The NBA's New Way to Exploit Minor Leaguers

The NBA's New Way to Exploit Minor Leaguers

Commissioner Adam Silver poses for a photo with the top prospects before the start of the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center on June 23, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

SourceMike Stobe/Getty

Why you should care

Because the NBA minimum wage explodes, if you ignore the handout. 

Caleb Swanigan knows what critics say about his game. “I play below the rim,” he says. “But, at the end of the day, finishing is what matters.”

The Big Ten Player of the Year may not defy gravity like, say, Los Angeles center DeAndre Jordan. But days before the NBA draft, Swanigan — and 181 other early draft entrants — is gambling on himself. This year, that type of personal pledge matters more than ever before.

Under the new NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, 60 additional jobs have been created for aspiring NBA professionals.

One notable change in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, signed in December 2016, is the addition of two-way contracts. Starting next season, NBA teams can obtain the rights of two players who simultaneously belong to a D-League affiliate. The D-League, or NBA Development League — now known as the NBA Gatorade League, thanks to sponsorship bucks — is the association’s minor league.

If I ever get an NBA opportunity, I’ll be ready to produce in the league.

Caleb Swanigan

“The NBA is truly understanding how valuable developing our young talent can be for the league,” says Ken McDonald, head coach of San Antonio’s G-League affiliate Austin Spurs. “It’s going to explode with these two-way contracts.”

One reason for the G-League’s improvement is proof of concept. On opening day this season, 135 of the 450 players on NBA rosters spent time in “the G.” Now, as McDonald infers, further growth is imminent. With two-way contracts, top prospects who don’t immediately secure an NBA roster spot can command higher salaries than in years past.

Current G-League salaries max out at $26,000, but two-way players will earn a guaranteed $75,000 with the opportunity for $275,000, depending on NBA time earned. This substantial boost in potential income should keep more college stars stateside, as opposed to seeking a decent living in foreign leagues.

Of course, the NBA is not in the business of philanthropy. This rule is a clever way for franchises to control desirable prospects for up to three seasons, while other G-Leaguers are eligible for promotion by any NBA team, at any time. Plus, if a two-way player does find stardom, his team will have scored a huge bargain. At $275,000 max, two-way players are considerably cheaper than the $815,000 minimum salary for rookies next season.

Swanigan could be drafted in the first round, but, should he slip — or find himself on a stacked roster with little NBA playing time — the G-League could be reality. If Swanigan is confident that he’ll gain NBA status quickly, declining a two-way guarantee would be savvy. Most newly promoted G-Leaguers sign 10-day contracts paying $48,000. Added to the $26,000 G-League base salary, one or two 10-day NBA trials, plus the freedom to sign with any club for the rookie minimum, exponentially outweighs two-way earnings.

“I’m not a freak athlete,” Swanigan says. “But if I ever get an NBA opportunity, I’ll be ready to produce in the league.”

The NBA has shown its hand. Now we wait and see if a new crop of rookies will double down.

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