College isn’t the best option for every elite basketball player. Neither is the G-League. I’ve been around both and they are vastly different in intent and function.
The beauty of what the NBA announced Thursday - that its G-League will offer one-season, $125,000 contracts to elite players coming out of high school - is it provides an alternative. If those players want the college experience, great. If they instead want to go to work, making a good wage while playing in a minor-league system, that’s now a more practical option.
This is an intermediate step. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has repeatedly said the league is receptive to returning to when players were allowed to enter the draft straight out of high school. But that is a slower process that involves amending the collective bargaining agreement. This change - which will apply to the 2019-20 season - is a bridge.
Do I think the next class of Anthony Davises and Marvin Bagleys will all skip college ball? No. I think some will be attracted to the college atmosphere, even if it’s for just six months, the chance to play for coaches like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski or a Kentucky’s John Calipari, and the spectacle of the NCAA tournament.
The G-League isn’t currently ideal as an alternative. Playing there entails a lot of connecting flights to games in half-empty gyms, competing against a random mix of talent and ages. But the G-League will provide an above-the-table wage, coaches specifically tasked with teaching NBA-style offensive and defensive tactics, and no requirement to get up early to make an 8 a.m. Geology class.
True minor-league systems have worked fine for decades in baseball and hockey. Golf and tennis have their own variations, with developmental tours. The United States is the only country where the developmental levels of major spectator sports are so wedded to college campuses. It works that way here because that’s how it’s always been, not because it’s optimum for players or their development.
I know this change is good for the kids, if only because it provides a choice that doesn’t involve having to play overseas. Here’s why, in the long run, I think it will be good for both the NBA and college basketball:
Basketball has been fragmented far too long. Only recently has there been a concerted effort by all the stakeholders - professional, international and college - to come together and pursue global solutions and standardized practices. A simple example: Former Charlotte Bobcats coach Larry Brown used to call it ludicrous all the basketball entities can’t even come up with something approaching one set of rules, whether it be the about 3-point arcs or shot clocks.
Every level of basketball suffers from that fragmentation, but I think the NBA most because it is at the top of this food chain. I understand why then-NBA Commissioner David Stern used to say he found it unseemly to have the league’s scouts in far-flung high school gyms. But the reaction when the so-called “one-and-done” rule was enacted wasn’t good, either: It was a passive approach to development and oversight where players often showed up for their draft nights with big holes in their basketball skills and insufficient socialization.
Having young players under a G-League umbrella could be the first step to not just talking about “growing the game,” but actually shepherding the sport’s prodigies. A local example: I remember asking then-Hornets assistant coach Mark Price years ago about trying to fix Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s jump shot. Rather than promote what he was doing, Price expressed frustration that a player of Kidd-Gilchrist’s high profile (he was drafted second overall) never received the right help to get such a glaring flaw fixed before he reached the NBA.
That’s an indictment of the whole system, and a signal to try something new.
I remember years ago hearing the expression, “Rooting for the laundry.” The idea behind the term was that programs like Alabama football or North Carolina basketball are such national brands that their popularity won’t be dented by a down recruiting cycle.
At first, I questioned that. But I’ve come to believe that regardless of the macro - even if no sure lottery picks choose to play college basketball - the same fans who adore Kentucky, Duke, Arizona and North Carolina will keep attending home games and driving television ratings. The NCAA tournament won’t plummet in popularity if the next R.J. Barrett is playing in the G-League instead of Durham or Lexington.
Also, the top programs will continue being the top programs. They will still, by-and-large, get the best available players, those will just be lesser talents. This is all relative, after all. College basketball didn’t crumble over Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and LeBron James not having participated.
And maybe more of who do choose the college game will stay longer, improving continuity.
This could actually serve as an opportunity to rein in college basketball. Former sneaker company executives and an aspiring agent were on trial in New York City this week for their alleged role in funneling under-the-table money to recruits’ families. Getting one-and-done players out of college basketball won’t end corruption, but it could lessen the incentives to manipulate the system.
I’ve heard Calipari repeatedly say he wants elite players to have the option to turn pro out of high school. I’ve also heard him say he and the Wildcats will be fine whatever the landscape.
I agree. Change is overdue. Thursday, while far from enough, set the right course.