In a move that could challenge the NCAA's monopoly on elite talent, the NBA's G League is creating a new venture as an alternative to the one-and-done route for the best American basketball prospects, it was announced Thursday.
As part of a newly formed professional path starting in the summer of 2019, the G League will offer “Select Contracts” worth $125,000 to elite prospects who are at least 18 years old but not yet eligible for the NBA draft.
The G League will target recent or would-be high school graduates who otherwise would have likely spent just one season playing college basketball, enticing them not only with a six-figure salary but also the opportunity to benefit from NBA infrastructure, as well as a bevy of off-court development programs “geared toward facilitating and accelerating their transition to the pro game,” league president Malcolm Turner told ESPN.
Without the restrictions of the NCAA's amateurism rules, players will also be free to hire agents, profit off their likenesses and pursue marketing deals from sneaker companies and the like, which could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in endorsement opportunities to top prospects.
“We appreciate the NBA's decision to provide additional opportunities for those who would like to pursue their dream of playing professionally,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement. “The NCAA recently implemented significant reforms to support student-athlete success, including more flexibility when deciding whether to play professionally.
“Obtaining a college education continues to provide unmatched preparation for success in life for the majority of student-athletes and remains an excellent path to professional sports for many. However, this change provides another option for those who would prefer not to attend college but want to directly pursue professional basketball.”
In April, the Commission on College Basketball, formed by the NCAA after a federal investigation into fraud in the sport, recommended that the NCAA and NBA embrace alternative options for one-and-done-caliber prospects.
“Elite high school players with NBA prospects and no interest in a college degree should not be forced to attend college, often for less than a year,” commission chair Condoleezza Rice told The Associated Press. “One-and-done has to go, one way or another.”
While changes to the NBA's age limit likely won't be implemented until the 2022 draft, the league considers this a response to such criticism.
“The broader basketball community has called for the NBA to enhance our G League offerings,” Turner told ESPN. “We believe this is an answer to that call. We believe this is a thoughtful and responsive answer.”
Through its new partnership with USA Basketball, the NBA will have a captive audience of America's most elite prospects during the NCAA Final Four in April and at the USA Basketball Junior National Team minicamp in October, where the G League will look to introduce this professional path to the many future NBA players in attendance, as well as their families, according to Turner.
Seven of the top 10 high school players in the 2019 ESPN 100 remain uncommitted to college programs, and the G League landing any of them could have huge ramifications — for future paths to the draft for star players, the popularity of the NBA's development league and the college basketball talent pool.
Turner said the league will not pursue those players who have already committed to colleges, but the professional path would be an alternative to those prospects who make a choice on their own to decommit. Turner also said the G League will be selective with the players they look to bring into the program — with a strong emphasis on character and readiness to join a pro league.
Many important details are still yet to be decided, including the way in which elite prospects are identified, pursued and then assigned to G League teams. How many players will the G League look to include in its first iteration of this venture? Who will determine which prospects are good enough to make the cut? Will this venture be open to international players as well, including Canadians or Australians who often matriculate to the NBA via American high schools or college basketball? What about Europeans?
These are questions that Turner says will be answered in the near future with the help of a soon-to-be-hired dedicated program manager who will oversee the G League professional path, as well as a working committee that will tackle many of these tasks.
While full logistics still need to be worked out, the G League intends to offer prospects on its professional path access to NBA facilities, player development coaches and training staffs well in advance of training camps in late October. That is important considering the long layoff between the end of a player's high school career in the spring and the start of the season in November.
The G League will look to supplement the basketball aspect of this venture with a significant off-court component as well, borrowing from its existing slate of development and educational tools that include life skills, post-career planning and academic scholarship opportunities through partnerships with universities.
Athletes will be restricted to playing only one season on a G League Select Contract, after which point they will become automatically eligible for that year's NBA draft. Article X of the NBA collective bargaining agreement already covers this for all draft-eligible American prospects: If a player renders services under contract for any non-NBA professional team prior to Jan. 1, he is automatically placed in the next draft.
The program also will only be available to players who are at least 18 years old (on Sept. 15, before the start of the season), eligible for the following NBA draft (turning 19 in the calendar year of that draft and a year removed from their high school graduating class) and not enrolled in college.
The program does come with some potential concerns for draft prospects, the G League and NBA teams:
• Even if the venture attracts top talent, will these 18- and 19-year olds make an impact at the G League level, where the average age of players not under NBA contract was 25 at the start of last season?
Given the significant difference in physical maturity and experience, G League Select prospects could be risking their draft stock while their peers face NCAA competition. It will take some time for a baseline to be established for what prospects can be expected to produce against this level of competition.
• Will there be any conflict between Select prospects and other G League players, many of whom will be making significantly less money? Regular G League players make $35,000 as a base salary for a five-month season, with bonuses, NBA call-ups, two-way deals and Exhibit 10 contracts providing paths to earning more.
• NBA teams will likely want to attract potential first-round prospects to their G League affiliates in order to gather as much information as possible prior to the draft, but will G League coaching staffs be as heavily invested in the development of players who might not be as equipped to help them win games?
G League officials are still considering how to address these concerns, with room for flexibility both before the program officially launches and once it is running. It will be fascinating to see how the college basketball world reacts to competition for its biggest stars and most marketable athletes, especially as the sport is engulfed in an ongoing corruption trial.
The NBA is expected to lower its age limit in time for the 2022 draft and allow high school players who have graduated to go straight to the NBA without spending a year in college or the G League, but league sources say a venture of this nature may end up being a model that is explored as a potential compromise, depending on how things play out over the next three years.
Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr was at practice Thursday and hadn't been able to read over the specifics of the proposal yet, but he did have strong feelings regarding some other changes he would like to see in the draft process.
“The first thing is, the G League is getting better and expanding every year,” Kerr said after practice. “If I were the NCAA I would allow somebody to go back to school after declaring for the draft if they didn't like the results. I don't see any harm in that. And then the players should have plenty of options — going to the G League or Europe. I'd like to see one-and-done, done. I'd like to see players able to come out of high school. I didn't feel that way seven, eight years ago, but I think the G League is so strong now that I think we can do these players a service. The ones who don't want to go to school, but the ones who want to make some money, want to develop their games. I think the G League is suited well for that. But the details — it's not quite my lane, so I'll stay out of it.”