With LeBron James and Barack Obama both broaching the subject last week amid the pay-for-play college basketball scandal, it was only a matter of time before momentum swung toward an NBA-led alternative, especially since commissioner Adam Silver has broached the subject in recent years.
As it turns out, momentum was already building before James and Obama floated the idea.
The NBA is preparing to go into business with high school graduates again, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. The reported plan, at least in its infant stages, would allow 18-year-olds to enter the draft or join the G League on a livable wage. The NBA would also establish contact points with players even earlier in their prep careers, but would not go so far as establishing a EuroLeague-style farm system.
“We are looking at changing the relationship we have with players before they reach the NBA,” an anonymously sourced high-ranking league official told ESPN. “This is a complex challenge, and there’s still a lot of discussion about how it’s going to happen, but we all see the need to step in.”
Silver could unveil a new plan as soon as this summer, after the Commission on College Basketball concludes its investigation into the NCAA corruption scandal, according to the ESPN report. The commission, chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is tasked with recommending sweeping reform to fix a broken college basketball system. Whether that includes paying student athletes, a notion NCAA president Mark Emmert has staunchly opposed, could impact the NBA’s plan.
In the 2005 collective bargaining agreement, the NBA abolished a rule that allowed prep prospects to jump straight to the league, restricting the draft-eligible age to 19 or one year removed from high school graduation. This essentially created the one-and-done phenomenon that plagues the NCAA.
Recently, Silver has been more open about the league’s intent to end the one-and-done rule, but the league set aside that discussion during the latest round of collective bargaining with the players’ union. This isn’t a quick fix, not when the NBA has bigger plans than just going back to the old system.
“We’re outside of our cycle of collective bargaining right now which is when we generally address an issue like that,” Silver said in his annual All-Star Weekend press conference. “But [National Basketball Players Association executive director] Michele Roberts and I have also agreed there is no reason we shouldn’t at least be discussing it right now.
“So we’ve had some meetings with the Players Association where we’ve shared data on success rates of young players coming into the league. We’ve talked a lot about youth development in terms of whether we should be getting involved in some of these young players even earlier than when they come into college.
“And from a league standpoint, on one hand, we think we have a better draft when we’ve had an opportunity to see these young players play an elite level before they come into the NBA.
“On the other hand, I think the question for the league is, in terms of their ultimate success, are we better off intersecting with them a little bit younger? Are we better off bringing them into the league when they’re 18 using our G League as it was designed to be as a development league and getting them minutes on the court there? And there is also recognition that for some of these elite players, there is no question that they can perform in the NBA at 18 years old.”
Elite prospects have always been paid under the table, but what was once a hushed understanding became impossible to keep quiet once enough people got their hands in an ever-increasing pot of money. A recent FBI investigation sounded the alarm on NBA agents, college coaches, shoe executives, financial advisers, travel ball officials and everyone else influencing teenage basketball sensations.
By taking the lid off the jar and getting everything out into the open, the NBA could take advantage of a more transparent process. While 18-year-olds can join the G League now, they are restricted to a maximum salary of $26,000, so a handful of prospects — led by Brandon Jennings in 2008 — have sought six- or seven-figure contracts overseas instead. Increased salaries could keep those players and more at home, and you can imagine the increased interest in the G League with an influx of talent.
With the ability to develop talent outside of NBA rosters, where immature players from Kwame Brown to Robert Swift may have been failed by a professional atmosphere they weren’t prepared for, the league might also benefit from grooming potential NBA prospects to capitalize on their opportunity.
This led to some discussion of whether youth-level academies might also be an option for the NBA, in much the same way European basketball teams develop talent like potential No. 1 pick Luka Doncic. The NBA has already established development academies in Asia, Africa, Australia and Mexico. For now, though, the league is not prepared to take that step in the U.S., according to the ESPN report.
Instead, there’s reportedly been some consideration of establishing NBA-sponsored tournaments, camps and clinics to better prepare high school players both on and off the court even before graduation. The NBPA, USA Basketball and apparel companies already conduct similar operations.
Now, the NBA is seeking input from all those same parties as well as their own internal braintrust in order to best position themselves to not only solve an issue that has plagued the sport for years, but benefit from it. The NBA is the gold standard of basketball, so it only makes sense to shed light on an operation conducted in the dark, where everyone else wields influence over their future employees.
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