For decades, the NCAA has had a monopoly over the best high school basketball players in the United States. Historically, the best players would go to elite universities and stay three or four years, and if the opportunity presented itself, proceeded into the NBA. As a result, fans have been blessed with decades of high level competition and countless memorable moments in March Madness. However, as new options have emerged such as playing overseas and the NBA G League, which allow high school players to earn a salary rather than going to college, the NCAA has started to lose out on top high school talent.
This season, Memphis center James Wiseman, a projected top-five draft pick this summer, opted to leave school rather than serve his 12-game suspension, and hired an agent. Unfortunately for the NCAA and its fans, Wiseman is the third elite prospect expected to be drafted in the top-five of the upcoming draft who has opted to pass on college basketball. Specifically, R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball, are fulfilling their requirement to wait one year post high school graduation in order to be eligible for the NBA Draft by playing professionally overseas and earning a salary.
Although R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball chose to forgo college altogether to avoid the need to take classes and the inability to earn a salary, Wiseman opted to leave school following an incident where he was suspended for a violation of NCAA rules. Wiseman’s then AAU coach Penny Hardaway gave his mother $11,500 for moving expenses. Subsequently, Wiseman chose to commit to Memphis where Penny Hardaway was the head coach. As reported by Kyle Boone of CBS Sports, Hardaway donated $1 million to help build the Penny Hardaway Athletic Hall of Fame, which according to the NCAA rules makes Hardaway a booster, despite the prior relationship with Wiseman and his family. Put simply, the NCAA rules prohibits a booster from providing financial assistance to prospective student-athletes, their family members or friends unless that assistance is generally available to other members of the student body and is not given based on athletic ability.
The NCAA came down hard on Wiseman, suspending him for 12 games and required that Wiseman pay $11,500 to a charity of his choice. Rather than comply with the punishment, Wiseman opted to leave school. As a result, the NCAA and its fans have ben deprived of seeing three top-five draft picks play this season. Moreover, this has shown prospective athletes how the NCAA treats its athletes and that other avenues are available rather than playing college basketball.
Although NBA greats such as Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant chose to forgo college basketball and enter the NBA Draft, the current issues facing the NCAA are far different. The NBA CBA implemented the “one and done rule”, which required that a player would only be eligible for the upcoming NBA Draft if he graduated high school and would be 19 during the calendar year, forcing players to wait one year after graduating high school. This effectively ended players going straight from high school to the NBA and the NCAA was the most popular market in the US for basketball aside from the NBA, so it attracted the top talent.
The “one and done” rule and the NCAA restrictions on its athletes have been criticized by NBA and NCAA icons such as Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski (“Coach K”). Last year, the NCAA “voted unanimously to permit students participating in athletics the opportunity to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness (“NIL”) in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.” However, this legislation, despite its buzz, may not actually provide much change to collegiate athletes looking to benefit from their likeness and it is not designed to allow players to earn a salary such as LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton, who chose to play overseas.
Coach K responded after the NIL legislation was passed, stating “Don’t be shocked 4-5 years from now if this goes in where there’s G League on TV,” Krzyzewski said. “And maybe our collegiate product is being challenged, not just by the NBA but by — where are these kids going to be marketed and developed? We need to not have our head in the sand.”
Commissioner Adam Silver just announced a new 29th G League team in Mexico City as the G League continues to gain more support. Moreover, the G League is involved in discussions regarding unionization. The NBA wants the league to be more than a stop for players seeking 10-day contracts and prospects who aren’t quite ready for the NBA level. The goal is to provide an alternative to the NCAA which allows players to enter the G League out of high school and earn money while improving the league.
As options emerge for elite high school basketball prospects such as playing professionally in the G League or overseas and earning a paycheck, the NCAA is in unfamiliar territory as it is providing a declining product to fans. Previously, the NBA came to the aid of the NCAA by implementing the “one and done” rule, however the NBA appears to be making life even tougher for the NCAA by promoting the G League as an alternative to college basketball.
The NCAA was forced to cancel March Madness this season as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. The NCAA finds itself in a whirlwind as options for high school players increase, legislative decisions and their applications loom, profits are lost from the coronavirus, and criticism of the NCAA is rampant from respected basketball minds. Clearly, the NCAA needs to adjust and become more proactive, rather than reactive, to maintain its status as the primary destination for elite talent high school prospects or risk losing its share of popularity and the immense profit that comes from same.