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‘It’s about the NBA’: Money isn’t only incentive for top prep stars to pick G League over college

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

A few of the top high school basketball players in the country are forging a new route.

Instead of attending college or traveling overseas, five-star prospects Jalen Green, Isaiah Todd and Daishen Nix are all entering the NBA’s G League professional pathway.

Isaiah Todd verbally committed to play for Michigan until opting to sign on with the NBA's G League instead.

The revamped developmental program will give elite players an opportunity to make money while solely majoring in basketball during the mandated one-year wait between high school graduation and NBA Draft entry.

The G League started its program in 2018 as a professional alternative for top prospects. But after it couldn’t lure top talent, it recently added more lucrative benefits to encourage star recruits to consider the NBA’s development system — a prep school of sorts for the pro level — over a college scholarship or overseas move.

And in some cases, it has worked.

"I think that it's a good idea from the standpoint if you have guys that are just dead set on not wanting to go to college for whatever reason — maybe they just want to focus on nothing but developing their game, maybe they don't like school,” said Donnie Tyndall, head coach of the Grand Rapids Drive, the Detroit Pistons’ G League affiliate. “Everybody has got their own opinion and mindset about how they want to go about living their life. If a guy doesn't want to go to college and his options have been to go to Australia or go to China or wherever so that you make good money. A few years ago, the G League was paying $30,000-$35,000 and there wasn't this option for the higher-paid guys. Why would you play in the G League if you could go to Australia for $500,000?

“In my opinion, the G League is the second-best basketball league in the world and why not keep those kids right here at home where they've got a chance to develop and grow. …You're going to learn the NBA game, you're going to be around NBA coaches and you're going to be playing against NBA or borderline NBA players. There's really no negative to it. The only negative is that it used to be was they couldn't make as much money and now there's an opportunity or chance to make good money. I think it's a healthy, good option for these young guys.”

Jalen Green could be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.

'Best way to go'

Green, arguably the top recruit in the nation and potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft, became the first to sign with the NBA’s professional development league for the 2020-21 season.

The 6-foot-5 shooting guard from Fresno, California, reportedly agreed to a $500,000 deal and his earnings could exceed $1 million when factoring in potential endorsements and shoe deals.

“I wanted to get better overall and prepare myself for the NBA because that’s my ultimate goal,” Green told Yahoo Sports. “Everything was planned out right and set up for me to succeed. I think this was a good decision at the end of the day.”

Green will be joined on the “Select Team” by Todd, a former Michigan commit, and Nix, a former UCLA signee, who will each be paid six-figure salaries. It’s possible the three McDonald’s All-Americans will be joined by more young players.

When the G League launched its program two years ago, the $125,000 salary, competition against older, more mature players and grind of a minor-league lifestyle wasn’t as appealing as the NCAA or professional overseas options.

After top 2020 prospects LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton chose to play professionally in Australia’s National Basketball League this year, the NBA went back to the drawing board. It reshaped the development program’s investment and structure by providing a higher salary and a format that doesn’t include playing full-time in the G League.

“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,” G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim told ESPN. "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."

The “Select Team” won’t play more than 25 games — the G League’s schedule is 50 games — and won’t be affiliated with an NBA team. Its schedule will consist of a mix of games against G League teams as well as NBA Academies and national teams from around the world. The roster will be filled out by veteran players.

Tyndall said whenever the "Select Team" faces a G League team, those G League players will have added "ammunition" since most are making around $35,000 and are fighting to reach the NBA.

Grand Rapids Drive head coach Donnie Tyndall says high school stars who opt for the G League will face the best shots from opponents who also are looking to get an NBA opportunity.

"Your players are going to know these guys are making a lot more money than they are and they are projected first-round NBA-type talent," Tyndall said. "So every time the elite team goes to the floor, they're probably going to be getting the opponent's best shot. It'll be interesting to see how those young guys handle that."

The program also will offer a college scholarship as well as life skills, mentorships and professional development. Many details of the G League plan, though, are still being worked out, like the team’s coaching staff and location. The team reportedly will be based in Southern California and former NBA coach of the year Sam Mitchell is a candidate for the head job.

Even with those matters still being finalized, Todd, a 6-10 forward from North Carolina, said participating in the new pathway was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

“I believe it was the best thing for my game and for my career to better myself for the NBA,” Todd told The Athletic. “It was very important to be prepared because the NBA is my lifelong dream. This option is the best way to go, being in the NBA’s backyard and to learn from pros and learn from NBA coaches and trainers. It’s about being prepared for the NBA. I think that’s the best way to go.”

'Not for everybody'

While Green, Todd and Nix view the G League as the best step to get to the NBA, not everyone is going to see it that way.

During a roundtable discussion on SiriusXM’s “Sports from the Sidelines,” former Maryland standout Anthony Cowan Jr. said he still would’ve gone to college even if he had the chance to enter the pathway program.

“I feel like the whole college experience is something that you’ve got to live through,” Cowan said. “I think some experiences that we all have had, I think it would be way bigger than — I mean, the money is all cool, like 500K — but the experience we laugh about it now, just thinking about the little stuff we were able to do in college.”

Former Marquette star Markus Howard said there are reasons high schoolers like Green, Todd and Nix are making this step and one of the biggest is because college players aren’t getting paid. Colleges can pay players through stipends and other allowances, but it simply doesn’t compare to what the G League is offering.

“I think about how much or how would the perception of college sports or college basketball change if you had those experiences, but you also got compensated for it? We wouldn’t have this conversation,” Howard said. “Everyone would be going to college and it would be the best thing for both because everyone wins. And I think honestly, for me personally, college was the best thing for me because I was able to grow on and off the court. But in the back of my mind, obviously in March Madness the NCAA is making a billion dollars off of guys who don’t even get a cent for that.”

Howard added the NCAA is going need to adapt in order to keep the top high school prospects from bypassing college. As it stands, college athletes cannot capitalize financially and cash in on their names, images and likenesses.

That could be coming to an end as the NCAA announced on Wednesday it’s moving forward with a plan to allow student-athletes to earn money for endorsements and a host of other activities involving personal appearances and social media content.

“For me, I’m not bitter about anything because I’m extremely blessed and fortunate to receive a four-year scholarship. I’m going to get my degree from Marquette,” Howard said. “I’m just saying for future generations and to make it better for the college game and for the kids coming up, I think some changes need to be made.”

When it comes to that next wave of kids, five-star prospect Kennedy Chandler, one of the top point guards in the 2021 class, told Rivals.com his parents have been contacted by the G League, but he has his sights set on going to college.

Paolo Banchero, another five-star recruit and one of the top big men in 2021, said it’s an intriguing option he would look into if given the opportunity.

“It is a good thing for the guys that don’t want to go to college that can go to the G League and get NBA coaching and development for a year in that system and then enter the draft,” Banchero told Rivals.com. “I do think, though, that it is probably not for everybody and you have to be really elite to do that. Guys like Jalen Green and Isaiah Todd, I could see it working out for them, but you just have to be careful. For me, I don’t know.

“I do think for me, personally, playing in college, on TV and in the NCAA Tournament, and to have that college experience for a year, and do all of those other things in college, I value that type of stuff. That is a big thing for me.”

It also could be an option for Ypsilanti Lincoln star Emoni Bates, who as a sophomore this past season was named Gatorade National Player of the Year in boys basketball — the youngest player to earn the honor.

Daishen Nix (32) signed a letter of intent to play at UCLA, before signing on with the G League.

'Little bit of an agitation'

Like Howard, Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said the NCAA is going to need to adapt and should look into mirroring the NBA game more from a rules standpoint.

Musselman, who was a head coach in the NBA and G League, said the fact the G League plays a 48-minute game and has four quarters — the same as the NBA —  is more advantageous than the college level playing 40 minutes over two halves.

“The NBA is not going to change, we know that,” Musselman said on “The Crossover NBA Show with Chris Mannix” podcast. “We're going to have to make adjustments so that the college game becomes even more intriguing for a prospect who eventually wants to go to the NBA.”

While there are arguments on both sides about what best prepares a player for the NBA, Musselman said he thinks the pressure of playing in front of 19,000 people and dealing with a throng of media in college is an overlooked aspect when compared to the smaller crowds and minimal coverage in the G League.

Regardless of the pros and cons, longtime Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said his biggest concern with the G League initiative is that the platforms will create issues and conflict with one another when it comes to recruiting.

“I don't see anything wrong with the elite having the elite opportunity. I'm OK with that,” Hamilton said on the “Courtside with Greenberg and Dakich” podcast. “It's a little bit of a problem if you sign with a college team and then make your mind up after the college team has absolutely no way to recover from it. There has to be something worked out where we don't put each other in bad situations. …I wish the decisions would be made so we don't impact each other.”

Green and Todd both announced they were heading to the G League the same week the regular signing period started in April. Green was uncommitted and would’ve chosen Memphis if he went the college route. Todd had been verbally committed to Michigan since October, but there were constant rumblings he was considering pro options.

Nix, on the other hand, already had signed his letter of intent with UCLA during the early signing period in November before opting to join the G League. According to Tyndall, the G League’s late push to land Nix likely will strain its relationship with college coaches.

“Here's a guy that you plan to have come in and run your team and all of a sudden you find out late spring, early summer that he's not going to be with you,” said Tyndall, who had head-coaching stints at Morehead State, Southern Miss and Tennessee before he was hit with a 10-year show-cause penalty by the NCAA in 2016.

“When you're a competitor like (UCLA coach) Mick (Cronin) is or any college coach is, it's certainly going to be frustrating. It's going to be a situation where you're not happy about it. I do think it's going to be a little bit of an agitation for college coaches, but I do think it's only going to be five or six programs that are really impacted — the UCLAs, Kansas, North Carolina. Outside of that, most programs aren't going to be signing these elite guys.”

Texas coach Shaka Smart recently had to fend off the G League to close out his recruitment of five-star forward Greg Brown III, who was reportedly offered a $300,000 contract to join the “Select Team.”

Smart said given the pathway program is an emerging and attractive for elite recruits who can want to get to the NBA as quick as possible, some prospects could be pressured into following others instead of doing what’s best for them in the long haul because “we live in a society of comparisons.”

“The same path for one guy that makes sense is not necessarily the right path for another guy,” Smart told 247Sports. “The great thing right now is it's up to the individual and his family to figure out what's most important and what is best going to prepare him for the next 20, 30, 40, 50 years. It's not just about what's going to get you picked in the NBA Draft. That's obviously important but you want to be prepared to be successful. It's interesting because there's been a lot of debate about what is the best way to get prepared for that.”

What’s next?

There’s also a debate over whether the G League path is a fatal blow to the NCAA. Even though Green’s, Todd’s and Nix’s decision to join the development program could change the landscape of college basketball on some level, Musselman and Tyndall don’t view it as a doom-and-gloom situation.

“When you look at the past 10, 12, 15 years, there's been so many one-and-dones across the country and college basketball has maintained its following, its competitiveness and the TV ratings and all those things have stayed rock solid,” Tyndall said. “I don't think losing four, five, six guys a year is going to impact college basketball at all. Those few elite programs may be a little upset or angered for a little bit, but at the end of the day it's not going to affect college basketball in my opinion.

“If it was 40 or 50 kids instead of four or five, maybe so. But those four or five kids were probably going to be one-and-done kids anyway. It's not like college basketball is going to have them on TV for three or four years."

Musselman expressed his doubts the G League would be able to financially support multiple “Select Teams” down the road. He added any non-success stories — such as an elite prospect not progressing on the court or not maintaining his draft stock — could change people’s view of the initiative.

And there’s no telling how long the G League path will even last, particularly if the draft-eligible age is lowered to 18 and the one-and-done rule is collectively bargained out in 2022. After all, top high school players would likely then just jump straight to the NBA Draft.

Whether the G League program blows over or grows into a national trend, it remains to be seen how it will all play out.

"I don't think you'll be able to evaluate the G League thing for three, four, five years down the road. Is it going to be good? Is it going to be bad? That's why I don't want to be selfish and say this is bad for college basketball. I personally think it's going to be good for a few,” Hamilton said. “Deep down inside, college is not for everybody. There are some kids who have no interest in going and I think we've done them a disservice by not allowing them to have that opportunity (the G League is offering). That's why I'm appreciative and respectful for what the NBA is doing.

“I just don't want us to devalue one to promote another. If we all sit down and all start looking at what's best for the overall sport and for the young people — I believe that if we can put somebody on the moon, I believe we can figure out a way how to make this work together."

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins