Section: Sports

NBA’s new G League professional pathway program emerges as a viable option for elite prospects

NBA’s new G League professional pathway program emerges as a viable option for elite prospects

Jalen Green, the No. 1 overall prospect on ESPN’s 2020 recruiting class, has announced that he is bypassing college to enroll in the NBA’s new G League professional pathway program. The program will pay elite NBA prospects $500,000 and provide one year of a developmental training program without playing full-time in the G League. The Fresno, Calif. native joins a growing number of elite players who have elected to opt out of college basketball and fulfill their NBA eligibility requirement elsewhere. Green released a statement on his Instagram Live story, saying, “…I have decided to partner with the NBA G League’s new team for elite players … I want to get better, I want to develop a better game. I want to work on my craft, get stronger and things like that … this is the best route to prepare myself to get one step closer so I can be ready when that time comes.” Green is the fourth top-5 ESPN 100 prospect to forgo college (RJ Hampton, Emmanuel Mudiay and Brandon Jennings) and just the second top recruit to do so.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s decision to push forward with the pathways program in October of 2018 has put the G-League in direct competition with the NCAA. Initially offering players a $125,000 salary and limited benefits, the program failed to land any NBA prospects. This annual salary came nowhere close to what talented young prospects could make playing overseas, such as in Australia’s National Basketball League (NBL), where athletes could make $500,000 or more.

“That’s a real program that the NBL has,” Shareef Abdur-Rahim, president of the G League, told ESPN. “It’s appealing.” LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton, two highly touted recruits in the class of 2019, both elected to join teams in Australia this past season. They are both projected to be selected early in the 2020 NBA Draft.

Silver has been working with Abdur-Rahim to make the G League program more desirable. Along with other NBA executives, Silver and Abdul-Rahim were disappointed that American players had to travel across the world to find their market values, subsequently forcing NBA scouts to follow them there to analyze their skills. “We have kids leaving the United States—Texas and California and Georgia—to go around the world to play, and our NBA community has to travel there to scout them,” Abdur-Rahim said. “That’s counterintuitive. The NBA is the best development system in the world, and those players shouldn’t have to go somewhere else to develop for a year. They should be in our development system.”

This move creates added pressure for the NCAA, which is already surrounded with controversy. Though the association earns over a billion dollars every year, the collegiate athletics organization remains adamant in its decision not to allow college athletes to earn money. The NCAA claims that their offers of educational opportunity and development are adequate compensation for athletes’ contributions.

However, Silver is providing an appealing alternative. Players have the opportunity to hire agents and profit from their likeness, allowing them to sign sneaker deals that can earn them hundreds of thousands of dollars, while also earning a college education. Other benefits include potential salary incentives such as community activities and essential life training programs.

In addition to these profitable opportunities, the program also gives players the chance to develop their game. The pathway’s developmental program includes a plan to stock prospects’ teams with veteran professional players and coaches, who can help the young athletes grow in NBA systems. Select teams will both train and compete in exhibition games against foreign national teams, full-time G League teams and NBA academies throughout the world. “Some of these kids are ready; some of these kids don’t want to go to school, they want to be pros,” former Coach of the Year Sam Mitchell, who plans to coach in the developmental program, said in an interview with ESPN. “They want that lifestyle, and that’s the thing that we’re going to teach them.”

For elite prospects, attending college can become a strain on their development. Top athletes miss out on hundreds of thousands of dollars that can help their families and loved ones. Isaiah Todd, the 13th-ranked player on ESPN’s Top 100, is also set to join Jalen Green in the developmental program. Todd, who initially committed to University of Michigan, withdrew his letter of intent after speaking directly with G League representatives.

“I got a call and then it was kind of like irrefusable,” Todd said. “It just sounded perfect, and it sounded like a no-brainer. And I felt bad when I knew that was kind of the way I was going to go, thinking about the Michigan fans, but I had to do what’s best for my family.” Other top prospects, including Makur Maker, Karim Maane and Kai Sotto, may also join Green and Todd in the pathways program.

Many believe that an increase in the number of NBA prospects circumventing collegiate basketball will weaken the level of competitiveness and interest in NCAA basketball. However, despite a possible change in the landscape of NBA player development, many believe that college basketball will still retain much of its charm. It is likely that only a select few will choose the G League route, and so the effects on the collegiate game will not be dramatic. From 1995 until 2005, when the current rules were not in place, elite high schoolers including Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and LeBron James went straight to the NBA. Yet, interest in college basketball and its marquee event March Madness remained high during this period. Many stars like Carmelo Anthony, who won a national championship with Syracuse University in 2003, shone after electing to go to college. The NCAA must hope that college basketball fans will continue to show the same feverish passion for their teams that they have shown for decades, even if a few of the best will go straight to the pros. 

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