G-League as a Viable Alternative to College Basketball Remains Shaky

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$26,000. That is what Darius Bazley is deciding to take over a chance to play for the famed Syracuse Orange.

There’s more to it than just that. Theoretically speaking, Bazley is betting on himself benefiting from working within the professional atmosphere of the G-League. To use the coaches, facilities, and acclimation to the professional lifestyle to up his NBA Draft stock.

It isn’t a safe bet.

In doing so, he’s bypassing the traditional route of going to college where he would receive a scholarship, play in front of large crowds at the Carrier Dome, and the potential better marketing that comes with being a big name college basketball talent.

Disagree with the NCAA’s non-pay model all any of us want, it is the proven most effective journey to the best possible professional destination.

In the G-League, it’s still murky.

To be fair, the NBA’s developmental system has grown to the point that all but three NBA franchises have an affiliate. Yet, outside die-hards, few are chasing down games to see the Texas Legends and those prospects who may one day trot about the hardwood for the Dallas Mavericks.

McDonald’s All-American or not, Bazley’s presence in the league won’t alter its appeal to basketball fans — at least not by his alone.

“This is a life-changing decision,” Bazley told Yahoo! Sports Thursday. “Ultimately, playing professional basketball has always been my dream. It’s always going to be the dream goal, always going to be the goal until I achieve it. This is going to put me one step closer to doing so.”

Each person is different in their goals. Bazley’s is clearly to play professional basketball. While he never says anything about valuing — or not for that matter — education, it is his belief that the G-League expedites both his growth as a player and his market value as a prospect.

He might be right. He might be wrong. This isn’t a deal in which any of us know for sure, as only hindsight will provide that answer. And, even then if we’re being honest, we won’t have a direct collegiate comparison point to see if going to Syracuse was as good or a better option.

Unfortunately for those hoping this results in a shift of high school-to college-to the NBA dynamics, making it a more fluid system in which the nation’s best high school players can get paid ASAP, he’s a flawed player to lead the march to such dramatic change.

Having played for multiple high school and AAU teams, as well as decommitting from Ohio State before now spurning Syracuse for the G-League, he’s not a lottery-level prospect. For him, it might not matter if he played at Syracuse, in the G-League, or on Mars. His game may simply lack the inherently important skills to justify a high selection in the 2019 NBA Draft, when he will be eligible.

His perspective on the matter, though, is important.

“The G League will have the most to offer, considering that is the development league for the NBA,” Bazley said. “I will get more out of that than going overseas. The G League is the closest thing to the NBA.”

It’s actually an incorrect and over assessment of the G-League’s strength. It can be argued that top-tier leagues in Europe remain better staffed with closest to NBA-skilled players on the planet. The G-League, while getting stronger by the year, is not the closest thing to the NBA. It is, however, closer to the NBA than college basketball.

Bazley’s beliefs on this are important to him, and relatively so to the larger idea of players bypassing college for the G-League as an alternative, but he’s not going to be the key cog in the wheel that alters what has been forced amateurism dominating the landscape of how high school players historically treat their voyages to potential professional basketball.

That’s up to the NBA continuing to invest more money into its farm system.

$26,000 is fine for a first job out of high school. I worked at a movie theater as a senior in high school and didn’t even sniff that kind of loot. At the same time, there’s an Australian league that is willing to pay high school players nearly triple that ($78,000) for their services.

As the saying goes, money talks and bullshit walks.

In a perfect world — at least for those tired of the NCAA’s fictional ideal of amateurism — G-League salaries would be more than competitive. There would be no hard-max of 26k for a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school. Instead, since he’s not yet eligible to be drafted, he could be available in an open-market bidding war, allowing G-League franchises to determine his value — not some arbitrary number set in place.

The issue with that is a player like Bazley has little to no long term benefit for whatever G-League team that signs him. He’s not eligible for a two-way contract, making him inconsequential to that G-League’s NBA affiliate. Moreover, if he’s good enough, he will be drafted after one season and no longer a member of that organization in any form or fashion.

Bazley’s entrance to the G-League, as it stands, only benefits him (at merely $26,000), and it does little in helping the NBA grow the G-League in terms of appeal or franchise-to-player investment; as no NBA franchise would be allowed to be invested in Bazley until the following year when he’s eligible for the NBA Draft.

There are solutions to this. To make it more financially safe for a G-League team to (over?)pay for a top high school prospect.

Even if the NBA remains firm in wanting a player to be at least one-year removed from high school prior to being eligible for the real NBA Draft, if the money was made respectable enough, it could offer a farm system alternative.

As a working, and totally theoretical example (taking a play out of proposed one-and-done rule fixes): If a player wants to go straight to the G-League out of high school, he enters a high school/G-League draft, where he signs a fair and more lucrative deal (compared to the spare $26,000 one), in which he’s contracted to play two years for that G-League team. He would remain ineligible to be considered a two-way player for that NBA team until his second-year (as it is now). At least in this plan, though, an NBA franchise can be immediately invested in this player from the moment he decides to declare for the G-League.

In turn, it lowers the risk for NBA franchises “drafting” a high school player to its G-League affiliate. It’s an important aspect in all of this, as the one-and-done rule was largely implemented by the NBA to protect its owners and general managers from themselves. From their inability to properly scout high school players, often selecting quasi-professionals in the first round of the prep-to-pro era.

There would have to be all kind of contractual stipulations put in this fantasy booking of a perfect world. Two-years is not a long time for a player to be locked in a contract, so how should he be handled as a free agent after the initial deal is done? Should he be a restricted free agent? Does it matter, as it opens up the door for him to start his second, likely more lucrative contract earlier?

Basically, there’s a lot of logistical issues going on with my flawed theory. That being said, a key component in making the high school to G-League dynamic more viable than high school to college or overseas is not only the money the player can make, but how the NBA and its G-League affiliates can benefit off it. Otherwise, as is, it’s a one-sided, yet not lucrative deal for the high school player.

That’s less than ideal.

Nevertheless, the issue remains the same. Bazley isn’t pioneering a prep-to-G-League model. He’s one example of a guy, in the thousands and thousands of others who decided to go to college instead, who is betting on himself for little pay.

For Bazley to be the rule, not the exception, the G-League needs to be financially more viable. Not only for the players. Not only for the G-League teams. But also for the NBA teams who are investing money in high school players they can’t yet be directly invested in.

Bluntly put: For the Bazleys of the world to believe the G-League is the MOST (not just another) viable route to the NBA — or other lucrative professional leagues — NBA franchises need to have a day-one stake in that player. As it is now, those franchises don’t. They’re just waiting to see what Bazley ends up being a year from now.

And, really, the NBA shouldn’t yet care if that player who is a year-removed from being NBA eligible does it in the G-League or in college, as it can’t have a stake in him until 12 months later anyway. That’s why the franchises need that day-one stake in the player, even when not yet NBA eligible.

Eh, it’s a two-way street. It’s not just about the player. In an altruistic world, it might be, but the NBA is a business. For it to work out better for the player, it needs to work out even more for the company looking to employee him.

Furthermore, $26,000 is simply not enough for a large percentage of the nation’s best high school players to spurn the safer, more traditional collegiate route to play in front of hundreds in the G-League. That baseline number, given what rates are being given overseas and even in comparison to the devalued scholarship cost, is indirectly reinforcing that the free developmental system (the NCAA) remains the best option.

As it stands now, the G-League is just an option. A fringe one at that.

It’s easy to say “money is the fix” for this issue, but it’s only that way because it is inherent truth. There’s the other ancillary things aforementioned that need to be fixed, but all of those are also issues that could be levied with some cold hard cash.

Investment in player, from both money and direct-to-NBA ties, is what can help this become less a fad and more a trend. Until then, there isn’t even smoke here to signal a looming fire.