Last Thursday (April 16), the number one prospect in the 2020 ESPN 100 – Jalen Green – announced he plans to forego college basketball and will instead play next season in the NBA’s revamped ‘professional pathway program’. Green is set to become the highest profile player to participate in the development-focused initiative since the NBA began courting elite prospects in 2018 (fellow five-star recruit Isaiah Todd will also be going the G-League route). The potential top overall selection in the 2021 NBA draft will earn more than $500,000 (includes $250K base + incentives for attending community events and completing life skills programs) during the one-year apprenticeship; he’ll also receive a full scholarship to Arizona State University.
Howie Long-Short: Decisions by RJ Hampton (projected to be a late lottery pick in the ’20 draft) and LaMelo Ball (projected to be a top 7 selection in the ’20 draft) to play the 2019-2020 season in the National Basketball League of Australia caused “panic” amongst NBA executives and ultimately sparked change within the league’s ‘professional pathway program’. Happy Walters (CEO, Catalyst Sports & Media), who represents Hampton, said that “the NBA really didn’t want the top [graduating H.S. seniors] leaving to play overseas again; they want those guys to come up within their own system.”
The day after Hampton signed with the New Zealand Breakers (May 2019), Walters received a call from Shareef Abdur-Rahim (G-League President) and Rod Strickland (G-League Program Manager) seeking feedback. The pair wanted to know why the player never considered the ‘pathway program’ and what changes would have to be made for the G-League to draw elite prospects in the future. The NBA agent told them that the lack of money being offered relative to leagues abroad was a concern (there was previously a $125K max salary), “but the bigger issue was that the league was not set-up for an 18-year-old kid to receive the development needed;” not with teammates looking to make a name for themselves at the elite player’s expense and coaches prioritizing the development of players under team control. Remember, ‘pathway program’ prospects are preparing to enter the following draft.
The NBA seemingly addressed both of Walters’ developmental concerns with the addition of a 29th team. The Southern California based club Green and Todd will play for won’t have an NBA team affiliation (so ‘pathway program’ players should receive more attention from coaches) and with a roster full of NBA veterans (as opposed to players desperately trying to break into the league), the H.S. phenoms should have teammates willing to serve in a mentorship capacity – on and off the floor.
That’s not to say everyone is convinced playing an exhibition schedule (the G-League’s 29th team will not participate in regular season competition) is the best way for a prospect to prepare to play in the world’s best basketball league. There’s an argument to be made that players would be better off spending the year playing in a “more competitive league, where the stakes are higher.”
If signing the most lucrative contract possible is a player’s top priority, going overseas is still going to be their best option. Walters said Hampton earned seven figures playing in New Zealand and there’s even more money to be made playing in a league like the CBA (granted, it’s a tough sled for an 18-year-old kid to play in China because of the level of competition and the coaching demands).
The NBA is expected to lift the one-and-done rule as part of the ’22 CBA negotiations. While a kid like Jalen Green would almost certainly be headed to the ’20 draft if rules permitted him to do so, Walters says the ‘professional pathway program’ will continue to serve a purpose even once the best high school players are going straight to the pros again. “There’s a second-tier of kids that really need another year to develop, that want to stay close to home and don’t want to be in school.” Of course, Zion Williamson is the argument for playing college basketball. The exposure he received at Duke ultimately led to the Pelicans star inking a $75 million shoe deal with Nike before he played in his first NBA game.
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