When you’re a sports geek sometimes you seek out sporting events out of sheer curiosity. That explains how during a recent vacation in California I found myself enjoying a G League basketball game between the Santa Cruz Warriors and Oklahoma City Blue. The G League is the NBA’s developmental league and a quasi minor league. It’s a place where hoop dreams get extensions and unfinished products get experience.
The game was great. It had high-level basketball, recognizable players who recently graduated from college basketball (Bryce Alford of UCLA hit a dagger 3-pointer to seal the game for Oklahoma City), legit prospects (Damian Jones, the Golden State Warriors’ first-round pick in 2016, dominated with 27 points and 12 rebounds for Santa Cruz), and the 50th consecutive sell-out crowd at Santa Cruz’s cozy Kaiser Permanente Arena — a raucous collection of 2,476 souls sitting in proximity to the court and each other.
What was missing, however, was the presence of top prospects for the 2018 NBA Draft. In that regard, the G League is missing its calling like Marcus Smart misses a jumper. The league shouldn’t be primarily a landing spot for players who fall through the cracks. It should also provide a bridge from high school to the NBA for highly touted prospects who are interested in a hoops higher education, not the kind found in a college classroom.
The G League should be a place where high school prospects who want to get (legally) paid for their talents can play instead of being conscripted into the college basketball industrial complex that fills the coffers of coaches and colleges and universities. It should be a league where you can go see the next Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving.
Since the league’s inception in 2001 as the NBA Development League, later known as the D-League, P.J. Hairston is the only first-round pick (2014) ever produced by the league.
The FBI investigation that has taken a blacklight to the dirty laundry of college basketball has highlighted the need for this type of outlet pass from the college game. Big-time college sports require the willful suspension of disbelief. Corruption and impropriety existed in college basketball before the NBA created the 19-year-old draft age limit to prohibit players from going directly from high school to the NBA and necessitated the one-and-done college player becoming the new normal. But they have been exacerbated by it.
Kids who have no real interest, desire, or intention of getting a college degree are being funneled into college basketball only because it is the next step on the ladder to the pros. They’re being “compensated” with a free education they never intend to complete, some only going to class for the semester they need to remain eligible. The whole setup is a sham. It’s a disservice to both the players and the great game of college basketball, which has seen teams become transient and one-and-done stars on disjointed teams miss out on the sport’s signature event, the NCAA Tournament. (See: Simmons, Ben, and Fultz, Markelle.)
Some reassembly is required in the college game. Don’t get used to this year’s edition of Duke because it will look completely different next season. The same goes for the Rupp Arena revolving door of five-star recruits known as Kentucky basketball.
With all due respect to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Commission on College Basketball, we don’t need a voluminous report to find an answer to the difficult relationship between the college game and the NBA right now. The answer is a viable alternative to the college game for players who are only interested in using it as a pit stop on their way to the NBA and whose talents are being rented at a depressed rate by a system rigged in favor of NCAA schools.
Instead of University of Arizona coach Sean Miller being allegedly caught on an FBI wiretap discussing how $100,000 can be funneled to marquee recruit and star player Deandre Ayton, the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft, Ayton can get paid six figures to play in the G League for a year and then get drafted into the NBA.
If the G League starts welcoming and paying the top high school players to skip their one shining season and entrust their development to the pros, the college game will survive, just as it did when players such as Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett bypassed NCAA basketball. You’ll always have devotees such as Dick Vitale to promote its virtues and traditions. The college game sanctifies and celebrates the name on the front of the jersey and the coach in the suit on the sidelines.
The G League evolving into a legitimate alternative for wannabe one-and-done stars is a win-win-win scenario. It would give more stability and continuity to the college game, it would give the NBA more control over the development of its future players and a much higher profile for its minor league, and it would give the players the opportunity to get paid for playing sub-NBA basketball during the gap year.
Besides the NBA not wanting to step on the toes of the NCAA, the only reason this wouldn’t happen is NBA owners not wanting an additional expenditure.
Right now, the NBA basically has a free minor league system with NCAA Division 1 college basketball. The G League is the professional basketball equivalent of a dollar store. The G League salary cap per team for the 2016-17 season was only $209,000. The NBA minimum player salary is $815,615.
This year, the NBA instituted two-way G League contracts that allow two players beyond the 15-man roster to be on an NBA roster for no more than 45 days and spend the rest of the time in the G League. When they’re in the G League, they can make about $75,000.
As of now, players who are not on NBA contracts or not NBA players who have been assigned to the G League by their team — teams can assign players with fewer than three years of service to their G League affiliates an unlimited number of times throughout the season — sign one-year deals with the G League itself. Those deals pay either $26,000 or $19,500 per year.
It would take more than that to sway players from passing on the exposure and experience of playing college basketball. The G League would have to up the ante. Forward-thinking NBA commissioner Adam Silver has to convince the owners that it’s worth investing in the basketball pipeline that fuels their product. The NBA should offer an alternative to one and done, and the G League is the platform to do it.
The G League shouldn’t be a league of last resort. It should be a league of first exposure to future NBA stars.