended up signing a three year contract worth upwards of $1.5 million with Italian team Lottomatica Roma. After playing overseas for a year, he was drafted 10th overall in the 2009 NBA Draft, made the All-Rookie First Team, and has now become an come-and-go journeyman of ten years. Scarily similar? Maybe. Indicative of a trend? Very likely! Emmanuel Mudiay took the groundwork Jennings had laid and expanded upon it. But the popularization of the overseas alternative didn't end in 2014.
Just two years later ESPN's 11th best prospect of 2016, Terrance Ferguson, took his talents to the league down under. After a messy string of commitments to (or lack thereof) Alabama and Arizona, he sprang on the offer to join the Adelaide 36ers of the NBL. He averaged under 5 points, 2 rebounds, and 1 assist per game, despite a solid 15 minutes played per game. Despite this measly production, he was still picked in the late first round of the 2017 draft by OKC and has really only amounted to a garbage time roleplayer so far.
Why was he drafted so high despite his lackluster showing overseas? Many herald the NBL for its physical style of play, (to be fair though, according to Luka Doncic, any overseas basketball is tougher than the NBA) along with NBA veterans and future NBA players that play in it. Australia actually had begun to seem like the new trend because, as we've all heard time and time again, basketball is a copycat sport.
In May, 2019, ESPN's fifth ranked prospect RJ Hampton elected to forgo the NCAA and follow in Ferguson's footsteps joining the New Zealand Breakers of the NBL, despite receiving offers from Kentucky, Duke, and Kansas. A couple months later, the next enigma from basketball's (least?) favorite family followed suit. Despite verbally committing to UCLA at age 13, Ball's NCAA eligibility was called into question when he released his own signature shoe with the notorious Big Baller Brand. His dad brashly said LaMelo didn't need college and effectively burnt that bridge, (surprise, surprise!) so Melo ended up joining the Illawarra Hawks.
Ball was heralded as a star in the league and is now considered one of the top contenders for the first spot in this year's draft after putting up 17/7.6/6.8 averages in 12 games before being sidelined with injury. Hampton, on the other hand, didn't adjust as well to how they did it down under, although he also struggled with injuries throughout the season, so he's still in ESPN's top 10 for the upcoming draft. Considering the draft success and the level of competition from these high school-turned NBL studs, you might think many prospects would begin taking the NBL route, or at least go overseas in general, right? Well, I hate to inform you that you'd be thinking wrong because COVID-19 completely reshaped the international landscape in and beyond basketball.
Now, don't get me wrong, the efforts of the G-League, led by President Shareef Abdur-Rahim, are nowhere near chopped liver. But the fact is, the impact the pandemic has had upon global affairs will make playing overseas for a year before the NBA Draft too risky of an investment for many American high schoolers. Don't believe me? The proof is in the pudding: Jalen Green, Isaiah Todd, and Daishen Nix have all now committed to joining the G-League's new "select team," which will play out of Los Angeles. To rephrase, the nation's top player, a top-three power forward, and a top-three point guard have now forgone college to unite in the G-League.
While Green and Todd announced on their official commitment days that they would enter the G-League through its professional pathways program, Daishen Nix decommitted from UCLA to follow suit. The professional pathways program was initially announced in 2018 to award $125 thousand contracts, but Green is reportedly making $500 thousand without endorsements, with Nix close behind at $300 thousand. To sum it up: this program gives players comparable financial stability to playing in the NBL, the convenience of playing at or close(r) to home, and allows them to make money off their names and likenesses, meaning we could see Gatorade or Nike or State Farm signing these guys before they've even been drafted. Oh, and did I mention that Jalen Green is reportedly having his college tuition covered in the future now as part of his deal.
It's genius from both a player's perspective and the league's perspective. The player gets to sign endorsements and make a substantial salary, all while staying close to home, and doesn't have to get caught up with any of the NCAA logistics, but still gets to go to college so they're educated after their career is over! The league, on the other hand, gets to keep its American players homegrown, thwarting overseas leagues and the NCAA alike, all while legitimizing the level of competition at the G-League level. I know what you're thinking, "but I thought the NBA was trying to make its basketball and its brand become a global entity!" While this is true, it's a one-way street to an extent in that the NBA wants talent coming in to the league and country, not leaving. Your move, NCAA.
Well, actually, the NCAA made their move just a day after Nix's decommitment. After months of lobbying and poring over it, it took three top prospects joining the G-League for the NCAA to pass a bill that allows players to profit off their names and likenesses. They clearly recognized the long-term threat that a domestic, high-paying rival posed to them, so they acted swiftly.
The fact is, the universities aren't going to be paying the players any contracts, per se, and the money they do make probably won't hold a candle to the G-League salaries. Factor in the concept of the NBA covering these guys' tuitions, and I'm not sure if it will be enough. That being said, their is a certain novelty to playing in college with the stingy defense, roaring die-hard student sections, and tutelage of legendary coaches. Take that all into account, plus the bleak hopes for a return to the global pursuit of high schoolers pre-pandemic, and we have a wide-open, unpredictable playing field. Will the NBA be able to expand the G-League to have an entire select division of high school graduates, or will the NCAA's efforts be enough to retain their talent levels?
Only time will tell, but I sure as hell can't wait to see these prospects competing against pros domestically.
Recruiting and Rankings: