Everyone hates the NCAA. It’s like a rite of passage. You hate the NCAA before you even know what college is.
Just months ago it looked like the NCAA was on the verge of collapsing when California made the decision to allow student-athletes to make money off their name, image and likeness. But alas, that matter has blown in the wind.
Now there’s a new debate: Will this apparent new wave of 5-star recruits fleeing to the NBA’s G League mark the beginning of the end for college basketball?
It’s Not Just the Simple Argument
This isn’t about the undersized, unathletic seniors who grind in college for four, sometimes five years to transform themselves into NBA-caliber talent. This isn’t about the Devonte Grahams and the Malcolm Brogdons of the world. This isn’t about them.
We already know the value college has for those hard-working types who beat the odds, but that’s not what’s going to save the NCAA from the wrath of the G League.
Sure, the draft stock of guys like R.J. Barrett and Deandre Ayton wouldn’t dip much even if they sat on their couch for a whole year, but how many of those guys exist?
The truth is, after the few blue-chippers at the top of the draft, most guys have to prove themselves. That doesn’t entail some crazy, Joe Burrow-esque leap from senior year of high school to freshman year of college.
Let’s take Trae Young for example. Even in high school, his talent was off the charts and then some. But when scouts looked at him, they saw an average athlete who was undersized. So to begin the season, no one thought he’d be drafted.
Then after one historic season at Oklahoma, he transformed himself into a Top-5 pick in the 2018 draft. Not necessarily because he got better, but because NBA teams could see how that “small frame” could withstand — and dominate — against elevated competition.
And it’s not just him.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander wasn’t even supposed to be drafted to begin the season. But after climbing up the ladder at Kentucky and showing out as a legitimate two-way threat, he blossomed into the 11th overall pick.
But even those examples are veering toward the extreme. The real argument is this: There are so many guys who aren’t locks for the top spots in the draft, but they’re NBA talent — wherever that may entail.
What does that mean?
Coby White was considered a late first-round/early second-round pick. But after excelling at UNC, he worked himself up to the No. 7 overall pick. Tyler Herro was in the same exact boat and by the end of it, he was a lottery pick. You could even throw Darius Garland in that same narrative.
And the list goes on and on. Sometimes it’s not a huge jump from where they were drafted to where they were projected to begin the season, but it’s still a shift. And even besides just the freshmen, there’s a bevy of sophomores who get the chance to work with elite coaches and player developers to mold into top-tier talent.
The Jarrett Culvers and Ja Morants of the world were likely to be second-round picks, but propelled themselves into elite talents.
But like we said before, that opportunity to develop and flourish is always going to be there. It does run deeper than that.
There’s Only Really a Few
When you start to break it down, in every recruiting class there’s a clump of guys who are going to be college stars, but not all of them are bonafide check-marked NBA slam dunks. And that list starts with someone like Zion Williamson.
Yes, that Zion Williamson.
While most people pegged Williamson as a Top-5 pick to begin the season, some scouts had serious questions. It remained to be seen if he could even survive at 285 pounds in the ACC.
The ACC — not even the NBA.
And I’m not just making up this narrative. Guys like Hamidou Diallo, Quentin Grimes and Nassir Little were all marked up as potential top 10, maybe even top 5 picks to begin their college careers. All of them had rough freshman years and their stocks subsequently plummeted. Diallo was taken at No. 45, Little — who was supposed to be a franchise talent — fell to No. 25 and Grimes opted to skip the 2019 draft altogether.
Sometimes it’s not even a rough season either. Anfernee Simons was expected to be a Top-5 pick in 2019, but he stayed a fifth year at the IMG Academy before bolting to the 2018 draft. But instead of being a Top-5 selection, he went No. 24 overall.
Mitchell Robinson, who had an immediate impact with the Knicks as a rookie, was supposed to be a lottery pick — with the chance to go even higher. But instead of playing at Western Kentucky, he chose to prepare for the draft by himself. In the end, he was the No. 36 overall pick.
When you look at it, there’s really only a handful of players that can afford to not go to college and remain top 10 picks. Jalen Green and Daishen Nix are still going to hold that higher pedigree when the draft rolls around.
But even those guys, with all their talent, all their hype, without seeing a tangible product on the floor, it’s tough to sell them as top 5 (or higher) picks come next June.
The Bottom Line
Nix and Green might be making a couple hundred thousand dollars, which is a sizable amount, but they’re giving up so much more. Not even in the long-run, but in just the next few years.
The G League doesn’t provide what college basketball does. In this developmental program, these young prospects play 10–12 exhibition games. Which is great, sure, but first off, you don’t get the same intensity against a strong level of competition. There’s an intensity that comes with college basketball that can’t be cloned.
When you go to college, you not only get elite player developers whose sole job is to make you better, you simply can’t replicate game speed. Your jump shot, your handles, your strength — all of that can be boosted in the G League’s program, but again, you can’t replicate game speed.
Taking a wide-open shot isn’t the same as a contested one an off-balanced one, a buzzer-beating one. You can’t imitate in-game defense on a practice court.
You can’t show off your IQ, your ability to move without the ball, your ability to make smart decisions. There are so many assets you can’t show off without playing in that intense environment.
Then there are all the intangibles that come with being a part of a team — all feats that matter dearly.
How do you mesh with teammates? What’s your coachability like? How versatile are you when your team needs you to adjust? Are you a leader? Do you play with heart and love for the game? Are you clutch? Can you step up in the fourth quarter? How do you react when you face adversity?
There are so many things that just can’t be measured in these exhibition games. College basketball provides a platform for these guys.
And like I said, there are 5–10 players a year that can afford to take this a step to the G League without their draft stock digressing too far. But that’s it. Even those guys, money now versus money later is nice, but is it always worth it?
If we take a look at the 2019 draft, over four years, the No. 1 pick will make $44.2 million. The No. 10 slot will make $19.3 million.
It goes without saying, but that’s a big drop.
Obviously, in the second round, you’re only making a few million dollars a year, but even those later lottery picks — where Nix and Green could go — are losing tens of millions of dollars. A one year salary of $500,000 might sound nice, but that opportunity cost isn’t worth what you’re going to be making just the very next year.
In the end, it’s that 5–10 people number. Not all the blue-chip talent is going to flee to the G League. Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley have the chance to fight for that No. 1 overall spot, and they recognize that.
It would a seismic shift for there to be enough competition in the G League to replicate what Division I basketball provides. But remember, the NBA has to hand a check, provide facilities, training, etc. for all these prospects they recruit. And the reality is, the NBA isn’t really benefiting when these prospects come to the G League.
Let me know when the last time you turned on a TV to watch a G League game was. Yeah, probably never.
The NCAA might be synonymous with evil, but they do an excellent job of providing scholarships that go way beyond just tuition. Players not only get an education, but also housing, food, training, medical, coaching and so on all for free.
So when you look at the whole body of work, there’s way too much incentive left in college basketball to see a rise in 5-star players fleeing year after year. It might be a few at best, but in the end, the NCAA prevails — with a happy tone.
This article was originally published on The Intermission’s Medium site on May 12, 2020.