June 25, 2022


For decades, the equation for high school basketball stars advancing to the next level was fairly simple: college basketball, or the NBA. The overwhelming majority chose the former, with universities and the NBA embracing a system — one that persists to this day — that effectively utilized college basketball as a sort of minor league. The advent of “one-and-done” in 2006 — the NBA rule preventing players from entering the league immediately upon their high school graduation — only solidified that steppingstone construction. Where previous stars such as LeBron James and Kevin Garnett were able to jump straight to the NBA, Kevin Durant and Zion Williamson were compelled to play one year of college basketball before being permitted to make money in the league. It’s a system that still has its drawbacks, critics and is not always viewed as serving the best interests of the players in question or the colleges they (briefly, in many cases) attend.

But for the 2022 high school class, the options have grown. The NBA’s G League Ignite program formally launched last season with stars, including Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga, forgoing college basketball to play a developmental year on the professional level. A startup league, Overtime Elite, began play last month and has attracted more players — including not-yet-graduated high schoolers — to begin earning money and playing professionally with an eye toward NBA careers. Additionally, more U.S.-born and an increasing amount of European players have begun exploring alternative professional options, including Australia’s NBL, where LaMelo Ball, R.J. Hampton and Josh Giddey each served a stint before becoming first-round NBA draft picks.

Each of the routes now available to players has its differences, some pronounced and some subtle. We examined the intricacies of each pathway below:

Jump to: G League Ignite | Overtime Elite | NBL Next Star program | College basketball

NBA G League Ignite

Eligibility: Players are eligible for the G League Ignite program upon their high school graduations, but must be selected for inclusion by the NBA. There is flexibility within this system — G League executives Rod Strickland and Shareef Abdur-Rahim recruited and signed then-high school junior Scoot Henderson (the No. 1 point guard in the 2023 class) to a two-year contract upon learning he has enough credits to graduate high school early, but is too young to be draft-eligible in 2022 (Henderson won’t turn 19 until 2023).

G League executives have maintained they have flexibility to evaluate situations on a case-by-case basis, but prefer to sign players who have already graduated high school. For the first time this summer, Ignite signed a player who was a year removed from high school in junior college product MarJon Beauchamp, 20, signaling the potential to expand the crop of eligible players to more than just traditional one-and-done candidates. It’s possible the league could in the future target those already enrolled in college, including a player like Memphis’ Emoni Bates, who will not be eligible for the NBA draft until 2023.

Compensation/contract specifics: Green’s G League Ignite contract was believed to pay him $500,000 over one season, and he was also permitted to sign endorsements. Other players have signed for less than that, around $300,000. In addition to five draft-eligible players, the G League Ignite roster consists of veteran free agents who are paid relatively lucrative salaries (by G League standards) of $150,000 for their six-month season. Some of the ex-NBA players on the current team include Pooh Jeter, Amir Johnson, Kosta Koufos and Kevin Murphy.

Competition: Ignite players are scheduled to play at least 27 preseason and regular-season games against other G League teams through March, including an appearance at the G League Winter Showcase in Las Vegas in December. More showcases are possible, with All-Star weekend and post-G League season events among the potential events.

Ignite has faced stiff competition in each of its two seasons, with head-to-head matchups against current and former NBA players allowing scouts to measure the program’s draft prospects on an NBA-spaced court with NBA rules and concepts. The team surprised by making the G League playoffs last season but is off to a 1-3 start this season, partially due to injuries but also because of a weaker supporting group of veterans this time around, particularly in the frontcourt.

Success stories: It’s easy to point to Green and Kuminga as success stories. The players were, respectively, projected as the No. 2 and No. 9 picks in a preseason 2021 NBA mock draft and ultimately went No. 2 and No. 7. Perhaps more impressive is what Ignite did with Isaiah Todd, who entered the year as a projected late second-round pick (No. 53), but ended up going as the No. 31 overall selection after a better than expected season.

Where players get drafted is arguably not as important as how well they are prepared entering the NBA and what type of careers they end up having, something that is simply too early to predict at the moment with this group. Many NBA executives who were initially skeptical of the endeavor have come around to it, describing their experience scouting the G League Bubble in Orlando, Florida, last year as being highly productive.

Cautionary tales: Though it’s still too early to call his case a cautionary tale, G League executives can’t be thrilled with the outcome they experienced with Daishen Nix, who had one shaky season with Ignite before going undrafted. In hindsight, it’s easy to argue that Nix — now on a non-guaranteed two-way contract with the Houston Rockets — would have been better served playing college basketball. Nix was at one point considered a potential lottery pick before putting on considerable weight during the pandemic — there are no guarantees his outcome would have been any different had he fulfilled his college commitment to UCLA. Still, Nix’s case has provided college coaches recruiting against Ignite with significant ammunition against the G League path, with Bruins head coach Mick Cronin among those who have publicly railed against the program.

The main hurdle that prospects considering Ignite face is that its players who are eligible for the NBA draft are forced to leave the program after one year due to NBA collective bargaining agreement rules. In a perfect world, a player like Nix would be able to return to Ignite for his “sophomore” season and rebuild his draft stock rather than go undrafted and thrust into considerable uncertainty. It’s a reality all U.S.-based high school players considering professional pathways (including OTE and the NBL) must contend with.

Stability of the venture: The NBA has gone to great lengths to make the G League a viable business and has made considerable strides with growing the league since its inception in 2001, becoming by all accounts a legitimate platform for its teams to utilize to develop young talent. Ignite is another step in that direction, with the potential to eventually bring in revenue in the form of sponsorship agreements, partnerships, a significant increase in nationally televised games, social media engagement and barnstorming tours to basketball-crazed countries. With deep pockets, and an eye on investing in the future of the game, the NBA is under no pressure to turn a profit in the immediate future, but will always have a keen eye on its profit and loss sheets to ensure it is getting a return on investment.

See also  LaMelo Ball joins Magic Johnson, Luka Doncic in rare NBA air, leads both teams in rebounds, assists and steals

Evaluation: For the top tier of five-star talent coming out of high school, the G League is a highly attractive option — albeit one not available to all players. The ability to practice and compete with and against NBA players in a true professional setting, to be compensated and to be evaluated and coached on a daily basis by NBA stakeholders is difficult to compete with. That said, true exposure is still greater in college basketball, which has better TV and media visibility and offers players the ability to play more meaningful games before much larger crowds, including in the NCAA tournament. For many players, those elements matter.

For those less interested in the tradition of college basketball and everything that goes along with being a college student, the G League Ignite pathway should continue to be an enticing prospect, although there are significant question marks moving forward regarding the league’s ability to compete against the dollar numbers that are being thrown around by college coaches thanks to new name, image and likeness (NIL) provisions. It will be interesting to see whether the Ignite will be willing to get into bidding wars against OTE and college basketball, and what its appetite will be for chasing players who have already signed national letters of intent with schools. All of the top-20 high school seniors in the upcoming freshman class have already committed to college programs, meaning Ignite’s recruiting options may be severely limited for next season, barring decommitments.

Overtime Elite

Eligibility: OTE has no hard and fast rules for eligibility, but has expressed a preference in conversations with ESPN in signing players who are entering their junior or senior years of high school — meaning two to three years away from being NBA draft-eligible. OTE has scouts based in the U.S. and Europe and has shown a willingness to recruit globally, already reeling in players from France, Spain, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Romania and others. Player ages range from 16-year-old Izan Almansa to 20-year-old Davion Mace, but the majority of players in the program are 17 or 18.

Compensation/contract specifics: OTE guarantees a salary of at least $100,000, but some of the biggest name players have signed for much higher salaries, believed to be in the 500K range per year. Players are free to sign their own sneaker endorsements or otherwise profit off NIL-style deals. Most, but not all current OTE players have signed two-year deals, even those slated to become draft-eligible after their first season in the program, meaning there is already a strong base of talent in place ahead of the 2022-23 season.

Competition: OTE divides its players into three teams, which have been playing a mixture of prep schools and internal “league series” games where the three teams face each other. Ignite and the NBA academies have currently expressed an unwillingness to play OTE in conversations with ESPN. OTE was not able to schedule many marquee games against elite competition in 2021-22 because of its late start, as well as restrictions imposed by high school state federations and entities such as Geico Nationals and the NIBC, which prevent high school teams from scheduling them. OTE officials say that is partially by design, as the venture was envisioned as a true league with games played in its sparkling new arena and entertainment content kept in-house. Still, the level of competition the players are facing thus far, with some games devolving into all-star style exhibitions, is one of the questions OTE prospects will have to answer with NBA evaluators.

Success stories: It’s too early to judge a venture that is barely a few months old, but the fact that OTE was able to a) pull off signing a roster full of four- and five-star recruits and high-level international prospects, b) build a new arena and fully functioning school from scratch, and c) get its league off the ground with barely a hitch is notable in its own right. Recent high school graduates Kok Yat and Dominick Barlow went from entirely off the radar to prospects NBA teams will need to consider this upcoming June after a successful showing at an OTE pro day last month. NBA GMs have been showing up to OTE games and taking the venture seriously, which means the league is obviously doing something right.

It will be interesting to see how the NBA views twins Amen and Ausar Thompson, ESPN’s No. 22 and 23rd-ranked prospects in the 2022 high school class, in advance of the 2023 NBA draft. The players’ shooting was considered a significant concern going into their two-year contracts with OTE, but thus far both have shown lottery-type upside. High school teenagers who are considering the OTE pathway will study the Thompsons’ development while weighing the benefits of spending two years with professional coaching, compared to the more traditional route.

Cautionary tales: It’s too early to point to any specific examples, but a primary concern is what will become of OTE’s mid- and lower-end talent when contracts expire. History says that, at best, only a handful of the 27 players on the roster will end up reaching and sticking in the NBA. Will the rest be able to find jobs in professional basketball? Will they regret not spending four or five years in college and developing backup plans? Only time will tell. Every year, a significant number of college basketball players graduate and leave school no better off than where they started, so it’s not like OTE players would have guaranteed success with another pathway. But certainly this circumstance is something critics will monitor, as well as how ready top players like Jean Montero appear to be as rookies in the NBA.

Stability of the venture: Overtime raised $80 million from the likes of Jeff Bezos, Drake and Kevin Durant to fund this venture, which, like most startups, will likely need several years to have a chance of being profitable. Providing proof of concept and capturing market share will be the focal point early on, as there’s always a possibility that a bigger company — like a sneaker company or even the NBA itself — could try to acquire the company.

Partnerships with the likes of Gatorade, State Farm and Topps show that there is real interest from the corporate world in what OTE is building, and the more than 800,000 followers it has already amassed in a short time on Instagram and TikTok (along with 24 million followers for the main Overtime account) indicate that their coveted young demographic is engaging with their product. Whether or not OTE is able to find a major media partner in the coming years will help determine how large of an audience it can reach, but the company doesn’t seem to be looking at the sport through the same lens as others in the basketball industry, with OTE’s focus on capturing and holding the fickle attention spans of a younger fan base and proving its development model makes sense for future recruiting targets.

Evaluation: OTE faced an incredible amount of skepticism upon its announcement, and despite some promising early signs, still has plenty of work ahead to prove that the venture is sustainable long term. Where OTE clearly has a leg up on the competition is in its ability to recruit and pay players entering their junior year of high school, two years earlier than their competition. While that circumstance allows the league to aggressively pursue a huge crop of potential stars with its deep pocketbooks, the track record of 16-year-old five-star recruits turning into NBA stars has been hit or miss, even for the best talent evaluators. The resources at OTE’s disposal in terms of the quality of staff and infrastructure in place should help improve those odds, but expanding this venture from two dozen players to 50 or 60 without watering down the talent level could be challenging. Finding the right balance between generating highlights for social media and playing the style of winning basketball NBA executives want to see from future employees will be important too.

See also  Rob Williams Qualified prospects Aggressive Attack in Payback Earn vs. Raps

NBL Next Star program

Eligibility: The NBL is casting a wide net with its Next Star program, with the only firm rule an intent to pursue players who can bring eyeballs to its league. The program has been flexible with its recruiting, showing a willingness to pursue teenagers with the intention of keeping them in the league for multiple years (such as Emoni Bates, who the league unsuccessfully courted), while also going after one- and-done type Americans (such as LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton), the most talented Australian products (Josh Giddey and Dyson Daniels) and also older players already drafted by NBA teams (such as Brazilian Didi Louzada or American Justinian Jessup).

Recently, the league has shifted its focus to recruiting European prospects in search of development and exposure such as French teenage lottery prospect Ousmane Dieng or German Ariel Hukporti. NBL teams have taken up the initiative of bringing in talented internationals even outside the Next Star program, with Filipino 7-footer Kai Sotto leaving G League Ignite to sign on as a “special restricted player” and French guard Hugo Besson becoming the second-youngest import in NBL history (Terrance Ferguson). Several American high school players have listed the NBL as an option when narrowing down their recruiting lists, but sources told ESPN some players have done so without any contact with the league — potentially to create the appearance of a bidding war with other suitors.

Compensation/contract specifics: Dollar figures and length of contracts vary widely, as players negotiate directly with (and are paid in part by) the league as opposed to specific teams. Most players sign multiyear agreements and make low six-figure salaries, with those on the highest end of the spectrum making around $500,000 depending on where they are drafted. Housing, insurance and flights for players and family members are also provided. NBL clubs can receive some of that money back in the form of buyouts paid by NBA teams, with those dollars split within the league.

Hampton was able to supplement his salary with a sneaker deal with Peak that paid him roughly $700,000 on top of what he made in the NBL. We haven’t yet seen that from players in other alternative pathways, as the landscape for endorsement opportunities in the shoe world has changed dramatically in the past two-plus years.

Competition: The NBL’s 10 teams and nine NBA draft prospects play a 28-game regular-season schedule, with four teams making the playoffs in late April. The attention the league has received from the NBA in recent years has bolstered the caliber of American free agents teams have been able to sign, and has raised the level of competition significantly. More than other alternative pathways, NBL prospects can boast playing in the most natural basketball environment in terms of the importance of wins and losses, and playing time that is far from guaranteed. The fact that there is no relegation in this league (a stark contrast with Europe) gives teams a cushion to avoid the bottom falling out, but this is a well-coached, physical and unforgiving league thanks in no small part to its domestic players, who helped make up the high-quality Australian national team that won a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

Success stories: Both LaMelo Ball and Josh Giddey entered the NBL with significant question marks (and second-round projections) before catapulting themselves into being the No. 3 and No. 6 picks in the 2020 and 2021 NBA drafts. Both hit the ground running from day one in the NBA, looking well-prepared and ready to compete on both ends of the floor, with Ball eventually winning Rookie of the Year honors. Giddey appears ahead of schedule for the feistier than expected Thunder as well. The NBL likely also couldn’t be happier with the outcome they saw with Didi Louzada, drafted No. 35 by the New Orleans Pelicans in 2019 and stashed with the Sydney Kings for two years (where he was sent to work on his English and skill level) who received a significant buyout for their efforts upon releasing him mid-season. Louzada signed a four-year, $7.6 million contract this past summer.

Cautionary tales: Academically ineligible to play at Arizona, Terry Armstrong, the No. 40 prospect in the 2020 high school class, was not physically or mentally ready for the rigors of professional basketball and only played 18 minutes in total for South East Melbourne. Armstrong has bounced around since and is currently playing in Slovenia, serving as a good reminder for NBL teams of their need to be selective with teenage prospects in particular. The expedited timeline for players like Armstrong — he was automatically eligible for the next NBA draft immediately upon signing in the NBL — may be one of the reasons the league has pivoted more towards international players. These players can stay for multiple years, enter the draft at their own leisure and are often older and sometimes possess experience at the professional level.

Stability of the venture: The NBL was in good shape before their Next Star program was launched and will continue to be just fine even if it never attracts another LaMelo Ball-type prospect to its shores again. With that said, the growth of the league, with two new expansion teams forming in the past two years and a groundbreaking new TV deal, will likely cause executives in Australia to continue to push the envelope in attempting to attract top talent, especially with the visibility the league has begun to enjoy worldwide. The landscape today is very different from where it was when Hampton and Ball signed in May and June of 2019 — including the fact that the NBL has more competition in the recruiting marketplace.

Evaluation: With the market for American one-and-done prospects expanding significantly since the arrival of LaMelo Ball on Australian shores — OTE, Ignite and the NIL-fueled NCAA market all provide equal or higher pay and the ability to stay close to home in the US — the NBL will need to continue to cast a wide net to differentiate itself from the pack. Losing homegrown Australian product Dyson Daniels to the G League stung in particular, as the inability to guarantee significant starting minutes or a long leash for making mistakes caused him to choose Ignite, which is now playing him at point guard and allowing him to take significant early lumps that may pay off later in the season (and his career).

See also  Keith Harris set up as College Rector

The NBL will contend that its development model, centered on the more traditional one-prospect-per-team setup, surrounded by seasoned veterans, will be appealing to players who aren’t afraid to stray 10,000 miles away from home. More than other international leagues, the NBL has provided a strong platform for players to be seen by NBA teams and casual fans, which may ultimately turn out to be more tempting for elite Australian and European prospects than for Americans, who have never had more options at their disposal.

College basketball

Eligibility: Open to qualifying high school graduates or those one year removed from high school graduation. Non-high school graduates (with a GED) or non-qualifiers can transfer to Division I after two seasons in junior college. According to FIBA, 757 international players from 82 countries played college basketball in all divisions in the US last season. The NCAA says that 17% of Division I players are from outside the U.S., a number that has steadily risen over the past few years. An NCAA task force’s recommendation last month to eliminate standardized test scores as a requirement for academic eligibility has the potential to open the doors even wider for both international players and Americans from lower-income groups, removing another restriction that prevented some from playing college basketball, forcing them to take the junior college or NAIA routes instead.

Compensation/contract specifics: The vast majority of college basketball players make little to nothing outside of the (significant) benefits they receive as part of their scholarships, even in the current NIL-allowable environment. At the high end, players such as Paolo Banchero, TyTy Washington Jr. and others are expected to exceed seven figures in NIL compensation, sources say, providing a significant boon in the attractiveness of playing college basketball for elite prospects. Even relatively anonymous players from Power 5 schools could receive compensation this season depending on how well their schools are positioned to enable NIL deals.

There is still quite a bit of apprehension among college basketball administration officials in revealing the scope of NIL activity among their team’s players. NIL is new, there is uncertainty around the rules and there are questions about the NCAA’s willingness to investigate the many gray areas that are emerging. It will likely take several years for the market to stabilize and companies and players to have a better handle on what to expect. Different schools have different appetites for dealing with NIL, as most of the rules surrounding NIL activity are dictated by individual states and not the NCAA. International players were believed to be ineligible for NIL money due to student visa restrictions, but some schools have already found creative ways around that which their administrations have approved as being above-board.

Competition: While the strength of college basketball schedules varies greatly, even among power conference schools, there is a great deal of appeal in the consistency of 18-to-23-year-olds competing against each other on a nightly basis, with fluid rosters change every offseason and now allow a one-time free pass to transfer if a player sees a better opportunity elsewhere.

Success stories: Every roster in the NBA is full of success stories from the college ranks. From small school darlings such as Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard or Ja Morant, to rags- to-riches stories such as Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid or Jimmy Butler, an entire library can be filled telling the many marvelous stories of players who entered the college game with little to no fanfare only to become millionaires and stars. Increasingly, those players are arriving from outside the U.S., as the likes of Domantas Sabonis (Gonzaga), Franz Wagner (Michigan), Lauri Markkanen (Arizona) and many others can attest.

Cautionary tales: For every Cade Cunningham, RJ Barrett or Anthony Davis — can’t-miss stars who lived up to their potential and became top draft picks, there are top-10 recruits including Trevon Duval, Cliff Alexander or James Michael McAdoo who fizzled out or never played a game in the NBA. Some players leave school too early, suffer injuries, or simply don’t fulfill their potential because they went to a less than ideal situation, didn’t work hard enough, or were perhaps overrated. Other elite high school prospects, such as Quentin Grimes, were able to rebound from poor starts to their career by transferring and finding success elsewhere, ultimately still becoming first-round picks. It’s a trend that will likely accelerate now that players need not worry about sitting out a year when they transfer, and also have increased opportunities to get paid.

Stability of the venture: College basketball is a billion-dollar business that is not going anywhere anytime soon. Many schools have passionate fan bases and significant media followings, with hundreds of games broadcast nationally, and the NCAA tournament is considered to be one of the grandest spectacles in American sports. Players can take comfort in the fact that around 85% of NBA players came from college basketball, making it a highly proven platform going back decades. With more elite international players electing for the college route, the NBA has increasingly turned to drafting international players who matriculated from U.S. colleges — last season 10 college players were drafted who were born outside the U.S. Despite the years of resistance by the NCAA that threatened the game, college basketball has never been in a better place than it is now, thanks in no small part to individual states passing NIL laws and forcing the NCAA to come to grips with reality.

Evaluation: From an NBA evaluation standpoint, college basketball is far from perfect — starting with the rules. The 30-second shot clock is too long, teams enter the bonus and start shooting free throws too quickly, the sport’s best players are often sidelined by early foul trouble and mediocre teams are able to kill the flow of the game by packing the paint and sitting in zone defenses for entire possessions. College coaches are far too incentivized to schedule conservatively and play virtually no competition for the first two months of their seasons, and the talent level of the sport continues to be watered down by Division I expansion on a yearly basis. In spite of all this, there’s currently a level of excitement around the sport that hasn’t been felt in years, with plenty of optimism that continued progress can help elevate the college basketball regular season from a niche intended for diehard fans to reining in more of a casual audience as well. All of those elements are good for the health of college basketball, and why the collegiate route remains the most bankable path to the NBA for top-level prospects.

Jonathan Givony is an NBA draft expert and the founder and co-owner of DraftExpress.com, a private scouting and analytics service utilized by NBA, NCAA and international teams.