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The G League May Have Helped Solve The One-and-Done Question

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It’s hard to know all the consequences of this experiment, but it’s worth trying

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-San Diego Practice Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The G League recently announced that they will soon begin offering a path that lets top high school prospects skip college and instead jump straight to the G League, where they will make $125,000 per year. That base salary is chump change; the ability to sign a shoe deal and to market their personal image is what really matters.

In theory, this will get a lot of dirty shoe money out of the college game. Those kids who want to get paid can sign what the G League is calling a “Select Contract”, whereas those kids who want an authentic college experience will enroll in college like normal. I’m not sure it’s going to pan out exactly like I described, but it’s difficult to see how giving kids— particularly the kids who need money the worst—another option is a bad thing.

Before we move on, let’s get one thing straight: I am not in favor of paying college players. Here’s why:

  • It goes against the spirit of the college game. The NCAA was set up explicitly as an organization to enforce rules regarding amateurism and eligibility, and paying players would be an abandonment of their core mission.
  • The NCAA can’t competently enforce the rules it has now. Do we really trust them to add an additional layer of bureaucracy?
  • It just feels sleazy for schools to compete for recruits based on the size of their checkbook.
  • College players already get free meals, swag, travel, weight training, nutrition advice, and (at some schools) the ability to live like a minor celebrity. They are not being exploited.

I’ve always said, “Let the players who want to get paid get paid. But you can’t get paid and play college ball.” The issue with that attitude was that there used to not be many viable alternatives. But between this G League proposal and more and more elite prospects considering going overseas, top high school players have options. Within five years, they’ll likely have even more.

Is The G League Trying To Compete With College Basketball?

Depending on how you mean that question, the answers are no, no, and yes.

No in the sense that this is not an attack on college basketball. The G League is interested in building out its brand. The change to G League from NBA Development League—commonly known as the D-League—was a big step in that direction. They are slowly but surely better systemizing the structure of the league. All teams are now affiliated with—if not outright owned by—an NBA franchise. And 87% of NBA teams now have a G League affiliate, with Atlanta scheduled to add one next season. The G League is trying to strengthen itself, and there’s no reason they should think they need to weaken the college game to do so.

The second no is because even if the G League tried to grab interest away from the college game, it would fail and fail hard. Even if they had better players. (Guess what, they do now.) Even if they put a better basketball product on the floor. If people only cared about the quality of basketball, everyone would watch the NBA. Or if they needed more of a basketball fix, they’d watch one of the Euro leagues. Top Euro teams would beat all but perhaps the most elite college teams.

I don’t have to run down a list of what makes college basketball great. The pageantry, the bands, the students, the passionate fans packed together on a cold February night to watch their boys beat their evil arch-rivals. I could go on for hours.

You know what’s not on this list? The players. Kentucky and Duke play the first night of the season. Am I pumped for that game? Bet your ass. Could I name more than two players off either team? Nope. And those two teams have the best players in the country. I’ll learn them over the course of the season. That would be true even if the top 5 players on each team decided to forego college (which would never happen).

College fandoms are formed based on emotional connections to institutions. That’s what gives the games an emotional punch. The G League couldn’t replicate those connections if they tried for 100 years, no matter how good their players are.

As for that last “yes”, the G League can’t compete with college basketball on the whole, but when it comes to any particular player, that no longer holds true. If I was a college coach, I’d be worried that instead of having to recruit against Duke or Kentucky or Arizona, I’m about to start having to recruit against all those schools, plus the G League. Those shoe company bagmen are about to be able to start openly recruiting kids and throwing obscene amounts of money at some of them. And they’ll have an advantage that college coaches won’t—they can give the kid something that same day, which will eliminate their college eligibility up front. Fans are going to be pissed when they lose what was thought to be a slam-dunk recruit to the G League. They might even start complaining about how the G League is destroying college basketball.

No, in the wake of the FBI investigation, the G League is—in an incremental way—saving college basketball.