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The Future of the NBA Could Be the G-League

In recent comments, commissioner Adam Silver has sounded off on one-and-done players like Ben Simmons and Lonzo Ball. With the rebranding of the D-League as the G-League, and the introduction of new player deals, is the NBA making a move on the college game?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Adam Silver was interviewed last week on Colin Cowherd’s FS1 show, The Herd, and he sounded like a passionate sports radio caller venting about his frustrations with the NBA’s current system, hitting upon the age-19 limit and the one-and-done phenomenon. Silver said one-and-done is more like a "half-and-done," citing how 2016 no. 1 pick Ben Simmons stopped attending classes after his first semester at LSU and his team missed the tournament. "I don’t blame him," Silver said. "He’s essentially saying, ‘Why am I here? I don’t even want to be here. I’m forced to be here.’"

Remember: This isn’t Adam from Milton Point. It’s Adam Silver, commissioner of the freaking NBA. In his The Herd interview and his annual pre-Finals press conference, the commish showed a level of candor and transparency that we usually don’t see from people of power in professional sports­ — or politics and business, for that matter. Silver’s comments provided a window into his thought process as the NBA looks to come up with a better system for its talent pipeline. The biggest headline from Silver’s recent comments is the possibility of the NBA shifting the age rules to allow players to enter the draft straight from high school, like they could prior to the 2006 rule change.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

This stance is an about-face for the league, which, under David Stern’s regime, felt that raising the minimum age to 20 could best serve the league’s interests. The thinking under Stern was that the older the player was, the more ready he’d be for the on- and off-court rigors of the NBA. Silver has a political job, one that deals with owners, the union, executives, players, agents, the NCAA, and other lobbies. But ultimately Silver’s goal is to make the NBA the best product it can be. The commissioner hasn’t laid out a new platform, but he’s sounding things out in public — which means we should pay attention. He sounds like a man who is open to changing the way the NBA brings young players into the league, and that could have a huge impact on college basketball, the international game, AAU ball, and even high school.

When you hear Silver talk about Simmons, it sounds like change is on the way. But over the past week, I’ve chatted with several league executives, coaches, scouts, and agents, and for the most part they’re singing a different tune than Silver.

Welcome to the G-League

Silver said during his annual presser that "over the course of the next season," the league will probably discuss the age limit. "To be honest, I’m not standing here today saying I have the perfect solution," he added. "The college coaches and athletic directors I hear from, they’re not happy with the current system. And I know our teams aren’t happy either, in part because they don’t necessarily think that the players who are coming into the league are getting the kind of training they would expect to see among top draft picks in the league. … [I]ncreasingly the veteran players in this league, as well, feel that the young players are not coming in game-ready in the way that they were when they were coming out of college."

This might sound like a back in my day argument, but it’s true that a lot of players don’t enter the NBA with proper fundamentals. Some can’t complete simple entry passes, or lack proper technique closing out on shooters.

Mastering the technical intricacies of basketball requires a steep learning curve — it’s no wonder Silver said many in the league believe younger players need better instruction. In baseball, development and instruction happens, for the most part, in the minor leagues. And the NBA’s own minor league could be what it turns to in the future.

The NBA Development League, or the D-League, is being rebranded as the Gatorade League, or the G-League. Starting next season, there will be 26 teams in the G-League that will act as affiliates of NBA teams. We’re moving toward a true minor league system, where each NBA organization has its own exclusive G-League roster. In the past, the D-League was the home of guys looking for a second chance or hoping for their first one, but the G-League could become a potential talent pipeline for high school players to enter, rather than going to college.

Here are two simple ideas that have come up during my conversations with people in the NBA: If the league’s concern is player development, then perhaps having players bypass college and go straight to the G-League — and get paid — could benefit all parties. The NBA could simply allow high schoolers to enter the draft, as it has, off and on, throughout the history of the league. If teams are worried about having raw talents on their roster sucking up cap space, they could have those draftees assigned to their G-League affiliate for a season, playing for the same money on their rookie scale, without counting against the cap unless they get called up to the NBA. This would assure that players like Milwaukee’s Thon Maker or Denver’s Juan Hernangomez would get heavy minutes all year, albeit at the G-League level. There are financial issues to work out — but the approach is sound.

An alternate idea could be to push players to spend a year or two in the G-League before even declaring for the draft. You would need to incentivize this by significantly raising salaries in the G-League. If players chose to sign with a G-League team, there’d be some obvious issues, especially if a top prospect spends a year before declaring for the draft with an NBA club’s affiliate. For example, if Lonzo Ball played this past year for the Lakers’ D-League affiliate, rather than the UCLA Bruins, the Lakers would have significantly more intel on the player than any other organization. The workaround would be to expand the G-League, adding teams without an affiliation — they could be structured to strictly focus on player development.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Both these ideas might suck. Or maybe they’re pretty good. One G-League executive I chatted with said that at this point, the basketball community’s goal should be to talk about as many ideas as possible. You should share yours, too, Reddit and RealGM users. The NBA lurks.

I asked Silver about the G-League as an amateur-to-pros path at his press conference last week. I wasn’t expecting such an insightful response: "Right now, you can go into the Gatorade League at 18. We don’t promote that, we’re not trying to compete against college, and we still think right now going to these great college programs is the better path into the NBA."

Front-office executives agree that college is a better path to the NBA than entering the G-League out of high school. They generally prefer players to come in more seasoned, and they often cite the NFL’s three-years-in-college system as the ideal. Some teams might believe they possess a scouting or statistical-projection advantage over other organizations, though. Those teams might prefer the higher variance of drafts with younger players — that’s how steals are found, or less-savvy teams might take the bait for a likely lottery bust.

If I were a team front-office executive, I’d prefer a draft with high variance, too. So much money and resources are poured into tracking these kids since they’re young teenagers. The knowledge gained in college doesn’t always clarify or help decision-making. Silver said as much on The Herd: "If you look at the draft projections for these players going into their first year in college, it holds fairly true. Maybe there’s a little bit of movement, but these young men, they’re followed so closely from the time they’re 13 or 14 on. They’re at the major shoe company summer camps. They’re being watched closely by the league, by the college scouts." Mistakes are made and busts bust, but by and large, teams know who these guys are at an early age from a draft-positioning standpoint.

I also think it’s an unnecessary inconvenience for top athletes to go to college. There are instances where they help themselves, like Karl-Anthony Towns rising from the 2014 no. 5 high school recruit to the top pick, or Joel Embiid going from no. 16 to the third pick. But there are other examples where the player gets screwed, too. Teams realized Cliff Alexander (the no. 4 high school recruit in 2014) stunk and he went undrafted in 2015. Harry Giles (no. 2 in 2016) suffered a setback after his second torn ACL, struggled as a freshman, and might not even be selected in the lottery this month.

Two-Way Contracts and Travel Plans

The G-League could provide players a place to earn money and help support their families while doing what they want, without going through the charade of a brief stint in college. So, what’s the problem? Well, think about when you were 18. A lot is happening and there’s a lot to process, and it’s no different for these young athletes. Now you’re asking them to be professionals. Traveling can be painful for players: In the D-League, players often needed to make a long drive back and forth between assignments, whether it’s from Boston to Portland, Maine, or Oakland to Santa Cruz. There isn’t enough money for the players. One executive expressed to me that it can cause friction in the locker room when a mid-first-round pick making $1 million or $2 million comes in for an assignment and steals playing time from other players. Sure, it’s a player’s responsibility to stay on task, but just imagine if you were going for a promotion at your job and this big hot shot came to town to take care of a project that would normally have given you a chance to prove your worth to the company.

If the G-League paid big bucks to all players, there’d be fewer issues with assignments, the league would attract more international players, and more high schoolers might skip college for an early payday. The league added two-way contracts, which each NBA team will have two of, effectively extending their rosters to 17 players. Two-way players will make $75,000 guaranteed, and could make around a quarter-million depending on how much time they spend in the NBA. "In essence, there will be 60 new NBA positions in the Gatorade League," Silver said at his press conference. "These two slots per team, in which you won’t be an NBA player, but you’ll be at some elevated role beyond what traditionally the D-League was … and you’ll be able to make more money as well and then be brought up to your team."

Not all agents are in love with the two-way, which means a lot of players won’t be either. "They are totally unnecessary," one agent told me. "Best scenario for a player in the G-League is now to be the best non-two-way guy. He will get called up and probably play before any two-way guys play." The agent added that it’s better for a player to be an affiliate at $50,000 in the G-League with a chance to get called up by every team, rather than make $75,000 on a two-way contract with a chance to get called up by only one team. The agent said he would advise his clients to take the $50,000.

Look at it this way: Of the three largest North American sports, the NBA has the highest ratio of maximum roster size to starting-lineup size (15-to-5 for the NBA, 25-to-9 for MLB, and 53-to-22 for NFL). The 15th player on an NBA team barely plays, so adding a 16th and 17th player only decreases the chances they would actually get called into action. While a player might lose out on $25,000 by becoming an affiliate, rather than a two-way, it’s a bet on themselves to increase their chances of getting an NBA call-up.

The NCAA and Europe

Silver also had some interesting things to say about international basketball that likely caused some eyes to roll: "We’re also seeing a dichotomy in terms of the international players," Silver said. "When they come in at 19, many of them have been professional for up to three years before they come into the league and have a very different experience than what we’re seeing from American players coming through our college programs."

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The American system is certainly flawed, but there are problems with the international game, too — ones just as morally and ethically complicated as the American student-athlete industrial complex. European pro teams frequently sign players to pro contracts in their early teens, basically forcing them to quit school and specialize in basketball. Under the current American system, according to one executive, the United States produces more impactful players, per capita, than anywhere else in the world.

The American system also generates significantly more revenue, since there’s interest in collegiate basketball, whereas the interest in European junior games is zilch — from both an attention and attendance standpoint. With more revenue, more money is spent on facilities, training, and coaches.

"The American system has flaws but they don’t begin to touch the problems in European ball," one league executive told me. "Just wish the NCAA would pay the players more," cracked another. The general sentiment is that finding a way to make high school and college basketball work is best. Lower levels could be better served by aligning their rules with the NBA. For example, the NCAA could add a three-second violation to minimize the use of zone defenses, and it could extend the 3-point line.

People in the NBA that I’ve spoken to have repeatedly said that one of the great benefits of college basketball — and even high school ball — is the atmosphere. Those kids are playing meaningful, high-pressure games, often on national TV. The G-League streams online to a very limited audience, and attendance is low or moderate compared with the packed houses at college campuses across the States. Top prospects playing in the G-League would likely also generate more interest, leading to better crowds, but it wouldn’t come close to a Duke-UNC game.

Let’s also not ignore the fact that college basketball is an American institution. It’s impossible to measure what it would mean for the TV deals if prospects like Jayson Tatum and Lonzo Ball passed on college. What if non-top-10 recruits like Texas’s Jarrett Allen and Arizona’s Rawle Alkins opted to go to the G-League rather than play in college? It’s one thing if the NBA allows high school players to go to the pros, but if there were financial incentives and improved player development for players to join the G-League, the NCAA would lose most of its top talent.

College basketball could end up losing money, leading to fewer resources and worse player development, effectively ruining what’s a proven system, even if it’s flawed as hell. Making the G-League the go-to destination for high schoolers could work, but perhaps the best solution is a tweak to refine what’s already there. The big ideas are fun to think about, but they aren’t very practical, and the consequences are significant.

The NBA will probably take a simpler approach, anyway. It can abolish the age minimum, allowing high schoolers to enter the NBA. Players will be happy to have the freedom. Some executives will be glad, others won’t. No matter what happens, someone is going to feel like they’re getting screwed. They might even call into a radio station to vent about it.