NBA’s new ‘professional path’ likely to be the one less-traveled

(Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
(Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The NBA made a splash last week when it introduced a plan to offer a professional path to elite high school prospects to go to the G League for a year.

The debate over the merits of the one-and-done player has been brewing since the NBA closed the draft to high-school prospects in 2006, when it raised the eligibility age for prospects.

Since those rules (see page 295) were implemented, the policy has stated that a player to be eligible for the draft:

"(i) The player (A) is or will be at least nineteen (19) years of age during the calendar year in which the Draft is held, and (B) with respect to a player who is not an international player, at least one (1) NBA Season has elapsed since the player’s graduation from high school (or, if the player did not graduate from high school, since the graduation of the class with which the player would have graduated had be graduated from high school."

That created an atmosphere in which the elite high school prospects almost always opted to attend college for one year, play a season and then declare for the draft.

There have been exceptions. In 2008, Compton, Calif., prep star Brandon Jennings signed a pro contract in Italy, signing a $1.2 million deal that covered salary and endorsements rather than play a season in college.

He then entered the draft in 2009 and was taken by the Milwaukee Bucks 10th overall.

Emmanuel Mudiay followed a similar international path. After a standout prep career at a pair of Dallas-area high schools, Mudiay was the No. 2 recruit in the country and had committed to play at SMU.

He reversed that call in the summer of 2014 and signed to play a season in China before entering the 2015 NBA Draft. He was taken seventh overall by the Denver Nuggets and was traded to the New York Knicks at the February deadline earlier this year.

Mitchell Robinson, a second-round pick by the Knicks this year, took a different route. He enrolled at Western Kentucky University before dropping out in September 2017. He instead worked with private trainers to prepare for the draft.

The professional path involves the use of what the G League called a “select contract,” which would pay a prospect $125,000 to play a season in the NBA’s developmental circuit before entering the draft.

That would be a significant bump in pay over this year’s base of $35,000 for the five-month season.

Players also can earn more if they are on two-way contracts ($77,250 prorated for days spent on G League rosters), get a call-up to the NBA or qualify for available bonuses (the G League paid out about $3 million in bonuses last season).

But will $125,000 provide enough of an incentive for an elite prospect to bypass a year at Kentucky or Duke, where they can be pampered and petted as stars, in exchange for a daily grind against grown men trying to prove they deserve a chance/another chance in the NBA?

Besides, at least based on some of the testimony in the ongoing federal trial into alleged payments from Adidas to players and families to secure commitments from players to Adidas-sponsored schools, $125,000 could constitute a potential pay cut.

The baffling part of this to me is one of the directions the discussions have taken about the viability of 18-year-olds in the G League while the NBA debates changing the eligibility rules back to their pre-2006 standards.

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The risks cited are that players run the risk of being exposed, by playing like the teenagers they are against 25-year-old players, many of whom have NBA experience.

One player who was set to enter the G League this year before changing his mind was Sharonville, Ohio, prospect Darius Bazley.

He’s gone several different directions. Bazley was going to the G League after initially committing to play at Syracuse. Then he opted against going to Syracuse to just use the year to train and prep for the draft.

Marc Stein of the New York Times reported Monday that Bazley signed a deal with New Balance that guarantees him $1 million and could be worth up to $14 million. Part of the deal is an internship with New Balance.

His “internship” may involve several hours per day in a gym, but I’m just spit-balling.

If shoe companies are willing to invest that much guaranteed money in what is far from a sure thing, why in the world would a kid opt to get the crap kicked out of him against grown men in the G League.

I mean, if the pre-draft tour of Yi Jianlian a decade or so ago taught us anything, it’s that a prospect can make himself look pretty great on video when going against chairs and 5-foot-10 coaches holding up brooms.

That’s far less risky that actually putting your video together from clips of playing against other real basketball players, dont’cha think? Particularly if some shoe company is willing to come along and give you a seven-figure guarantee.

Understand that I detest big-time college sports because it’s all just a well-packaged fraud designed to exploit athletes to the benefit of coaches and administrators.

And before anyone wants to play the tired old “but they get a free education” card, we’re talking about players who basically attend one semester at the school as students.

I mean, do you really think these one-and-done guys are writing English Lit papers in the spring as they put themselves in front of scouts and executives in preparation for the draft?

The NBA-G League plan is not a bad one, at its root, but given that the basketball culture is much more style over substance — if a primary concern is that a teenage player is going to be “exposed” against G League-level talent, that is telling — most players will stick to the path that has worked the best for the most.

That means the college basketball factories will still hold the upper hand.

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That will be the case even though getting with professional coaches and learning the ropes of the pro game would likely be invaluable, it’s just not going to resonate with the spoiled AAU star whose handlers have been calling the shots since before the kid was even a teenager.