As a sports fan and an NBA guy, I generally find that anything that moves toward finally cutting the diseased heart out of college sports is a good thing, whether it’s minor league baseball long ago rendering college baseball completely irrelevant or Canadian junior hockey doing the same to college puck.
And with everything that’s been in the news about college basketball over the past couple of years, and the plantation purgatory that is the one-and-done rule, it is long past time that someone takes NCAA basketball out back behind the woodshed and puts a bullet in its brainstem once and for all.
And while the NBA won’t address the eligibility of high school prep-to-pros until the 2022 draft at the earliest, the simple fact remains that the timing has never been better to plunge a dagger into the heart of the diseased animal that is college hoop.
Consider the TV ramifications. ESPN and TNT just paid a king’s ransom for rights to televise the games, a bonanza so lucrative that it raised the NBA salary cap from $70 million in 2015-16 to $94.14 million just a year later, raising salaries across the board by 30 percent overnight.
You know who’s not part of that pay-for-play arrangement? CBS.
And CBS, beholden as they are to the NCAA after paying them $1.1 billion a year? They haven’t broadcast an NBA game since 1990. The NBA doesn’t owe them a goddamn thing.
And it’s not like CBS can go after the NBA legally; it’s not the pro league’s job to ensure that the college league is putting a watchable product on the floor. College basketball is unwatchable now. March Madness just draws great ratings because everyone fills out a bracket where they wildly overrate their alma mater (why yes, I always have Nevada in the Final Four.)
Sure, Turner’s part of that whole college crunch, but you’re trying to tell me TNT can’t throw a few NBA games on during those weekends?
Which is why it is long past time for the NBA to stop coddling college and, if prep-to-pro is too fraught with hazards like Korleone Young, James Lang, and their ilk, letting prep-to-G-League at least be a thing.
The NBA’s trying. They’ve recently announced a $125,000 path-to-the-pros salary structure, a unique G-League contract that will be offered to kids straight out of high school and, in a nice little twisting of the knife to the recent college corruption scandal, 25 large more than DeAndre Ayton got paid at Arizona.
Better still, those prospects would be free to sign with agents, get endorsement deals worth far more than their salary as the Next Big Thing, and just generally take their own control of their marketing.
They’d also get NBA-level conditioning coaches, workout regimens, and everything else that comes along with the territory of being an NBA athlete.
Which is all well and good. It’s a marked improvement over the G-League’s current $35,000 salary and has the same hook that LaVar Ball tried to pitch with his half-baked vanity project Junior Basketball Association.
But it’s not enough.
Part of the problem is that the NBA teams that would be drafting these guys after their special contract year own the G-League teams these guys would be on, and what incentive do they have to develop them with no future guarantee that they’ll get a return on investment.
The Celtics might be able to put a top prospect on the Maine Red Claws, but they’re not picking first overall, so why should they give that prospect any run?
There’s also the secondary problem of the average age of a non-NBA roster player in the G-League being 25, but I’m of the mind that’s overblown. If you saw Ayton be a man among men in his Suns debut this season against an actual NBA team in the form of the Mavericks, with 18 points and 10 rebounds, you know that these one-and-dones will do just fine in the G-League.
What basketball needs is to take a page from baseball.
We’re a year or two away, but eventually every NBA team will have a G-League affiliate. It will be a true farm system.
So here’s what you do.
First off, allow prep-to-pros, for the G-League and the NBA alike.
Next, expand the NBA draft to four or five rounds, with those later players unlikely to make an NBA roster but just as assignable to “the minors” as a baseball player.
Finally, pimp the living crap out of the G-League through existing NBA marketing channels and tack G-League games onto the TV contracts already signed. Give the networks a freebie, a first hit to get them and their viewers addicted, run it at a loss for a few years, if you could do it with the WNBA for ages, you can do it with the G-League now.
Eventually, news follows news. When the media cottons on that their draft coverage is going to be powered by the G-League and not college, they’ll stop talking about college ball and start talking about G-League ball.
You could even expand active rosters to 15 players after the All-Star break, again just like baseball, and get fans salivating over “September call-ups” with the NBA’s own form of “March Madness”. Teams in playoff contention could use them in garbage time; teams playing out the string could give their G-Leaguers some pro run to make the tanking easier to swallow.
And if college basketball dies on the vine? Good! We want college basketball to die on the vine, the same way college baseball and college hockey are deader than disco even though the NCAA still runs those sports.
The NBA needs to stop half-assing the G-League. They’ve got a chance to make something truly special, something beneficial to teams, fans, and high school prospects alike.
And the key is to stop being diplomatic with the NCAA.