Skal Labissiere is considering Europe, but that doesn’t mean there’s a market for him

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The most recent topic of discussion in the college hoops world to make the rounds on the #hotsportstake bandwagon is that of Emmanuel Mudiay.

You surely know the story by now. The No. 2 prospect in the Class of 2014 and an athletic, 6-foot-5, season-altering lead guard, Mudiay was scheduled to play for SMU this season. But two weeks ago, he announced that he would be forgoing college, forced to head overseas because he either wanted to help support his family (the Mudiay party line) or he was too worried about his academic eligibility and his status as an amateur to risk a season in college (what everyone else believes to be true).

Mudiay eventually signed with the Guangdong Dragons in China.

His contract? It’s reportedly worth $1.2 million.

The talking point here is whether or not Mudiay will be a trendsetter, a trailblazer leading a new breed of elite recruit overseas where they will make a seven-figure salary for seven months before entering the NBA draft.

And it’s certainty a conversation worth having. As I mentioned when the news first broke, the reason that Mudiay — and Brandon Jennings before him — went overseas was because NCAA rules more than likely were going to forbid him from playing college basketball. When ineligibility and the mountains of negative publicity that come with it are staring you in the face, you take that million-dollar contract every single time. With initial eligibility standards increasing, and thus making it more likely that a recruit will be ruled ineligible, there’s a real chance that this could become a more common occurrence.

And that’s saying nothing of the possibility that Adam Silver implements a two-and-done rule for entering the draft. High school kids these days have grown up knowing nothing other than college basketball with the one and done rule. Having to spend an extra 12 months on campus and sans paycheck may not be the easiest sell.

All that brings me to the latest development in this story: On Thursday, Skal Labissiere — a five-star, Class of 2015 center being pursued by the likes of Kentucky, North Carolina, Memphis and Georgetown — told CBSSports.com on the record that following in Mudiay’s footsteps is a route he’s looking into.

“Overseas is an option,” Labissiere said, which is notable. There have been rumblings that a number of players in Labissiere’s class are looking into that option, but the native-Haitian is the first to acknowledge, on record, that the money that Mudiay got will be a factor in his decision-making process. “I don’t know yet for sure. We’ll see. But that is a lot of money.”

When giving a million-dollar contract to an 18 or 19 year old American player, one of the biggest concerns for a professional team in a different country is how that player will acclimate. Living abroad, dealing with the massive cultural changes that come with international travel, is not an easy thing for a high school grad to deal with.

Labissiere, in theory, would be able to adapt as well as anyone because he’s already made that change. Labissiere grew up in Haiti and left after he survived the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed as many as 300,000 of his countrymen. He’s lived in a different country with a different culture for the last four years, and, by all accounts, he’s thrived. He’s one of the sweetest, most gregarious kids in this class, polite when dealing with the media and perpetually grinning from ear to ear, and he’s been through more than I can imagine. Heading to Italy or China or wherever to play pro ball for a year shouldn’t be all that much of an issue for him.

But that’s assuming that someone wants him.

Because the point that hasn’t been made nearly enough when discussing the potential for American teenagers to spend their year in NBA purgatory abroad is that there simply isn’t all that much of a market for these guys abroad, particularly in Europe.

Let’s start with the obvious: When we’re talking about guys who can go pro overseas and make seven-figures, we’re talking about the elite of the elite. Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor, Mudiay. In a strong class, you’re looking at maybe five to seven guys who are worth consideration. In a weak class like 2015, you’re looking at just Ben Simmons, and I’m not convinced he’s good enough to garner that kind of a salary.

The bigger problem?

Teams in Europe do not want to sign an 18-year old kid for just one season. What do they get out of it? A prospect who’s not ready to contribute major minutes at the highest level of European basketball for one season before they head back stateside to play in the NBA? As good as Labissiere is now and as promising as he is as a prospect, the fact of the matter is that he gets pushed around by stronger guys at the high school level here. He would routinely be overpowered in the paint in a good European league. If the team cannot develop him, it’s not worth a million dollars to them.

“If you don’t want to sign a four or five year deal than you don’t get paid as an 18 or 19 year old,” one NBA scout told NBCSports.com. “European guys are looking and saying, ‘Would I rather be Mario Hezonja, stuck in Barcelona not playing and not able to get to the NBA, or would I rather be in the league like Alex Len?

“If you want to play in the NBA, which is what a lot of the Europeans and all of the Americans do, than signing a long-term deal with a big European club, which is the only way to get paid over there, is not a good option.”

It’s part of the reason that Mudiay was forced to head to China, a league that pays well, but A) demands major performances out of their American players, B) is quick to cut players that struggle, and C) will not be a productive step, and could be a hindrance, in his individual development.

A smart European team could start to flip American players for profit, signing them to $200,000-$300,000 contracts with $600,000 buyouts, the max an NBA team is allowed to pay.

In theory, that makes sense.

In practice, it doesn’t.

If we’re going to be honest here, we need to acknowledge that any incoming freshman talented enough to garner that kind of deal from a European team has the avenues to get paid just as much, if not more, while he’s in college, and I say that without a shred of sarcasm. Whether it be boosters paying to bring him to their school, agents paying to ensure that he will be a future client or shoes companies paying to keep him loyal, there are avenues for elite recruits to generate a substantial income. It may not be savory, but they are there.

Which brings me back to Skal Labissiere.

He may be looking at overseas as an option. He may be quite intrigued by the contract that was given to Mudiay. He may like the idea of skipping college and getting $1.2 million put into his bank account.

That doesn’t mean that there is anyone who would be willing to pay him that much for one season, and even if there is, it doesn’t guarantee that the quick payout will be better for his long-term development — and, thus, career-earnings — than going to college.

Assuming that he’ll be able to get his academics in order and that he hasn’t compromised his amateur status, Labissiere, as well as the other recruits thinking about following in the steps of Mudiay, may simply be better off going to college, playing on national television and collecting those Ricky Roe duffel bags.

It’s the American way.

NCAA steering farther and farther away from harsh penalties

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The days of postseason bans and crippling scholarship reductions to punish schools for breaking NCAA rules appear to be winding down.

Memphis was placed on three years of probation earlier this week with a public reprimand and fined for NCAA violations related to the recruitment and short college career of James Wiseman, who is about to start his third season with the Golden State Warriors. The NCAA also wrapped up an investigation of Air Force football for breaking the COVID-19 recruiting quiet period.

No postseason bans or scholarship reductions in either case. The Independent Accountability Review Panel, the NCAA’s outside arm of enforcement, said in its decision in the Memphis case that it did not want to punish current athletes.

That sentiment is widespread in college athletics these days, even with millions of dollars suddenly flowing to athletes from various sources for their celebrity endorsements amid concerns over improper inducements. In fact, it is on the way to being codified: Last month, the Division I Board of Directors adopted three proposals to change the infractions process.

The board also committed to “identifying appropriate types of penalties and modifying current penalty ranges, including identifying potential alternative penalties to postseason bans.”

Trying to predict what those alternatives will be is difficult, but if the goal is to avoid harming athletes and others who were not involved in the violations the options are limited.

“I emphatically believe it’s the wrong direction to go,” said Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto, who spent nine years on the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“If you’re going to deter, the punishment has to fit the offense, right?” Potuto added. “You’re not going to deter serious violations with penalties that are not perceived to be really serious.”

Since January 2020, there have been at least 45 major infractions cases decided by the NCAA. Of those, at least 15 involved Level I allegations, the most serious and those carrying the most severe penalties; six cases resulted in some kind of postseason ban, with four of them self-imposed.

The Memphis case went through the IARP, which was created in response to the FBI’s investigation of college basketball corruption but is now being discontinued. Sunsetting the IARP was among several recommendations put forth by the NCAA’s Division I Transformation Committee earlier this year and recently adopted by the board.

As college sports moves toward less centralized governance by the NCAA and deregulation in general, the hope is to create a more streamlined enforcement process.

If justice is swift, the thinking goes, it is more likely to be applied fairly.

“The reality is the current system is broken,” said Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips, a member of the transformation committee. “I think everyone in the association, in the enterprise, understands it. When (an investigation) takes the amount of time that it does now and you start to penalize young men and women that were high school, if not middle school-age (when the violation occurred), it’s not an effective process.”

The IARP is still handling cases stemming from the FBI probe involving Louisville, Arizona, Kansas and LSU. Those have been in the NCAA enforcement pipeline for years. A related case against Oklahoma State did not go through IARP and the Cowboys did end up with a postseason ban.

David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University and former compliance director for several schools, said even though the IARP failed, NCAA enforcement would be best handled by an independent organization.

“No system is perfect, but if you’re going to have an enforcement system at the end of the day you need to provide basic due-process protections and then you have to be able to consistently punish people,” he said.

In the Memphis case, Wiseman received $11,500 from Hardaway in 2017 while Hardaway was coach at a local high school. Hardaway was hired as Memphis’ coach in March 2018, and Wiseman committed to the Tigers in November 2018.

The NCAA accused Memphis of four Level I and two Level II violations, including lack of institutional control, head coach responsibility and failure to monitor. In the past, those types of allegations could strike fear into athletic directors but probation and fines seem much more likely to be the outcome now instead of the sweeping scholarship sanctions, vacated victories and postseason ban that Southern California received in 2010 for the Reggie Bush improper benefits case. Those penalties set USC football back years.

In the end, the IARP essentially reduced the charges against Memphis and cleared Hardaway of wrongdoing.

While the NCAA is losing sway in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling, with more power being shifted to its member conferences, it also remains clear the schools still want the association to handle enforcement.

But what exactly is being enforced?

Athletes can now be paid for endorsement and sponsorship deals and college sports is still waiting on and hoping for help from federal lawmakers to regulate name, image and likeness compensation.

Plus, as revenue skyrockets for schools at the top of major college sports, the NCAA is trending toward fewer restrictions on what financial benefits can be provided to athletes.

“Until we have clarity and certainty on what schools and boosters and athletes can and can’t do, I think many recognize that it’s dangerous to hand down significant punishments when it’s not clear what you can and can’t do,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane. “And I think unless you have clear rules, it’s hard to harsh punishment.”

Still, punishments directed at schools (fines) and coaches (suspensions) could become steeper and longer, Feldman said.

Potuto said with so much money flowing into the top of college athletics, it is doubtful fines could be large enough to be a true deterrent. While she understands the desire to not have current athletes pay for the sins of previous regimes, loosened transfer rules could mitigate the potential harm.

“I will make one prediction: If there is a move to impose penalties much less frequently in five years there is going to be a move to put them back in,” Potuto said.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.