The Road Less Traveled: Why Are Players Spurning the NCAA to Play Overseas?
Earlier this month LaMelo Ball, a top 25 recruit, made his debut for the Illawarra Hawks of the NBL, the game broke league viewership records and solidified the 18 year old as one of the NBL’s biggest draws. RJ Hampton, rated a top 5 by most recruiting services, found himself battling against the number 2 pick Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies on NBA TV this month. Players of this caliber are usually getting ready for midnight madness and morning practices, it’s rare to see talents like this competing somewhere outside of the machinations of the NCAA. The “one and done” rule has unintentionally forced top tier prospects to reevaluate the traditional path to the draft, consequently forcing players to explore less traditional options.
I am old enough to remember a time when the NBA’s best players were drafted straight out of high school. The list reads like “who’s who” of basketball during the 1990’s and 2000’s- Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Dwight Howard, and Jermaine O’Neal etc. LeBron James, arguably the league’s best and most recognizable player for the last decade was drafted out of high school. The problem was that for every Shaun Livingston, Louis Williams, and Tyson Chandler that carved a niche in the NBA, there was a Corleone Young, Eddy Curry, and Robert Swift, players with tremendous athletic ability who burned out in spectacular fashion. By 2006, former league commissioner David Stern instituted the “one and done” rule effectively forcing high school athletes to complete a year of college before entering the NBA. In theory, the rule would help the NBA deliver a better, more efficient brand of basketball while preserving the viability of the NBA’s feeder league, the NCAA.
The landscape of the NBA has changed quite a bit in the thirteen years since the rule change. Here is a short list of some players that took the leap from the amateur to the professional ranks.
Brandon Jennings: Lottomatica Roma (Italy) 10th Pick, 2009 Draft
Latavious Williams: D-League 48th pick, 2010 Draft
Emmanuel Mudiay: Guangdong Southern Tigers (China) 7th pick, 2015 Draft
Satnam Singh Bhamara:IMG Academy 52nd pick, 2015 Draft
Thon Maker: Orangeville Preparatory 10th Pick, 2016 Draft
Terrance Ferguson: Adelaide 36ers (Australia) 21st Pick, 2017 Draft
Anfernee Simons: IMG Academy 24th Pick, 2018 Draft
Mitchell Robinson: Chalmette 36th pick, 2018 Draft
Darius Beazley Jr: Princeton High School 23rd Pick, 2019 Draft
Some players chose to take the road less traveled because of eligibility concerns, for others the decision was a matter of compensation. The expectation has always been that players sign a letter of intent and accept their scholarship. The best players leave early and the others play out the rest of their days tuition-free. Over the years the narrative has shifted, athletes are keenly aware of the money their games generate for universities through TV rights, stadium gates, and jersey sales. Players see the exorbitant contracts coaches are receiving, and feel as if everyone is getting paid except the performers. More and more voices in the basketball community have been voicing their feelings of disenchantment with the process. Players no longer see any equivocation between a scholarship and compensation.
It’s been widely speculated that the NBA will once again reevaluate the league’s age requirement policy to let high school players enter the draft. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has intimated that a change could come as soon as the 2022 draft. In the interim the NBA has been working with the NBPA and USA Basketball toward developing a set of policies and systems to better assist players as step into their new roles as professionals. The NCAA has created new rules to help combat corruption, which allow college basketball players to hire an agent. The NBA’s G League’s most recently changed its pay scale in hopes of becoming a viable option for amateurs. The basketball landscape is constantly evolving and the NBA seems intent on making sure the league is changing with it.