Their mission, to reach the NBA, has not changed, but today’s elite basketball prospects have more options than ever to turn their hoop dreams into reality.
The advent of NCAA name, image, and likeness (NIL) compensation for athletes coupled with the launch of alternative pro leagues has left more for families to consider, before it’s time to take campus tours. As next-gen athletes become more focused on personal branding and development, the nation’s elite players can consider more options beyond playing overseas, whether it’s competing as a teenager with Overtime Elite (OTE) or skipping college to play in G League Ignite for a $500,000 salary.
These leagues have gained momentum, but the chance to win a national title and capture great attention during the tournament is still too attractive for many talented players to pass up.
“College basketball, because of NIL, will absolutely continue to compete and potentially provide some serious challenges to options like Ignite or OTE,” Anomaly Sports Group founder Luke Fedlam said.
The ever-changing landscape will take another turn if the NBA’s one-and-done rule is eliminated, which could happen as early as 2023. The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement goes through the 2024 season, but there is a mutual opt-out available after next season.
While the NCAA could lose more star players in the change, the traditional model remains strong as another season winds down. Fedlam, an attorney who advises college athletes on NIL, points to the improbable Saint Peter’s run as this season’s example of what March Madness can do for an unknown player or underdog program. The millions of basketball fans, as well as NBA scouts, that tune into watch provides visibility that new alternative leagues cannot duplicate yet.
Some prospects though may prefer guaranteed salaries now instead of placing a bigger bet in the future. “For the right student athlete, playing overseas could be the best situation for them,” Fedlam added. “It just depends on the player themselves.”
That’s what National Basketball League (NBL) commissioner Jeremy Loeliger is hoping for as he looks to make the Australian pro league as viable an option as the newer domestic leagues.
NBL is continually searching for the next athlete to be the face of its Next Stars program, a development initiative that accelerates the process for select players to reach the NBA. As the league looks to gain a younger viewership demographic, with more “snackable” content, NBL is using a similar gameplan as OTE — which brings in a handful of elite players and pumps up their profile on social media. OTE parent company, Overtime, is doubling down on that strategy, leveraging its wide social media following to create an audience for its new 7-on-7 football league.
NBL also wants fans to connect with its development program as an opportunity to get in on the ground floor with their next star. “It’s of more interest to an NBA fan if they can tune into watch guys that they know will be future NBA players,” Loeliger added. “That’s the whole interest of saying ‘Hey, I knew them before they were cool.’ Well, when LaMelo came here, he was already cool.”
Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball, who won the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award last year, boosted the credibility of the NBL’s designated pathway. Ball was already a well-known name before joining the Illawarra Hawks and is one of the most prominent Americans to draw attention to the program. The league aims to parlay the association with Ball into success on the recruiting trail for top talent despite the space becoming more crowded.
The league is bringing its checkbook, too. NBL is willing to ink contracts worth $500,000 for elite talent, an amount similar to salaries offered by Ignite. The proposition usually comes with a caveat though, as Next Stars typically need NBA success to get paid. That’s because the basic NBL deal includes a small base salary and large incentives, such as being selected in the first round of the NBA Draft. Projected NBA first-round draft pick Ousman Dieng of France is expected to command a buyout north of $700,000 for the New Zealand Breakers from an NBA franchise this year.
“As long as every year we’re bringing more eyeballs to the NBL and generating buyouts for clubs then the goal is being reached,” prominent Australian agent Daniel Moldovan said of Next Stars, which has delivered three first round draft picks over the last two seasons.
G League Ignite remains the least risky option for sought-after talent who want the guarantee of both cash and playing time. But for prospects interested in developing their skills against older, more physical competition then NBL may be best the route because they will be forced to compete for playing time in the growing league populated by veterans. While the NBL strives to take back market share in a competitive U.S. pro pathway landscape, the 10-team league sees itself as a complement to other leagues and draws attention to less traditional models to reach the NBA.
The introduction of NIL may be a godsend for the NCAA as some of the finest basketball prospects may be more encouraged to take the traditional college route instead of going overseas or joining an alternative league. These future NBA draftees can earn some NIL money while waiting for the bigger pay day later. But as elite athletes become more business-focused and new leagues solidify their fan bases, the ”One Shining Moment” might not be as valuable.