Options for Jalen Green’s NBA path: Pros and cons of G League, college basketball or playing internationally


The NBA’s rollout of a G League program designed for high-ranking prospects wishing to circumvent college basketball without starting their careers overseas took a high-profile twist Thursday. When Jalen Green, the No. 3 ranked prospect in the class of 2020, announced his intention to join the G League, he set a precedent that could have major ramifications for college basketball and the traditional path to the NBA.

So what were the pros and cons that led an elite high school talent like Green to choose the G League — historically perceived as an unattractive destination — over playing college basketball or playing overseas?

Let’s takes a look at the evolving options here, running the gamut from playing professionally in the United States to playing college basketball and going overseas as some prospects have done in recent years.

NBA via G League

Pros: For Green, the green is an obvious allure. To land the 6-foot-5 shooting guard as the face of its new program, the G League reportedly had to shell out much more than the $125,000 it planned to pay prospects who wanted to choose this route. ESPN reported that top prospects who choose the G-League route could now be in line to make more than $500,000 while  Stadium reported that Green’s total compensation including endorsements is expected to “eclipse $1 million for the year.” 

But beyond the money, the attraction for Green includes being the pioneer of an option that could dramatically alter the pathway to the NBA for many top prospects. That pathway will reportedly include playing for a team with other top prospects and veteran players and competing in a limited exhibition schedule while focusing largely on skills development designed to prepare players for the NBA. In short, Green may be affiliating with the G League. But he won’t be moving to a rural locale to play for one of the league’s 28 traditional teams. And he won’t be playing the league’s full 40-plus game slate that requires crisscrossing the country on commercial flights and playing in front of mostly empty gyms.

Cons: While being the highest-profile player to take this route in its debut year will boost Green’s marketability, it will also put his development under a microscope that could bring an unwelcome level of scrutiny to an 18-year-old. In a sense, he’s at the mercy of the promises made to him by the G League leaders who have supplied the cash and vision for a program that has no precedent in American basketball. While rough outlines of how it will work have been reported, a statement from the NBA on Thursday is a reminder of just how unsettled the details of the new G League option remain.

“Details of the new team Green will play for, which will be unaffiliated with any existing NBA G League franchise or NBA team, are forthcoming,” read the NBA statement.

But the details matter, and if they do not ultimately align with what Green expects, the experience could prove to be more frustrating than fruitful.

The future: Prospects in the 2020 and 2021 classes do not have the option of declaring for the NBA Draft straight out of high school. Starting in 2022, players are expected to have that option again. So while Green’s decision to play in the new G-League program lends credibility to it on the front end, the long-term prominence of the program remains uncertain. A player of Green’s caliber would have the option of going straight to the NBA Draft in two years. The G League program could be flush with top prospects until then. But it’s uncertain what will become of it when the top players are again allowed to go straight to the NBA.

Still, if the G League can offer a deal in excess of $100,000 to prospects ranked in the 10-20 range in the recruiting classes dated 2022 and beyond, it could leave prospects with a decision to make and colleges in pursuit of their services in a lurch. Is it wise for a college staff to devote its time and effort to recruiting a player who is likely to choose the financial promise and the status of a G-League program designed specifically to prepare them for the NBA?

On the flip side, a con for the G League program is the possibility that it fails some players. If, after spending a year in the program, some prospects are left to compete for NBA roster spots as undrafted free agents or forced to take commercial flights while playing in front of empty gyms for a regular G-League team, the option may become less attractive compared to the relative safety of the college alternative.

NCAA

Pros: Green is already nearing one million followers on Instagram. But he could have used the massive marketing apparatus that is college basketball to bring his brand to millions more if he’d decided to play college basketball. The Fresno, California native told Yahoo Sports that Memphis would have been his choice if he’d opted to play college basketball. While the Tigers do not have the national brand of a Duke or North Carolina, he would have been playing his home games in an NBA arena at FedExForum under a pair of former NBA stars in head coach Penny Hardaway and assistant Mike Miller. While James Wiseman’s attempt to lead the Memphis program back to the top of the sport didn’t pan out in the 2019-20 season, Wiseman is still expected to be a lottery pick. And Precious Achiuwa, a top-15 prospect from the 2019 class, only solidified his standing in the draft during his freshman season at Memphis.

Cons: Green would not have been able to immediately cash in on his talent, at least not legally. The rules of college basketball are straightforward in that regard, and they are a turn-off for top players who already possess valuable talent. Plus, committing to the college route in the current circumstances would have been committing to uncertainty. While the nation’s professional sports leagues are exploring ways to resume play as soon as this summer, there is no guarantee that college sports will return before the end of the 2020 calendar year. It’s within the realm of possibility that students won’t be on campuses and that team practices won’t occur as they would in a normal year. Under those circumstances, the apparent benefits of going the college route would have been negated.

The future: Critics of the college game argue that the product suffered in the 2019-20 season due to the absence of elite prospects in the 2019 class from the game’s top stages. Wiseman played just three games for Memphis before he decided to withdraw from school to prepare for the NBA Draft amid an NCAA suspension. No. 5 overall prospect RJ Hampton and No. 25 overall prospect LaMelo Ball opted to play in a professional league based in Australia. Meanwhile, top-10 prospects Isaiah Stewart, Cole Anthony and Jaden McDaniels labored largely outside of the spotlight for teams that finished with losing records.

So is the collegiate game dependent on a steady influx of top talent playing visible roles in the sport? Or could it thrive even if the majority of the top-15 prospects in a given year have opted to play professionally because of the advent of the G League alternative?

One thing to consider is that the financial attractiveness of playing college basketball may be increasing soon. With the NCAA pondering legislation to allow athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness, playing college basketball could become more financially lucrative for prospects who are on the fence about turning pro.

If a college athlete could cash in on an endorsement while also enjoying the security of having up to four seasons to pursue a degree and prepare for the professional ranks, it could remain a viable option for top prospects skeptical of the legitimacy of the G League’s program.

International

Pros: When Green teased his upcoming decision on Wednesday, he shared a video of himself on Twitter wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a logo for Australia’s National Basketball League. Whether or not playing in the league was ever a viable option for Green is unclear, but there is a developing NBL to NBA pipeline that might have made it an attractive option. Hampton and Ball played in the NBL this season and are both on track to be first-round picks in the 2020 NBA Draft. With the league’s rising profile and the global nature of NBA scouting, going to play internationally may arguably have been a safer bet for Green than venturing into the unchartered waters of the new G League program.

Cons: Going to play overseas as the world grapples with the widespread fallout of the COVID-19 epidemic feels less practical now than ever. And with an attractive — albeit untested — alternative developing under the G-League brand, going to Australia may have been an unnecessary hurdle for Green as he looks toward the 2021 NBA Draft. 

The future: The NBL benefitted from a surge in visibility as Hampton and Ball suited up for the Illawarra Hawks and New Zealand Breakers, respectively, this season. What now becomes of that option? While it’s feasible that the trend of prospects turning pro out of high school accelerates amid Green’s choice and the birth of the new G League program, it’s clear the NBA is building out the G League program partially to keep prospects wishing to skip college in the country.

Ultimately, as Green’s decision indicates however, money speaks. If the increase in profile associated with landing American prospects for league’s like the NBL is big enough, will they wade deeper into the waters of trying to poach young American talent with big contracts? Ball and Hampton are both expected to be first-round picks, and potentially lottery picks, after spending a season overseas. That speaks to the level of competition in Australia and beyond. Similar competition exists elsewhere, too, in Europe and China.

Don’t expect the prospect of playing internationally to simply vanish from the consideration of prospects, especially if the scope of the G-League program is narrowly focused on a handful of elite prospects every year. There will always be players who feel undervalued, and if they are spurned by the G League program or if the program’s rollout is not smooth, international leagues will remain an option.





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