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Elite high school hoops prospects should stop playing the NCAA game and consider the G League

There are benefits to skipping college for the NBA’s development league, including the money from agents and legal endorsement deals

It’s time for elite high school basketball prospects to start considering the G League. Yes, the NBA’s G League.

The FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball revealed that players from more than 20 Division I men’s programs have been identified as possibly breaking NCAA rules through violations, according to documents published by Yahoo! Sports on Feb. 23. At least 25 players have been linked to improper benefits, including Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, Alabama’s Collin Sexton and Duke’s Wendell Carter. Current NBA players Kyle Kuzma, Dennis Smith Jr., Bam Adebayo, Isaiah Whitehead and Markelle Fultz were also mentioned as taking benefits while in college.

Sexton and Carter are expected to enter the NBA after their freshman seasons and are projected lottery picks in the 2018 NBA draft. Smith, Adebayo and Fultz also left college after one season to play in the NBA. The NCAA and colleges receive billions of dollars, thanks to these college athletes playing for them with only a scholarship and a stipend as their payment. So instead of a McDonald’s All-American or Jordan Brand Classic All-Star playing the one-and-done game and going to college for a year, why not just go to the G League, where the money received from agents and endorsement deals is legal?

“I think that’s part of the solution toward NCAA reform,” Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said.

The elephant in the room is that all the aforementioned players are African-American. Most of the elite college basketball players have been blacks making billions of dollars for elite programs such as Duke, Kansas, UCLA and Kentucky for years. The teenagers have not received one legal penny other than their scholarships, and the NCAA doesn’t appear willing to dish out anything financially in the future. Meanwhile, black athletes and families, many of whom are struggling financially, fall victim to a much-needed but illegal money offer from an agent, booster or coach and end up being chastised or worse.

Elite high school stars should just become a professional out of high school by joining the G League. Yes, the highest salary of $25,000 isn’t exactly hitting the lottery and G League is not as glamorous as playing for Duke or Kentucky. But a player could accept money from an agent or endorsement money from a shoe company legally and put effort into getting ready for the NBA in an NBA-sanctioned league. If exciting, high-flying prep phenom Zion Williamson went to the G League, Adidas, Nike, Under Armour, etc., wouldn’t have any problem locking him in early by offering a financial package to supplement his income.

High school players have had the option of entering the G League after graduation for years. Starkville, Mississippi, prep star Latavious Williams graduated from high school and played in the NBA Development League (now the G League) for the Tulsa 66ers during the 2009-10 season. The 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward was ineligible to be promoted to play in the NBA, per rules, during his first season for Tulsa. But after one season removed from being in high school, Williams was eligible for the 2010 NBA draft. He was selected in the second round by the Miami Heat, which dealt his draft rights to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Williams played another season for the Thunder’s D-League affiliate Tulsa but never made it to the NBA. The 28-year-old is playing for Spain Valencia Basket and also has played professionally in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Russia. Perhaps the risk in going to the G League straight from high school is the reality of a kid playing against grown men hungry to make it to the NBA. If the kid isn’t for real, he is exposed and his college eligibility is gone.

The G League may very well be the second-best pro league in the world behind the NBA. But if freshman college stars Sexton, Carter, Marvin Bagley III, DeAndre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Trae Young and Mohamed Bamba were playing in the G League right now, they probably would be successful. And if they weren’t stellar, NBA scouts at their games every night would be able to project what they could become when they get stronger and more mature.

There are several benefits that could come to a prep star who joins the G League after high school:

  • A salary payment with free living accommodations, free medical insurance and free Lyft vouchers. At 18 years old, what real expenses does a teenager really have? There would also be the ability to legally earn endorsement money and other possible compensation to offset the low salary.
    New York Knicks guard Emmanuel Mudiay and former NBA guard Brandon Jennings began their professional careers playing in China and Italy, respectively, and both had shoe contracts with Under Armour. Had they joined the then-D-League instead, they could have received endorsement shoe money without leaving the United States. For an 18-year-old prep star, making major shoe money without having to leave the country could be a more comfortable option for him and his family.
  • The prospect would be developed by NBA-hired coaches while playing in an NBA style with NBA rules. Without school, the prospect would have more time to work on his game with the coaches to help improve his game to make him more valuable for the NBA draft.
  • The competition is arguably the best in the world outside of the NBA. After playing in China this season, Jennings is playing for the G League Wisconsin Herd with hopes of getting back to the NBA.
  • The teenager would have an ability to work out at an NBA facility and practice and play against NBA players who are sent on assignment to the G League.
  • G League coaches often end up being coaches on the NBA level.
  • The opportunity to get used to the NBA lifestyle on and off the court with travel across the United States for games.
  • The G League offers an online education through Arizona State University that is partially paid for. The G League aids with enrollment and taking the right courses. If a kid isn’t interested in school, he does not have to take part.
  • All G League games are shown on their app, and some contests are also shown live on NBA TV. The entire G League Showcase is shown on NBA TV. If an elite high school player were to join the G League, NBA TV would likely show more games showcasing the intriguing prospect.
  • NBA scouts would attend games nightly. In other words, the young prospect would get seen perhaps more than if he were in college.

“If he is elite, he can get a shoe contract,” said Jennings, an eight-year NBA veteran. “The agent can take care of the kid. It’s only for a couple months. You’re playing against grown men. You’re playing in front of NBA scouts every game. NBA scouts are always at the G League games. The G League is definitely better because you have NBA players who go up and go down [to the G League], so you’re definitely playing against NBA players. It’s not like you’re playing against NBA players in college.”

How does an elite high school player get into the G League? The prospect must be 18 years old and would have to request a contract from the G League. The G League Basketball Operations Committee would then determine whether the prospect is good enough to play in the league. That means the league wouldn’t sign a player unless that player is deemed talented enough. If the answer is yes, the prospect would be signed to a contract and entered into the G League draft.

Playing on a G League team would be more challenging than it would be at Duke, Kentucky, UCLA or anywhere in college basketball. Everyone in this league was once a college star. One G League team official did offer a warning to a high school star considering joining.

“This league is hard, and this would be the first time nothing is given to them,” the G League team official said. “So they would have to understand they will not get playing time based off what they did in high school or what AAU program they were a part of. It will challenge them. They have to come in with a professional attitude, understand being on time is important and that once they sign a G League contract there is no turning back to playing amateur sports.

“It’s a business. If you make a mistake or have a bad attitude in college, they deal with it. In the G League, the contract is not guaranteed so they can cut you at any time. If they come in with the right approach and work hard every day, I think it would be good for them. But I see a lot of kids taking things for granted and thinking it would be easy. And in the G League, they are playing against grown men who are looking to make a name for themselves.”

Warriors forward Kevin Durant said after practice Feb. 23 that college athletes should be paid and are being exploited. The 2017 NBA Finals MVP said he wished the NBA allowed players to go to the league straight from high school and he would have done it if he had the option because his family needed financial help. While the NBA and National Basketball Players Association are expected to consider rescinding the “one-and-done rule,” the earliest the next collective bargaining agreement can be changed is 2024.

Thunder head coach Billy Donovan believes the NBA should let players come straight out of high school and go to the G League if they’re not drafted.

“Guy should be allowed to come out of high school, because there is this thing that everyone wants to keep hiding behind … ‘Who is going to guide? They are getting misinformation. They are getting the wrong information,’ ” Donovan said. “Well, there are NBA players who go with a financial adviser and sometimes it doesn’t work out well. No one is saying, ‘Who is looking out for them?’ We need to allow these guys to make their own decisions. And if they’re not drafted or are misled, the next step is to go into the G League, in my opinion, to clean up that part of college basketball.”

The NBA and the NFL always get criticized for using the NCAA as a minor league system. If the NFL, however, decided one day to put billions of dollars behind a Junior NFL to develop young players, it could be the death of major college football.

The NBA actually has that option right now in the G League. All it takes is one high school superstar to take the plunge to see it work to his benefit. And if a Williamson-type prep star does find success in it, perhaps a long line of other teenage stars will follow. If that happens, the NCAA might wish that it had just paid its student-athletes and allowed them to sign endorsement deals.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.