The NBA’s G League Literally Can’t Pay Players to Play
The development league’s efforts to lure the nation’s elite high schoolers have yet to catch on.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because players still see the importance of college life.
College basketball is supposed to be the scourge of the elite, ambitious 18-year-old baller. The youngsters coming out of high school deserve the opportunity to be paid in more than books and tuition, but the NBA’s one-and-done precept pushes the stars into college, where they can’t be paid.
So when the NBA’s G League announced it was offering its select contract last October, there were declarations that high school phenoms would jump at the chance to play for immediate pay. The $125,000 bonanza was the answer.
Only it hasn’t been.
According to a G League spokesperson, three to five select contracts were available for elite players for the 2019–20 season. So far there have been no takers. Not a single one.
One veteran NBA agent — who did not want to be named — said a drawback to the select contract is that players cannot be called up to an NBA team if he sets the G League on fire.
G League program manager Rod Strickland, who enjoyed a long career in the NBA from 1988–2005, has been out to high school and summer tournaments — selling the virtues of the league and the select contract — but none of the elite high school players would take his money.
Strickland, who for months has been educating families and players on the value of the select contract, was not available for comment when OZY reached out. But G League president and former NBA player Shareef Abdur-Rahim said in a statement: “The NBA G League is a proven developer of talent, and we’re pleased to be able to continue to offer elite young prospects the opportunity to sign a select contract to accelerate their NBA-readiness before they are eligible for the NBA Draft.”
Sounds plausible enough, and the media oversold the select contract as some type of game-changer when it was announced. But the kids aren’t buying.
Real talk, it’s not.
That the NBA is only offering three to five of these contracts, at $125,000 each, begs the question: Does the league understand the value of a dollar? Or was the league simply responding to the howls of protest that there was no viable professional basketball route in the U.S. for the high school graduate and the NBA had to offer something?
That amount is hardly enough to forgo college and play at an elite level with the opportunity for a bigger payday. If a player takes the money, their college eligibility is forfeited. If they enrolled in school in August or September, they cannot change their minds and take the G League money.
It is understandable then why phenoms scoffed at the G League select contract, which was designed for the type of talent who would potentially become an NBA Draft pick.
The likes of James Wiseman went to Memphis, Anthony Edwards to Georgia and Isaiah Stewart to Washington. Others in their seat are clearly watching.
One veteran NBA agent — who did not want to be named — said a drawback to the select contract is that players cannot be called up to an NBA team if he sets the G League on fire. The benefit of the G League, the agent explained, is the player gets to perform for all 30 NBA teams and can be drafted by any of them in 2020, if he impresses. “He might make such an impression that when the draft comes around, the NBA team might move up in the draft to get him because they are so familiar with him,” the agent added.
Elite high school and college players are also concerned about their brand and their stock. Playing against older, stronger players who have finished college — and perhaps played overseas professionally — could hurt their development or reveal flaws.
R.J. Hampton knew better. The 2019 high school star from Dallas opted to play for the New Zealand Breakers in the National Basketball League of Australia during the gap season before he can enter the 2020 NBA draft. Hampton, who passed on offers from Texas Tech, Kansas and Memphis, is being paid $200,000 by the club and $800,000 by club sponsors, which amounts to a $1 million deal, a basketball executive told OZY.
In addition, kids also want to be on TV. They saw Zion Williamson, who played 33 games at Duke, many of them on ESPN. While his brand was already established when he was at Spartanburg Day School, college elevated Williamson to another level.
That won’t be everybody’s experience, of course, but it’s the goal.
Williamson’s value from college exposure far exceeded the $125,000 that the G League is waving. Take away taxes and 4 percent to the NBA agent, and $125,000 is a pittance, especially with college programs offering more than that under the table.
Damon Wilson is the director for Athletes of Tomorrow, a Nike-sponsored Elite Youth Basketball League travel program outside Atlanta stocked with Division I talent. Wilson says G League versus college is not a reasonable choice right now. “For one thing, the amount of money is too low,” he says. “Also, the G League is getting so cloudy with players you can get lost. You can go to college and still get developed and play on a big stage.”
If the NBA wants a farm system, Wilson says, it is going to have to offer bonuses similar to the ones Major League Baseball offers its raw talent: $500,000, $1 million and $1.5 million.
For now, the G League is not in the same league as college basketball, not at $125,000.
You have to ask several questions:
- Did the NBA purposely offer a low sum to make it look like it was all-in with the players by offering a bona fide path to the league when all along, the league wanted to keep one-and-done alive for another three seasons?
- Is the $125,000 a sign of why one-and-done is here in the first place?
- Does the NBA not trust 18-year-olds with big pots of money?
- Are the high schoolers still receiving under-the-table payments of $125,000 or more to go to college?
- Or maybe it is this: Are the elite players and their families, often characterized unfairly as money-hungry, just eager to explore college for a year and experience higher education and all that’s good about it?
For what it’s worth, the players’ reluctance to accept this select contract speaks volumes.