1.) The Dilemma
Brandon Jennings, R.J. Hampton, Jeremy Tyler, Emmanuel Mudiay, Terrance Ferguson, and LaMelo Ball all have something in common. And no, it’s not just that they’re really good at basketball. I’ll give you a hint, it has to do with college… or the lack thereof.
What these players have in common is that they all elected to play overseas instead of playing at a traditional Division I school. Now, all of their situations did differ. For example, Emmanuel Mudiay needed money to provide for his family, and questions surrounding LaMelo Ball’s college eligibility were prevalent throughout his senior year of high school, which ultimately hurt him and forced him to consider other options.
In wake of James Wiseman’s suspension and eventual departure from Memphis, many questions surrounding NBA bound prospects and their relationship with NCAA Division I basketball continue to surface. The loudest of them:
Are top prospects choosing to play overseas instead of DI basketball? – Well, the short answer is no.
2.) A Rational Look at Things
The NBA has expanded the G-league policies to make it more appealing for top players to choose that route and overseas, players can get paid whatever they deem they are worth. However, there’s still something deeply appealing about the pageantry and joy of playing Power Five college basketball.
Overseas they can flaunt gaudy paychecks to lure top prospects their way. What they can’t offer them is the same level of brand exposure that the NCAA can in the United States.
People are quick to forget; Zion Williamson wasn’t the slam dunk, number one draft prospect headed into his freshman year at Duke. Forbes’ college preseason draft board had him going somewhere between fifth and tenth. Zion built himself into the number one overall pick over the course of his nine months at Duke University.
3.) The Importance of College
The importance of this ability to ascend draft boards can’t be understated because of the salary incentives that come with being drafted higher. If Zion didn’t play at Duke and was taken with the fifth pick instead of the first like Forbes initially predicted, his projected three-year earnings, according to Real GM, would have been 16,802,100 dollars. That number is a far cry from the 26 million he is now projected to earn over the next three years just for being the number one pick.
And that’s just speaking strictly from an NBA salary standpoint. What also has to be calculated into this equation are the shoe and other endorsements deals that come with being the number one pick in the NBA Draft.
Overseas, basketball does not get the same exposure as it does in the U.S. This results in companies being unsure of athletes’ value when it comes to marketability. Really, the only recent exception to this norm is LaMelo Ball. Prior to playing overseas, he established a large following during his time spent as the starting point guard for Chino Hills. What also helps is having a boisterous father who intentionally builds his sons into brands.
He did a lot of the groundwork to market himself before heading overseas. Now remember, not every top prospect is LaMelo Ball. Not every top prospect has millions of followers and is already his own marketing entity. Again, LaMelo is the exception, not the rule.
For those who aren’t part of the Ball family, top prospects can utilize college basketball to build their draft stock and marketability thanks to the nightly exposure the NCAA offers.
4.) They Enjoy Their Short Stints
It is also not a stretch to say that these top basketball players just enjoy playing basketball. So much of what dominates headlines is paying players and allowing them to make money off of their name. This is important, but it’s not the meaning behind why these kids play. Many of them play simply because it is a lifelong dream to do so.
What rings through in my head is the ESPN video where Zion breaks down his experience at Duke and in the NCAA tournament.
“This whole thing has been exciting. Being around my brothers the whole time. That is something I will never forget.”
Zion also spoke about the value of his college experience.
“This is an experience you can’t get anywhere else. We went through everything together. I’m proud of everyone.”
He isn’t the only top prospect to harp on that same sentiment. In an article written by Scott Gleeson of USA Today, Ivan Rabb details why he chose to stay another year in college as opposed to entering the draft early.
“The plan is to stick in the league for a long time, not get there as soon as possible. So I feel like I made the best decision for me. I got better.”
5.) The Answer is Clear
From the outside looking in, media forgets to mention the amount of personal, emotional, and physical growth that happens at university. And yet, those that have played under these head coaches and teams all speak about how much they developed while attending school.
Before getting bogged down in the calculated business decisions, remember that these are 17 or 18-year-old kids seeking to fulfill lifelong dreams. For a lot of them, that dream is still playing for Coach K. at Duke, Tom Izzo at Michigan State or John Calipari at Kentucky.
Just because something has happened more frequently as of late does not mean it will become the new norm. Division I college basketball still has more to offer top prospects than any other alternative they have. In the end, the NCAA will still land the premier basketball talent. The only time that will change is when they change the One-and-Done Rule.
The NCAA, for as much hate as they get, do a real service for a plethora of student-athletes. They have massive college basketball TV deals and the always-looming madness in March… If it weren’t for those things, many of the top prospects that enter the NBA draft would go unseen.
I am a college basketball writer primarily based in Nashville, covering all mid-major activity along with Big Ten hoops.