By Eddie Gonzalez
For decades, the path to the NBA followed a familar template. The best high school basketball players in the country dominated at the prep level, found their way to the best colleges in the country and then, after a few years, made the leap to the professional level. There were a few outliers, most notably Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby in 1975, and of course Moses Malone renouncing his commitment to University of Maryland for a spot in the 1974 ABA draft and a $1 million paycheck.
Then, in 1995, Kevin Garnett broke the decades old tradition by declaring for the NBA Draft right out of Farragut Career Academy in Chicago. Buoyed by otherworldly talents and a legendary pre-draft workout, Garnett went fifth overall in the draft, and the rest was history. The next year Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O’Neal were drafted straight out of high school. Then came Tracy McGrady, Rashard Lewis, Tyson Chandler, Eddie Curry, Kwame Brown, Amare Stoudemire, LeBron James, Dwight Howard and many, many more.
Eventually the NBA shut the door on the high school-to-pro pipeline with the establishment of the 2006 requirement that players must be at least 19 years old to enter the draft, but some athletes still thought of inventive ways to supplant the new draft eligibility rules. Brandon Jennings spent a year playing pro ball in Italy. Emmanuel Mudiay did the same in China. Some chose to attend prep school for a year after high school. Others like Mitchell Robinson and Darius Bazley simply didn’t play team basketball for a year, choosing to train for the NBA instead.
What became clear in the past half-decade was the NBA and NCAA had an issue on their hands. The rule had become outdated, and the nation’s very best high school players had the skills to make the leap to the NBA, but were having to jump through hoops and find loopholes to do so.
Now, players are no longer incentivized to attend college, either financially or - thanks to digital media - for the sake of exposure either. Gone are the days where Tracy McGrady could stroll into an ABCD camp as a relative unknown and leave a star. Instead, players are viral stars at 12, if marketed properly, and well-known amongst the AAU and Nike EYBL circuits long before they enter high school. Outlets like Slam, Ballislife, Overtime, BallerTV, Mars Reel and more scour the country for a look at the stars of tomorrow and the chance to present them to the world on social media. All that attention leads to massive followings and more media opportunities. Suddenly, these players don’t need the big lights of NCAA basketball and the TV deals that go with it to get onto the radar of NBA scouts, they’re already being followed by them on Instagram.
Without altering the current collective bargaining agreement, the NBA was stuck with their draft requirements until 2023 at the earliest, so they strategized. In 2018 the league announced the G League “professional path,” a program that would allow players to enter the G League straight out of high school as a way to prepare for the NBA Draft. The problem was, the pay was too meager, offering just $125,000 to select players. Last year, two of the nation’s top prospects, LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton took their talents to Australia's National Basketball League instead, for four times the G League’s salary. Even the allure of staying home, being within the NBA infrastructure, and the freedom to sign endorsement deals outside the clutches of the NCAA’s strict eligibility rules was not enough to get Ball and Hampton to sign up for G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim’s brainchild.
So they went back to the drawing board in an effort to prevent a mass exodus of the country’s best prospects overseas, increased the salary for eligible players, and finally caught the biggest fish in the pond this year when the No. 1 ranked high school player in the country, Jalen Green, signed up to be a high-profile test case for the G League professional pathway program. For this gamble, Green will receive a $500,000 salary, a full college scholarship, and he’ll play 10 to 12 games against other G League teams as part of a new, Southern California-based G League team. He’ll also continue to develop on the court in a system literally designed to make sure he thrives, including a coaching staff possibly helmed by former Coach of the Year Sam Mitchell. The roster will be constructed to feature veterans who can mentor him and fellow G League signees Isaiah Todd, Daishen Nix and Kai Sotto. Plus, he’ll be able to sign endorsement deals, with a seven-figure sneaker deal already on the table, according to ESPN.
These developments have forced the NCAA to pivot as well. The notoriously stubborn organization outlined a plan in late April to allow their athletes to capitalize on their fame in various ways. The NCAA’s Board of Governors announced they’d support rule changes that allowed players to earn money for the use of their names and likenesses through third parties. If the rule changes are finalized, beginning in the 2021-2022 academic year, players will be able to do things like star in commercials and video games, endorse products, hold paid autograph sessions or capitalize on their massive social media followings and operate as paid social media influencers.
For basketball players, who build strong followings amongst the hoops community thanks to their stylish fashion choices and exciting mixtapes full of highlights, it could be a boon even for players who aren’t stars on a collegiate level. As Youtube and Instagram favorite Mac McClung spent his spring mulling the decision to enter the NBA Draft before eventually entering the transfer portal, he could have already been cashing massive checks for himself thanks to his online fame had the NCAA’s rule proposals already been in place.
Green has already amassed nearly a million followers and a verified check on Instagram, facts that will not be lost by companies as they seek to have him endorse their products, nor by his representation as he sits down to talk numbers. In a world where Instagram posts are the new commercials, this could be the most profitable incentive to skipping college and opting for the G League path instead. At least for now.
All of these adjustments could be for naught if the NBA and NBPA decide to nix the current eligibility rules, as expected, when the current CBA ends in either 2024, or 2023 if both sides decide to mutually opt out. But for now, the NBA, the G League and even the NCAA are all vying for ways to maintain prominence in the ever-growing world of basketball development in America, as all three entities look to keep the biggest stars stateside, within the infrastructure they’ve built for decades.
Today’s high school stars are more resourceful than ever, and possibly more profitable as well. So, as they find new avenues to cash in on their talents and fame, the NBA is fighting to be the best place for them to do so. Luckily for all parties involved, they’re probably right, and in a few years they’ll be able to open up that direct path once again. Until then, the G League just might be the best place for the nation’s best high schoolers, at least until they think of something more innovative – and lucrative – in the meantime. And judging by the recent history, they will do just that.