The deadline for underclassmen to withdraw from the NBA draft and retain their collegiate eligibility came and went on Wednesday night, and in total, there are 87 players that opted to keep their name in the draft when returning to school was an option.
Remember, there are only 60 picks in June 20th’s draft, and while second round picks make more guaranteed money than you probably realize and the G League, combined with the advent of two-way contracts, has made it more attractive to be a borderline NBA player than in the past, the truth is that many — if not the majority — of those 87 kids are going to have to grind out paychecks from the lower levels of professional basketball, here and abroad.
They dream of NBA riches, but the truth is that quite a few of these guys are going to be fortunate if they clear six figures in salary. If they do, it’s unlikely that they first digit will be a crooked number.
Let me be clear, making $100,000 in your early 20s is not something to scoff at, but we’re hardly talking about generational wealth here. These contracts aren’t going to be for more than a year, maybe two, and anyone that has spent time around guys that have played overseas will know that it is sometimes a battle to even get the paycheck that your contract says you are owed.
Put another way, there is absolutely nothing that the NCAA can do that would convince a Zion Williamson, or a Ja Morant, or even guys like Brandon Clarke or Ty Jerome, to return to school if they don’t want to be back. The money is just too good when they are all-but guaranteed to be able to live out their dream of playing in the NBA.
But those aren’t the guys that the NCAA should be worried.
If the NCAA wants to keep college basketball from turning into college baseball, they need to focus on keeping around the guys that you never hear from again once they decide to leave school.
In the days since R.J. Hampton made his decision to skip college and head straight to the professional ranks in New Zealand, much has been made of the fact that he is the first player to do so without having eligibility issues hanging over his head. Terrance Ferguson, Emmanuel Mudiay and Brandon Jennings were all going to have a difficult time getting cleared. Hampton would have been ready to go on the first day of practice.
The question was whether or not this would start a trend, if Hampton’s successes would lead to more American kids following his lead. And it may, especially if he ends up being a top two or three picks after his year abroad.
But the truth is that Hampton is part of a bigger story. He may be the first elite prospect to skip college and willingly head overseas, but he is hardly the first elite prospect to skip college. Thon Maker, Anfernee Simons and Jalen Lecque all found loopholes in the NBA’s rules that allowed them to enter the draft after a year at a prep school. Darius Bazley followed Mitchell Robinson’s path, sitting out during his one-and-done year, training on his own instead of playing in college.
This is college basketball’s problem moving forward.
The best players don’t want to be there, and it will only get exacerbated three years from now when the NBA’s age limit is reduced and high school players can declare for the draft.
These kids, and the people advising them, know their worth. They know how much money they can make playing professionally, whether it is in the NBA or in a lesser league. They know that athletes have a very limited window in which they can earn a living playing a sport.
More importantly, they also know how much money is floating around college basketball. They know how much their head coach makes. They know how much CBS and Turner are willing to pay for the right to broadcast the NCAA tournament. They know they are the only people that are not getting paid in a multi-billion dollar industry.
And frankly, those elite level kids are not the ones that the NCAA should be worried about.
Guys like R.J. Barrett and Romeo Langford and Nassir Little have no business being in college.
What the NCAA should worry about is just how many of those 87 underclassmen are leaving school knowing that their chances of making the NBA are relatively small. What they should be focusing on is how to keep those players on campus for as long as possible, and the answer is simple: Give them back the rights to their name and likeness.
Let’s take Martin Krampelj, for example.
Krampelj is a 6-foot-9, 235 pound Slovenian center that spent the last three years starting at center for Creighton. He averaged 13.5 points and 6.9 boards, and with a year of eligibility remaining, his impending return was one of the biggest reasons the Bluejays were projected as a top 20 team by just about every outlet. He would have been the anchor of a team that has plenty of firepower on their perimeter, but Krampelj opted not to pull his name out of consideration for the draft despite knowing that he’s only slightly more likely to hear his name called than I am.
The reason for that is pretty obvious. He’s 24 years old. He’s already fought through multiple ACL tears. He graduated this month. In a best-case scenario, he probably has ten seasons where he can earn money playing professionally, and that’s assuming he stays healthy and his surgically-repaired knees hold up well. It makes perfect sense for him to leave. It is time for him to start earning.
But what if he was able to earn in college?
Omaha is a unique place. Nebraska does not have a professional sports team. The rest of the state has the Cornhuskers. Omaha has Creighton. They sell out an NBA arena every night despite being a city of less than 500,000 people. If the NCAA removed the restrictions on players profiting off of their name and likeness and local business were able to sponsor Krampelj — if a car dealer could pay him for the right to use his image on a billboard, or a restaurant could pay him to appear in a commercial touting their steaks, or if Omaha Steaks could use some of the money they poured into advertising on podcasts into having Krampelj promote their sizzling 12 steak sampler — then he could probably realistically come close to matching what his salary would be playing professionally.
That might make it worth it for one last run at a Big East title in a year where the league is open at the top.
Or what about Rayjon Tucker?
He is a grad transfer that committed to Memphis but opted instead to turn pro. He is a guy with NBA potential — he’s 6-foot-5, crazy athletic and shot better than 41 percent from three last season — but he never played at a level above the Sun Belt. Are there enough advertising dollars in the city of Memphis to match what he would earn as a G League or two-way player this year? And just how much better would the Tigers be if they actually had a star on the roster that wasn’t a freshmen?
The list goes on and on. Think about what Kansas would be this season if Dedric Lawson was able to make some money as a fifth-year senior. Oregon’s chances of being a tournament team would be drastically better if Kenny Wooten was back in Eugene. Minnesota has a number of good, young pieces coming back, but they really could have used Amir Coffey’s senior leadership with Jordan Murphy graduating. West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate. LSU’s Tremont Waters. UCF’s Aubrey Dawkins. Iowa’s Tyler Cook. Syracuse’s Tyus Battle.
The key to keeping college basketball relevant once the best 18 year olds in the world head straight to the NBA is simple: Find a way to make staying in school attractive for the all-league players that don’t have long NBA careers in their future.
Allowing them the chance to profit off their name and likeness is the answer, and in an era where rosters flip quicker than a house bought by Chip and Joanna Gaines, the sport will be better for it.