Top prospect Jalen Green becomes first player to test G League professional pathway program

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Jalen Green, the No. 3 prospect in the Class of 2020 and a guy with the potential to be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, announced on Thursday afternoon that he has committed to … the G League?

Instead of going to college, Jalen Green will be the guinea pig in the latest G League effort to keep American talent that is not interested in playing collegiately stateside. Green is the first high school player that has opted to enter the G League’s professional pathway program for prospects that want to do something other than go to college for their one-and-done season.

And he may not be the only one that follows this path. Isaiah Todd, another five-star prospect in the Class of 2020, announced earlier this week that he will not be attending Michigan and is exploring professional routes. He is expected to join this same G League program. Kentucky commit Terrence Clarke was pursued by the G League but seems intent on heading to Lexington, while Gonzaga commit Jalen Suggs has also made clear that the professional route is something he is considering.

Green is expected to earn north of $500,000 this year and enroll in a program that is significantly different from the option that was given to high school players in the past. According to ESPN, Green will not be playing as a full-time member of a G League team but instead enroll in what amounts to an NBA academy. He’ll get on-and-off the court training, he’ll have a chance to scrimmage G League teams as well as other NBA academy programs from around the world and he will receive professional coaching and player development training from actual NBA coaches. The goal is not to force Green and fellow high school graduates into competing against professionals but to instead help them learn what it takes to be a professional basketball player, on and off the court.

This will obviously be a blow for the sport of college basketball, but it’s one that we have become somewhat accustomed to in recent years. Every year, there are more elite high school prospects that are opting for alternative routes to the NBA than going through college. R.J. Hampton and Lamelo Ball followed Terrance Ferguson to Australia, where the NBL has established a Next Stars program for one-and-dones. Anfernee Simons and Thon Maker started a trend of players going to prep school for a year before entering the draft, one that will be followed by Makur Maker, Josh Hall and Kenyon Martin Jr. this year. MarJon Beauchamp announced last summer that he will be on the Mitchell Robinson plan, skipping college and opting to spend his one-and-done season working out and prepping for the NBA draft on his own.

The G League route, however, is something that we never saw an elite prospect do. Former Syracuse commit Darius Bazely intended to enter the G League, but he realized it was not in his best interest. (Back in 2009, Latavius Williams skipped college and went straight to the G League, but that was before this program was established and issues with collegiate eligibility influenced that decision.)

The reason for it is that the G League is by no means an easy place to play.

We look at it as a joke because it is the minor leagues, but the truth of the matter is that the G League is made up of players in their early-to-mid 20’s that were high school All-Americans and all-conference players in college. Look at some of the names on this year’s midseason all-G League team:

  • Frank Mason was the National Player of the Year in 2017.
  • Josh Jackson was a top five pick and a top three recruit that is still on his rookie contract.
  • Gary Payton II averaged 16 points, 7.8 boards and 5.0 assists for an Oregon State team that actually made the NCAA tournament.
  • Keldon Johnson was a top ten prospect that will be two years out of college next season.
  • Tremont Waters averaged 16 points and six assists in two years at LSU.
  • Marial Shayok averaged 18.7 points at Iowa State

The list goes on and on and on.

These are grown men, many with young families, fighting — sometimes quite literally — for one last chance at landing an NBA contract, at the financial security that comes with getting one of those coveted 450 jobs. The adjustment to the college game is difficult for most freshmen. The G League is a significant step up from even the highest level of college basketball.

Now Jalen Green might have been ready for that leap to the G League. Some high school kids are. Zion Williamson certainly would have been, and while I don’t think that he is on the level of Zion, I do think that Jalen Green is a good enough player right now to be able to go to the G League without getting exposed. He’s a consensus top three player in a class where the top three are all good enough to be picked No. 1 in this year’s draft.

I don’t know if I can say the same about some of the other players considering this route. Todd, specifically. He’s a 6-foot-10, mobile big man with three-point range and the ability to handle the ball, but he’s not tough enough, strong enough or ready to defend at that level. Like Bazley, he is precisely the kind of player that could torpedo his draft stock playing against grown men before he’s ready.

Which is why this decision to turn the G League route into what amounts to an NBA academy is so important. These guys aren’t going to playing against pros every night on a team that has no incentive to actually develop them. This route, which will include a free college education, now becomes appealing, especially when it will be located in Southern California and come with a $500,000 payday.

The bigger question, however, is whether or not a decision like this, a push from the G League to get stars into the NBA’s grips as quickly as possible, is bad for college basketball.

And in a sense, it is.

Having a player as good as Jalen Green at a school with a fanbase as passionate as, say, Memphis would have unquestionably been a good thing for the sport.

But James Wiseman lasted three games at Memphis last season, and college basketball was, overall, just fine. Ball is as big of a draw as Zion, and college basketball survived while he played in Australia. Hampton was likely to commit to Kansas if he went to college, and the Jayhawks were still the clearcut No. 1 team in the country.

Losing out on a handful of freshmen every season is not something the NCAA or college basketball fans should be worried about, not when the one-and-done rule is likely to be gone before Emoni Bates or Bronny James arrives.

And according to sources that have spoken with NBC Sports, the goal here is to bring in 6-8 high school players every year. They are less concerned with ending college basketball than they are with taking the kids that are not interested in going to college and steering them towards the professional ranks in America as opposed to Australia, or China, or Italy.

Where college basketball needs to focus their attention is on the All-Americans that are leaving school to go undrafted. The Immanuel Quickleys, the Ty-Shon Alexanders, the Jordan Bones, the Tyler Cooks, the Jared Harpers. Kentucky will have a chance to be the preseason No. 1 team in the country if Quickley, who will be a contender for National Player of the Year, changes course and comes back to school. Instead, they are taking players off Creighton’s bench as grad transfers because they’re worried about their freshman point guard. Creighton will be a top five team in the country if Alexander decides to come back to school; reportedly, he’s in the draft for good regardless of where he is projected to get picked or the feedback he receives from NBA teams. They could win a Big East regular season title and, legitimately, a national championship with him. They’re more of a top 15-20 team without him.

This is something that I’ve repeatedly harped on. I will continue shouting it at the top of my lungs until I fully devolve into the old man shouting at a cloud meme: The single biggest issue that college basketball is facing is their annual talent drain. Recognizable faces disappear into professional obscurity, the continuity on rosters are torpedoed and the game itself becomes uglier and uglier. It’s never going away because people are always going to cheer for their favorite school and March Madness is always going to be gambling utopia, but if we really want the sport to grow, the key isn’t keeping Jalen Green or Isaiah Todd from the G League.

It’s providing a financial incentive to keep stars on campus for an extra season or two.