The NBA’s College Question

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Lavar Ball’s recent escapades rehash league’s treatment of draft eligibility

Lavar Ball, the flamboyant father of Los Angeles Lakers rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, proclaimed to the world this past December of his plans to launch a basketball league dedicated to showcasing the nation’s top high school graduates who want to forgo playing in college. According to a statement that he shared with SLAM online, Ball is calling this league the Junior Basketball Association. It will be sponsored by his basketball apparel company, Big Baller Brand, and players who participate in his league will have the chance to be paid up to $10,000 a month.

As the Big Baller Brand CEO, Ball has been known for his opinionated personality and often unusual approach to managing the basketball careers of his three sons. Soon after his JBA announcement, Ball decided to pull both of his younger sons from school so that they could play professionally in Lithuania. He removed his middle son, LiAngelo, from UCLA after the 19-year-old was detained for shoplifting during a team trip to China. Ball’s youngest, 16-year-old LaMelo, will also be forfeiting his collegiate eligibility by going pro overseas.

Do not be alarmed; this is not just another clickbait piece detailing Lavar Ball’s unconventional antics in order to satisfy your cravings for sensationalist reporting. Instead, Ball’s dream of a Junior Basketball Association plugs in to a much broader discussion about an issue that the NBA has been struggling with for decades: the rules of draft eligibility.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver, in his annual press conference before the NBA Finals this past June, admitted that “a change” to the minimum age requirement in the NBA’s draft eligibility rules is needed. Silver, although he did not completely shut down the possibility of lowering the age minimum, is with the belief that the minimum draft eligible age should be raised to at least 20 years in order to appease both NBA teams and collegiate athletic directors who are unhappy with the current guidelines.

Silver’s position is understandable. By raising the age minimum above 19, the commissioner hopes to see more young stars staying at least an extra year at their respective collegiate programs. To the NBA coaches and general managers who are critical of the current requirements, an additional season of college experience, in their opinion, will allow players to enter the draft better prepared to play at the professional level. They believe that the current one-and-done college standouts are not ready for the NBA.

College coaches and athletic directors share the same position. From their perspective, there are several benefits that coincide with forcing players to stay an additional year. A primary argument that proponents of raising the draft eligibility age make is that it will allow student-athletes to be more focused in the classroom and gain motivation to continue their education beyond just one year. But the bigger concern for AD’s lies in the on-court product rather than academic achievement. With high-caliber players staying in the college game longer, the excitement and attractiveness of play would improve across the board. Programs will also experience more sustained success from year-to-year, likely leading to increased attendance and higher television ratings, which ultimately bolsters the profits for the college athletic programs. None of those profits will go to the athletes themselves.

Ball’s JBA, on the other hand, represents the opposing school of thought that favors a lower minimum age requirement with an option for players to get paid for their talents right out of high school. Ever since the NBA changed its draft eligibility rules in 2007, critics have disagreed with requiring players to be one year removed from their high school graduations. This effectively forced top high school prospects to either play in college for at least one year or search for limited professional opportunities outside of the United States.

The vast majority of players choose the college route, and for good reason. Playing for a well-known, highly televised college program gives young players the most exposure to NBA scouts while competing against the nation’s best. The college game, boosted by an exciting, single-game elimination postseason, is extremely popular during the month of March. Cinderella story upsets and the passion of fan-bases across the country is what helps fuel the March Madness fire. Who among the most recent crop of basketball talent would not want to be a part of the NCAA tournament atmosphere?

The truth is, there are plenty of recent high school graduates who are less inclined to continue their education and would rather seek financial compensation for their abilities on the court. Why pursue a degree when you know you could get paid doing something that requires no degree at all? Nevertheless, NCAA basketball has become the NBA’s primary development league without costing professional basketball a dime.

The NCAA, on the other hand, actually makes a quite a bit of money off the product put together by its student-athletes. In April of 2016, the NCAA extended its March Madness multimedia deal with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting to 2032. The deal totals $8.8 billion over eight years (2024 to 2032), meaning that the NCAA stands to gain just over one billion dollars per tournament on top of merchandising and ticket sales. In the announcement of this deal, the NCAA made the assurance that “more than 90 percent” of the deal’s revenue will be “used to benefit college athletes” in some way, shape or form.  

Even ignoring the outcries from critics who find the NCAA’s supposed commitment to re-investing in student-athletes dubious, that still leaves the NCAA with a cool $100 million profit –– more than enough to provide some direct monetary compensation to its athletes. Indeed, student-athletes are given generous scholarships that cover the vast majority of tuition and housing costs. But from an economic standpoint, many student-athletes find that the opportunity cost of forgoing the wages they would be making at the professional level is too high. Given the chance, many of these athletes would much rather go pro and get paid than remain an amateur, spending time in a classroom working toward an unwanted degree.

Once again, enter Lavar Ball and his Junior Basketball Association. It may not seem like the most feasible idea given Ball’s history with wild proclamations and relatively limited business experience, but one can not deny its appeal. High school hoops are already receiving more national television coverage than ever before, so the idea of freshly graduated players participating in a highly competitive league ran by one of the country’s most eccentric celebrities is not a ridiculous concept. If Ball could actually pull together the funding to make this league happen, it does not appear that securing a television deal would be difficult to accomplish.

Regardless of whether this league comes to fruition or not, it is already providing the framework for a future solution to the NBA’s college question. Ball’s brainchild has the potential to garner a robust viewership, one that could rival that of the NBA’s G-League. Formerly known as the NBA Development League (or D-League), the rebranded G-League –– named because of a sponsorship deal with Gatorade –– is the NBA’s official minor league. Currently, each of the 26 teams in the G-League is affiliated with one of the 30 NBA franchises. Rules do not prohibit 18-year-olds from being drafted into the G-League, but it is certainly a rarity for players to enter the minor leagues directly from high school.

The G-League has experienced significant changes and growth since it was founded in 2001, and in many instances it has come a long way. In the league’s most recent attempt to increase viewership and exposure, it finalized an online streaming media rights deal with Eleven Sports last month. But despite all of the developments, the G-League is still far from being a significant developmental alternative to the college game. For that, the NBA’s minor league will need significant financial restructuring and expansion so that it will be able to take on the costs of bigger salaries and television contracts more comparable to the NBA standard.

The way things stand at this moment in time, the JBA, if set up properly, could easily compete with the G-League by offering a superior product. Basketball lovers would salivate watching the young, untamed stars of tomorrow’s NBA compete against one another on a nationally-televised stage, promoted by Lavar himself. Players would be pleased to be compensated for their talents without being weighed down by the NCAA’s strict rules and regulations.

This change to the basketball status quo is by no means perfect. It might be unlikely that a league like the JBA will produce players that are more ready to enter the NBA than their college counterparts. On the other hand, the concept of a semi-professional league for high school graduates could become so popular that its existence becomes legitimately detrimental to NCAA basketball, maybe not at big conference schools, but certainly in smaller divisions.

Maybe Ball’s JBA will succeed, maybe similar leagues will blow up later down the road. Perhaps even the NBA will augment its minor league system to take on and pay younger players who do not want to go to college before they are draft eligible. What’s important is that young ballers who are hoping for a career in professional basketball are finally getting their cries for a more viable college alternative seriously considered by those who have the most control over the future of sport.

 

Written by: Dominic Faria — sports@theaggie.org