Jalen Green is an 18 year old American High School basketball player who has made headlines this week for defying the status quo, and rejecting scholarships from several Division 1 Universities. A stand-out player in California, Green has won more or less every individual honour possible at the High School level. So why would he turn down a 100% free scholarship to play at some of the USA’s top-ranked Colleges?
Traditionally, after completing High School, players will be scouted to continue their career by Universities. They would typically not be expected to pay any fees, and are awarded scholarships in exchange for representing their College. Historically, players were able to enter the NBA directly from High School, if skilled enough. Some of the biggest names in basketball have followed this route to great success. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett are all examples of players who won the MVP award without playing a second at the College level. However, this is not longer permitted. American players are now required to be at least a year removed from High School, and typically will complete between one and four years honing their craft in College.
However, this is not necessarily as generous as it seems. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is a billion dollar business. The annual tournament known as March Madness last year pulled in over $900m. The NCAA has always come under fire for unfair treatments of athletes. Players are a commodity at the centre of a billion dollar industry, yet they are unable to receive payment for their services, or receive any kind of sponsorship. On the contrary, the coaches are some of the best paid, if not the top paid state employee. Legendary coach, John Calipari, of the Kentucky Wildcats takes home a mega salary of over $9m annually! But how much are the players taking home? $0. Kentucky has seen countless players go on to star in the NBA, as well as three players, Anthony Davis, John Wall, and Karl Anthony-Towns, being picked number 1 in the draft.
You can argue that they are being paid in free classes, as waived tuition fees certainly add up to tens of thousands of dollars, but in reality, only a small percentage of the star players go on to actually finish their degree, instead opting to enter the NBA after one or two academic years. There has also of course been no shortage of scandals involving Universities inflating student’s grades in order to allow them to play, and in turn make money for the school. The promise of free education therefore is perhaps not entirely altruistic, and it is no secret that NCAA sports are a major source of income for American Universities. The other major concern is if a player should get injured competing at University, and end their careers before earning a single cent.
On the other hand, it is unfair to argue that competing at the college level does not benefit anybody but the NCAA. For the star players, who are perhaps good enough to enter the NBA directly from High School, it may be something of a burden. However, for every star player destined for greatness and glory there are fifty young athletes who in exchange for playing basketball will get to go to University and receive a degree, many of whom may otherwise not have had the opportunity. A fictional example would be Forrest Gump, who despite almost not being accepted into local elementary school, managed to graduate from The University of Alabama. An opportunity he received purely on account of his incredible skills on the American Football field.
What are the Alternatives?
The G- League.
The NBA G-League (formerly known as the D-League) was long since seen as something of a joke. Despite being affiliated with the NBA, and in a sense being ‘one league below,’ the talent divide is nowhere near as close as say, the Premier League and the Championship. Leeds United could give any team in the Premier League a good game, and certainly would have a solid chance against most of the bottom-half teams. On the other hand, despite the Milwaukee Bucks being one of the best teams in the NBA, their ‘affiliate’ team, the Wisconsin Herd, who stand top of the G-League, would not have a snowball’s chance against even the most feeble NBA teams. Typically, the D-League was home to player’s graduating from College who did not have the ability to play in the NBA.
However, NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, who is often regarded as something of a visionary since taking on the job in 2014, has made efforts to legitimise the G-League (G for its sponsor, Gatorade). Teams are now starting to invest more in these teams which has seen significant improvements in the visibility and ability of the teams. In recent seasons, injuries and gaps in line-ups have seen more and more teams looking to their feeder teams for back-up, and G-League players have answered the call.
Jalen Green is making waves by defying the ‘traditional’ route of High School-University-NBA, by instead going directly into the G-League. As long as he is one year removed from High School, he will be eligible for the draft the following year. There are many merits to this decision. Firstly, Green will have the opportunity to play more games in a year, as the G-League plays more games than the NCAA. He will be putting himself against grown men. The jump from playing in High School to professionally will no doubt be a big adjustment, but this will prepare him for the giants in the NBA better than College could. And, last but certainly not least, there’s also the small matter of the $125,000 salary he is expected to sign. This is not even including sponsorships, which he will definitely be offered in abundance, which could probably double his salary with ease.
“I wanted to get better overall and prepare myself for the NBA because that’s my ultimate goal.”Jalen Green speaking with Yahoo Sports.
It’s clearly not the same level of cash as the professionals in the NBA are getting, however, if somebody offered me a six-figure salary for my first job after High School, with the possibility to take that to seven-figures after just one year, I might just have considered it.
As basketball expands, and becomes an increasingly global game, world-class talent is appearing all over the world. Another alternative route into the NBA, is to play professionally overseas. The NBA rules state that any player who has signed (and played under) a professional contract internationally is eligible for the NBA. This is becoming more and more of a popular option. LaMelo Ball, the younger brother of Pelicans Guard, Lonzo Ball, was being recruited by UCLA at as young as 13 years old. Eventually, he completed High School in Lithuania, before signing a professional contract in Australia with the Illawarra Hawks. After impressing down under, he has now returned to the United States, where he is heavily touted to be picked number 1 overall. He also reportedly purchased his former Australian team.
European leagues have been world-class for considerable time. The format is similar to that of European football, in which individual nations compete in their own domestic leagues, but the top teams also play in EuroLeague. Similar to the Champions League in football, this is the biggest and most prestigious tournament in European Basketball. The current champions are CSKA Moscow, but Spanish titans Real Madrid have won the cup a record-setting ten times. The USA’s shock elimination in last year’s FIBA World Cup also clearly shows the level of talent that exists outside of the USA.
One of the brightest stars in today’s NBA in Slovenian superstar, Luka Dončić. The NBA lists Dončić as a 2nd year professional, and therefore it is remarkable that he already is one of the league’s top scorers and most dangerous players. However, describing Dončić like this is completely disingenuous. In reality, Dončić left Ljubljana at 13 to join Real Madrid, and has been competing professionally against grown men since his mid-teens. He was the MVP of the EuroLeague in 2018. Now 21, Dončić has more professional experience than most NBA All-Stars, and it shows in his deadly shot, and unrivalled composure. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the NBA’s reigning MVP. He also came directly from playing in Europe. “The Greek Freak” made his debut for the Milwaukee Bucks at only 18 years old. Now he is one of the League’s most recognisable names.
The NCAA has produced some of the finest NBA talent of all time. Would Michael Jordan have had the same legendary career without those three formative years studying in North Carolina? Steph Curry is without a doubt the greatest player to ever wear a Davidson jersey, yet they have vowed to not retire his jersey until he completes his degree. A deal which Curry has vowed to uphold. However, the stranglehold on young prospects at times feels outdated, and Green’s decision to explore other options serves as a strong message to the NCAA and to the players that they may wish to consider their options.
Ultimately, requiring players to continue development after high school is good for the NBA. The result being more mature players, both mentally and physically, who are more prepared for the challenges of the professional game. On the other hand, alternative routes to the NCAA’s monopoly, in which players are clearly a commodity can only be a good thing. We are beginning to see international professionals, such as Luka Dončić enter the league clearly fully-prepared and battle-hardened, which shows that College ball is far from the be all and end all. Whilst it is brilliant in the sense it provides opportunities for people from lower socio economic backgrounds to study at University, for others it is simply a means to an end. Green’s decision may finally be the lightning rod which makes us ask ourselves if the NCAA is still the best route to the professional leagues, or indeed, if it ever was.