What to make of top basketball products forgoing college

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LaMelo Ball, left, was one of the most valuable recruits of the season before forgoing college basketball for a foreign professional league.  Photo in the    public domain

LaMelo Ball, left, was one of the most valuable recruits of the season before forgoing college basketball for a foreign professional league. Photo in the public domain

Since the 2006 collective bargaining agreement that outlawed high school players making the direct jump to the NBA, Division 1 college basketball has been the main source for NBA prospects by a vast margain. In recent years there has been a narrative out there that this has been changing. I believe there is some truth to that, yet it is a bit premature. The percentage of the NBA that are international players has been growing consistently in the past 20 years, peaking at about 25% in the 2016-17 season. The percentage has dropped slightly since then, however that fact has been overshadowed by major storylines such as Giannis winning the MVP and Lamelo Ball forgoing college to play in New Zealand. People with the “college basketball is dying” agenda choose to forget the hype around the sport just last season. Duke basketball contests averaged 2.23 million views per game on ESPN last year, while NBA games broadcasted on ESPN/ABC averaged below that at two million. The interest is still there, the prospects are still coming, so why do people think college basketball is a dying product? 

Division 1 college basketball is still the main route for high school products to make the jump to the NBA. One-and-done stars of recent drafts such as Zion Williamson, Trae Young, Lonzo Ball and countless others all chose to go to college. These kids want to play and compete on the biggest stage against the best players in their age group, obviously. It is an obvious choice for me, yet some prospects are beginning to choose alternate routes. One of the more confusing paths I’ve seen someone take is Darius Bazley last year. He was committed to Syracuse, but decided to work with trainers for a year, while awaiting his NBA eligibility. While I commend him choosing not to don the horrendous color that is Syracuse orange, his decision, if not entirely monetary-based, confuses me. He earned a cool one million dollars last year from New Balance to work out at their facility, but who would want to shoot in an empty gym instead of competing in some of the best atmospheres in all of sports. Being “the man” on a college campus, playing the sport you love, if only for a year is something that I personally would find extremely appealing. What I think doesn’t matter, but what doematter is the opinion of next year’s five star recruit weighing his choices.  

The NCAA realizes that Bazley’s route or going abroad and playing professional for a year is becoming increasingly attractive for the average high school player. I know that they are beginning to panic because just two weeks ago the NCAA began to budge from their firm position to not compensate college athletes. NCAA president Mark Emmert and his corrupt organization know that if they don’t begin to compensate student athletes, especially those in such a high profile sport like basketball, they will lose talent. To Emmert that equates to losing money, which is the NCAA’s biggest fear. What drives the money in college basketball is marquee one-and-done stars like a Zion Williamson. You know what household name that would have replaced the TV ratings void that Zion left? Lamelo Ball.  

A prospect as big as Ball in the past 15 years would have been enrolled in college, no questions asked. That is easy to prove as Lamelo’s older brother, Lonzo went to UCLA for his one year before the NBA. That was only two years ago; the world for prospects is changing quickly. The current era that the NBA is in, which Bill Simmons has dubbed “the player empowerment era,” has trickled its way down to high school. From 14 and 15 years old these athletes are already famous and have everyone trying to offer them the world. They ask themselves, why would I go play for free, risk injury and have to take classes, when I can just go play professionally somewhere else and make six figures at 18 years old. The latter sounds extremely attractive. Lamelo and fellow NBL star R.J. Hampton both made the decision to do that. Both of their stock has risen since making that decision, as many think they could both be top three picks in this year’s NBA draft. Until recently if Hampton and Ball went overseas instead of college, they’d almost literally fall off the face of the earth for a year. Current technology allows easily accessible streaming of games anywhere in the world. Their first matchup of the year was by far the most watched in NBL history, attracting 1.9 million views just on Facebook alone.  

The rules that the NCAA have in place is going to severely detract interest from top college prospects. Even now the Illawarra Hawks may sound far more attractive than the Kentucky Wildcats for a 17 year old. Further evidence of that is piling up as recently as a few days ago. The top high school recruit, James Wiseman, chose the college route instead of trying his craft abroad for a year. I assume Wiseman may regret that choice given the NCAA’s decision to rule him ineligible due to Memphis coach Penny Hardaway assisting in Wiseman’s mother’s relocation. Up until two weeks ago Wiseman was the projected number one pick, but his ineligibility may adversely impact that. If either Ball or Hampton are chosen above Wisemen, I believe there will be a shockwave sent around the high school world. College basketball is fine now and they will be fine next year. However, if they don’t change something soon it won’t be two players leaving for New Zealand or China or Reebok, it’ll be more like 10 or 11 of the top high school players. I love college basketball and I know every other sports fan in America wants it to be the highest quality product possible. I’m pleading to Emmert and the NCAA to make the necessary changes before it is too late.  


Tamir March is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at tamir.march@uconn.edu.

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