The NBA G League: A New Path to the NBA?

In late April, Jalen Green, ESPN’s top-ranked prospect in the Class of 2020, announced that he was bypassing college and signing with the NBA G League.

In late April, Jalen Green, ESPN’s top-ranked prospect in the Class of 2020, announced that he was bypassing college and signing with the NBA G League. In the next few weeks, Isaiah Todd (13th in the class), Daishen Nix (20th in the class), and Kai Sotto (62nd in the class) all joined Green and decided to head to the G League.

The NBA G League started off in 2001 as an eight-team basketball developmental league and was originally called the NBA D-League. In 2017, Gatorade became the official title sponsor for the league and changed the name of the league to the “G League.” Now the league has 28 teams and is reportedly looking to expand to more cities, a sign of its desire to become an increasingly relevant force in the basketball world.

Prospects taking a different path than playing college ball isn’t new, but it isn’t popular either. In the past, top high school prospects like Brandon Jennings and Emmanuel Mudiay went straight to the NBA from Italy and China, respectively. This season, RJ Hampton (5th for ESPN) and Lamelo Ball (21st for ESPN) both opted to play in the National Basketball League (NBL), based in Australia and New Zealand. Athletes have explored even more unique routes in the past as well. In preparation for the 2019 NBA Draft, Darius Bazley (13th for ESPN) agreed to a guaranteed 5 year, $1 million contract with New Balance to work as an intern and train with professionals instead of playing NCAA college basketball.

Although there is not much of a difference between training in college and training in the G League, the news of these top prospects’ decisions made quite a buzz due to their rarity, since college basketball has always been the typical path. In terms of development, there are no expected differences between these two paths, in fact, the G League may increase the chances for players to shine in the NBA. Playing in the G League provides an environment most similar to the NBA and can help players adjust to the busy game schedule as well as the physical rigors of the league. High school prospects, however, didn’t choose the G League in the past because of the low reward to risk ratio. By choosing to go to the G League, athletes are giving up on going to college and experiencing the culture there. Recent changes in top prospects’ thoughts break that barrier. The G League previously only offered up to a $125K salary for prospects but recently, the terms have been restructured so that prospects could earn $500K or more from their salaries and incentives. This revamped program helped convince many high school prospects, including Jalen Green, to sign with the G League rather than join a college team. The G League’s sudden rise in popularity signals the NBA’s intention to more actively recruit and develop its future talents, while also offering top prospects a fairer compensation for their name value than the NCAA in their ability to receive endorsements. The rise of this program, combined with the expected cancellation of the one-and-done rule in 2022, will completely alter the basketball recruiting process beyond the high school level.

For the NCAA, it signifies a loss of more future one-and-done talents. The NCAA treated college athletes poorly, including licensing their likenesses for video games without proper compensation and not allowing athletes to receive endorsement money, damaging the NCAA’s image. The league has recently stated that they are open to letting athletes profit from their name, image, and likeness, but whether the league can implement this system successfully and lure top prospects as they did before is still a question. Losing the future Zion Williamsons and Stephen Currys of the game won’t destroy the NCAA, but their loss won’t be trivial either.

For the G League, it signifies a rise to becoming a well-respected minor league and a legitimate developmental league for the NBA. Gathering players like Jalen Green will inevitably garner more attention and will increase the G League’s profitability. When the one-and-done rule expires in 2022, more players will welcome the idea of entering the NBA draft straight out of high school and undrafted players will join G League teams, increasing the number of young players and the general competitiveness of the league as well. NBA commissioner Adam Silver also envisions the future of the G League as having a “strong educational component with programs (as well as teaching) life skills,” and claims that the G League will shift it’s attention to “preparing these players for the NBA.”

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