Big news hit the college basketball off-season last week as two 5-star recruits decided to spend their “one and done” season in a new program developed by the NBA’s G League. The news was big enough on its own, but because of the current barren desert of a sports world we’re living in right now, it took on a little added significance and led many to proclaim that the inevitable death of the NCAA and college basketball had moved a giant step closer.
Debates raged for a few days and then died off, much like hot sports topics typically do. But now that we’re past the initial “who can fire off the hottest take” contest, there’s enough there to merit a discussion. Is college basketball dying? No. Is college basketball in trouble? Hell yes. But it has nothing to do with Jalen Green and Isiah Todd, and everything to do with Cassius Stanley. And nobody seems smart enough to realize that.
First, let’s talk G League.
The program, as outlined by G League president Shareef Abdur-Raheem to Evan Daniels from 247 Sports, aims to bring in a range of 10-12 high school basketball players who wish to play professional basketball for their pre-NBA year instead of going the route of playing for free in college. These players exist today, even in the one-and-done world. They go to Europe, Asia, Australia and other locations throughout the world to play professional basketball before entering the NBA draft the following season. The NBA wants those players here in the US, and this program provides the opportunity for that to happen.
The concept, which is still being developed, aims to keep those players together in a single location (Los Angeles is being mentioned) to train, go through film and classroom sessions, receive life skills coaching, and compete in a handful of exhibition games against G League teams, academy teams, international youth teams, and so on. Anyone guilty of “reading the headline but not the article” last week assumed that this was the G League opening its doors to high school athletes as a college basketball replacement. This is not that. This is not an attempt to grab TV deals from college basketball to make the G League a more popular entity, nor is it a “G League or NCAA” decision that every high school player will have to make on their own. This is explicitly an invitation-only developmental program putting international basketball in the crosshairs when it comes to the services of players who are in the position to play professionally out of high school.
Just how “not about replacing college basketball” is this program? Abdur-Raheem’s own son, Jabri, is heading to play college basketball at Virginia as a top 40 recruit. Again, this program is for the top 1% of high school basketball recruiting classes. There will be 5-star players coming through high school with the mindset of “I’m going to the G League program” who never get the invitation. And there will be players who are ranked in the top 5 who decline the invitation and would prefer to play college basketball. In summary, college hoops will be fine without Jalen Green.
So we’re in the clear, right? Not even close.
In that interview, Abur-Raheem mentions the benefits of this developmental program as being “coached by NBA quality head coaches, personnel and staff” and that “players will come out of this program knowing the NBA game, knowing the NBA language that we have.” Now THAT’S a problem. Because that directly translates to “the NBA does not believe college basketball has the ability to develop NBA players”. And that’s a point that’s driven home every year on draft night.
Here locally, Duke’s Cassius Stanley announced his decision to leave Duke after his freshman season for the NBA draft. Why? Well, the words in his announcement were pretty clear. “In evaluating players, the NBA values youth,” wrote Stanley. Or, combined with the above language from Abdur-Raheem, the NBA prefers to avoid having to de-program college basketball players to the point where they’d rather draft a 19-year-old freshman with potential over a 20-year-old all-conference and all-American sophomore.
Losing 10 or so incoming freshmen won’t make a dent in college basketball’s hull, but losing 30-40 Cassius Stanleys each season will absolutely sink the ship. And the only way to address that is to address the underlying sentiment behind the words “NBA quality coaching” and “knowing the NBA game”.
Me personally? I don’t get it. We have Coach K and Roy Williams in our backyards. Meanwhile, Jeff Bzdelik is considered to be one of the sharpest basketball minds on an NBA sideline, and we saw how that worked out in Winston-Salem. But I also know that we’re spoiled, and if the level we’re looking for here is “NBA quality head coach”, it’s a lot easier to hit that mark with 30 teams instead of 300 teams.
But it’s impossible to argue against college basketball and the NBA being two different sports. There’s a reason there’s such a small crossover among college and NBA viewers, and why you so frequently hear things like “I can’t watch (other level that’s not my favorite level), it’s such ugly basketball.”
The NBA doesn’t have to change. But college basketball must adapt. Yes, allowing players to profit off of their name and likeness is the right thing to do, and it would go so far towards having the best players playing college basketball. For whatever reason, the NCAA feels like the best way to make money is to keep money out of everyone else’s pocket, so while I’m hopeful that they’ll make that change, I’m skeptical. So assuming they don’t, here are 5 easy moves the NCAA can make on their own, or with a little collaboration from the NBA so college basketball can try to erase the stigma as a league that ruins potential NBA talent.
1 – Match the framework of an NBA game
Go to quarters. Move the three point line back. Take every NBA rule and make it an NCAA rule. It’s the easiest thing that the NCAA can do to at least make the games look similar to each other. It also forces the game to change. Defenses have to expand. There’s more room to operate on offense. It puts a greater emphasis on shooting. It increases the number of possessions. Adding a 6th foul keeps star players on the court longer, but the up and down pace puts a premium on bench depth. It just simply does so much to make the game flow better.
2 – Align NCAA and NBA referees
Hold off-season “retreats” where college and NBA referees connect and align. Have a designated week of the season when the best college referees work pro games and NBA referees work college games in their place. Build consistency in points of emphasis so the college game and the NBA game are officiated in the same manner.
3 – Lift restrictions on player/coach touchpoints
This one’s tricky because you’ll absolutely have idiot college coaches putting their teams through 2 or 3 practices in a single day or holding some mandatory 2AM fitness session after a loss, but the NCAA must do something about restricting the amount of time players can seek out instruction from their coaches. Maybe that’s the answer. Maybe keep restrictions on the time coaches can require from their players, but allow players to file requests for more time with their coaches on an individual basis for skills instruction only. Allow college coaching staffs to bring in special consultants, or allow room on the coaching staff to have a “shooting coach” instead of one of the other administrative roles that exist on current staffs. Allow players to spend time 12 months out of the year with expert instructors to develop their skills if they want to. The NCAA is always talking “student athlete”, but their current rules are akin to only allowing two hours of outside-of-class work per week for college professors. The rules restrict how much players can be coached, which seems very backwards.
4 – Change eligibility rules
The current NBA “testing the waters” route is a huge step forward in allowing players to gain valuable information about their draft potential. But if you really think about it, forcing players to gamble isn’t really helping anyone. Change the draft entry process. Set the NBA lottery as the deadline for college players to pull their name out of the draft. Otherwise, everyone is eligible to be drafted. There’s no “stay or go” decision, the only decision to make is whether or not a player wants to be considered on draft night. Any and all undrafted players retain their eligibility should they choose to continue their college careers, or they can sign a free agent contract. But you take the burden of that decision off of the players’ shoulders, you force coaches to do their homework to find out if their players are going to be drafted or not, and you’d never have an undrafted player with no place to go again. And if there ends up being an unexpected log jam on a college roster, the transfer rules allow players to find a better situation right away.
5 – Embrace the G League Development program
Allow college teams to schedule exhibitions against them. Allow them to enter pre-season tournaments like Maui or Battle of Atlantis. Help the NBA by blessing this program and collaborate to make it a viable option for players coming out of high school. Why? Well, quid pro quo goes a long way, for starters. But any opportunity that college basketball has to encourage the NBA to hand-pick NBA-ready players, that’s a win for college basketball.
The risk is never having players pulled into the NBA. The risk is losing players who aren’t ready, just because they feel like it gives them the greatest odds to make it. These 5 changes allow the NCAA to carry out its mission of preparing athletes for the next step in their lives. Either by making it a viable option to stay in school, or by taking the necessary steps to advance their athletes to the next level.
Trading 10 Jalen Greens for 30 Cassius Stanleys each year … that’s not survival. That’s a big, big win for college basketball. Losing all 40 to the NBA? That’s a recipe for extinction.