• Dr. Justin Quinn

Phoenix Suns' Aron Baynes a Believer in NBL as a Path to the NBA

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

More and more, players are avoiding the college ranks to pursue other paths into the NBA, viewing the uncompensated labor and potential pratfalls of the NCAA route as more trouble than it's worth.

Anything from an injury to having lunch with the wrong person can get crucial playing time taken away with little in the way of financial security to make up for it.

Instead, prospects are taking an extra year in prep school, working internships, and even heading overseas to play for money in pro leagues a step (or several) below the talent level of the NBA.

For years, the lack of scouting eyes, low pay and, often, language barriers prevented many young players from dipping their toes in the pool that is overseas play, but innovative new contracts for Australia's National Basketball League (NBL) offering increased pay for prospects likely to be taken in the NBA Draft has created a legitimate new path into the world's best basketball league, the NBA.

Off The Glass caught up with Australian big man Aron Baynes of the Phoenix Suns in Mexico City to talk about this new option that has been increasingly taken advantage of by top prospects like LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton, an admitted NBL fan with personal ties to the league through friends playing in it as much as accident of birth.

The NBL's "Next Stars" program funds its development of likely Draft prospects through buyouts, ingeniously offering a contract to young players who will need the NBA to buy them out of their current contract in order to have prospects join the team they were drafted to, with the money recouping the pay and board costs required to attract top-level talent.

In turn, the NBL has had a jolt of international and domestic interest, making for a win-win situation for all.

"It's been great for Australian basketball, you know, the level of quality of basketball down there has been good for a number of years, but the money just hasn't been there since Larry Kestelman came in and took over the league," offered the Suns center on how the NBL has turned a critical corner making such contracts possible.

Kestelman, an Ukrainian emigre who moved to Australia in 1966, amassed a fortune in real estate before getting involved with the NBL at a time of shrinking audiences and revenue, reports ESPN's Jake Michaels.

The real-estate mogul-turned NBL backer started a slow process of rekindling interest in the league, and in just four years, raised social media engagement by 400 %, television audiences by 40 %, and attendance by 25 %, the Next Stars program a major engine of that success.

"In any business you need to understand where you bring value," Kestelman offered.

"In our case, we realise that any professional basketball player wants to play in the NBA and we know we are a great pathway for players [to get there]. We are a tough league, a professional league and one which will accelerate their learning and development.
Being professional, no matter what you do, is not just about your craft. We're going to teach them to cook eggs, how to look after each other, how to deal with the media and travel as professional athletes. I'm confident they will come out a better player and person."

The impact of Kestelman made a lasting impression on Baynes as well, who sung his praises half a world away in Estadio Azteca: "He really developed the business side of things down there, really made a push to be recognized for the level of competition and [because] guys can actually go there and make a living [now]."

While the compensation is nothing compared to what they will make in the NBA, the roughly USD $50,000 (players are paid in Australian dollars) they will receive along with room, board, transport and training costs covered are as good as anything available to them domestically and not far behind what they could in Europe or China.

And unlike such distant destinations, there is little in the way of language or cultural barriers for young players to overcome, which may have its own appeal according to Baynes. "It's a right opportunity for guys to go down there. live in a country that is an English first language [country]."

"Some of those draft picks that don't want to necessarily go through the college system when they go down there they are playing against men. It's a different league, I think," he added.

While the Next Stars program is only in its second season, the NBL has already provided a runway for multiple players now in the league, and is poised to add more this summer.

"People are saying the guys that have come through there [like] Torrey Craig , James Ennis -- when they do go down and they play in that league, they can really come back to the NBA and be impact players. That's what's happening down there with Lamello [Ball] and R.J. Hampton, [they] are really pushing it; [I'm] just reiterating how good quality the league is, and it's good for Australian basketball."

Craig and Ennis happen to be two of those players who found their way into the NBA via the NBL. After going undrafted in the 2014 NBA draft, Craig headed down under where he spent several seasons refining his game before being picked up by the Denver Nuggets.

Ennis headed to the NBL in 2014 after rejecting a G League contract for just $25,000, (before the existence of two way contracts) after the Miami Heat could not afford to pay his minimum salary due to salary cap constraints.

Both would blaze the path the Next Stars program smooths for top prospects like Ball and Hampton, the former of which is being floated as a potential top pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.

Whether the concept is sustainable long-term or not remains to be seen with the NBA's ongoing expansion of the G League, its own developmental league. Less than a day after the interview with Baynes, the league announced the launch of the first G League team outside of the U.S. and Canada in Mexico City, with the eventual plan to be expanding the developmental league into a true, paying alternative to the NCAAs.

Such a scenario coming to fruition could transform the current state of affairs in the next few years -- or never, for all anyone knows.

Until the tectonic shifts currently underway settle into a more stable pattern in the coming months and years, however, Australia's NBL isn't just a novel way to get well-deserved funds into the payment of the world's top basketball prospects before they get to the NBA; it's also one of the most interesting competing leagues out there to watch, as the Australian big man pointedly reminds us.

"All of us [Australians] over here, we always try watch as many games as we can -- especially when our mates are playing," said Baynes.

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