It is a long way from the U.S. mainland to the Australian continent. A flight from Boston to Sydney covers more than 10,000 miles. This is one of the principal reasons the NBA chose to create the G League Professional Path program, to save scouts scattered across North America from having to make multiple trips each year merely to examine teenage basketball prospects who prefer to play professionally before entering the draft.
It may be a longer trip, though, from top-20 high school prospect to NBA superstar, and it’s a journey that, in ordinary times, is far more perilous than flying business class on a major airline.
This is the predicament facing top-5 class of 2020 prospect Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga, a 6-8 forward ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the 2021 class and who announced Wednesday that he will complete his high school requirements and will accept a “select contract” from the G League. And, to a larger extent, it represents a quandary for the NBA, which is gambling that it can successfully transform these high-level prospects into elite pros while effectively sequestering them from competition for a year.
There is the need to learn the game at a higher strategic level than high school, when concepts are basic and the competition often meager. There is the demand to gain a higher level of fitness, in terms of strength, endurance and dynamism. It’s essential to gain the confidence to stand above other capable players and to accept the challenges provided by big moments in games, some of which are obvious but most of them subtle.
Most of all, as we were reminded weekly during episodes of ESPN’s compelling “The Last Dance” documentary, no player is going to excel at the game’s highest level without accepting and comprehending what it means to compete. Michael Jordan was driven by competition, from being dropped to the junior varsity as a high school sophomore through the shot he dropped over Utah’s Byron Russell in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals — one NCAA title, two Olympic gold medals and six NBA championships later.
“Honestly, that’s a fair and valid point,” one Eastern Conference scout told Sporting News. “The amount of games they’re going to play, who they’re going to play, how much access we have to them. Especially with the way we evaluate guys. If you go to a Michigan State practice or Kansas practice, you know how demanding they are, competitive they are. There’s a certain expectation you have on kids. The hardest question we’re going to have to answer with these guys is, you’re not going to see them in a very challenging, competitive environment. If they end up playing 20 games and 10 of those are just exhibition games, how much of an evaluation are you getting out of it?
“And the other aspect of it is: The NBA is in murky waters. They now took over the development of players. We develop guys once they’re in the league, and now we’re developing guys that aren’t in the league, before they get to the draft. Are you going to challenge these guys to the point they break, and then their draft stock gets hurt? How does this work? I don’t know if there’s an easy answer.”
The NBA introduced the Professional Path program and the concept of “select contracts” in 2018. The G League promised to pay $125,000 to athletes who were disinterested in spending a season in college or traveling overseas to play in Europe, China or Australia. The problem: Those in charge of prospects’ futures mostly did not believe the players could handle the G League and feared it would damage their draft standing in exchange for a relatively modest payment.
No one took up the G League on its offer. During the 2018 Final Four, Darius Bazley of Cincinnati declared that he was vacating a commitment to Syracuse and instead would enter the G League, but the closer he got to actually playing there, the less inviting it seemed. He wound up spending his year in training, accepting an internship from New Balance that amounted to a sponsorship deal and, eventually, being chosen 23rd overall in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Later that summer, Australia’s NBL began courting elite American prep talent and signed RJ Hampton of Dallas and LaMelo Ball of Los Angeles, two players expected to be among the top 15 selections when the 2020 NBA Draft is conducted Oct. 15. It seemed preposterous for so many scouts and personnel executives to make such a costly and time-consuming trip, although scores did so because that’s the job.
If the NBA was going to alter that practice, it would need to promise even more money to prospects. But there still was no desire among prospects to enter the G League. The media keep declaring that Green, Kuminga, guard Daishen Nix, forward Isaiah Todd and center Kai Sotto are choosing to “bypass college for the G League.” But they won’t be playing in the G League. They are expected to play against G League opponents. That was suggested in the original report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Jonathon Givony. Those will be exhibition games, though.
It is being touted that these five players will receive “NBA coaching,” but Brian Shaw, the choice to lead this still-under-construction squad, has a career 56-85 record in less than two full seasons as a head coach and spent 11 seasons as an assistant coach. Patrick Ewing spent 14 seasons as an assistant coach with the Wizards, Rockets, Magic and Hornets. Isn’t he just as much an NBA coach?
Or is it more accurate to say, as a Division I coach put it, “NBA coaches are coaching in the NBA.”
Can any coach develop an elite NBA player by taking him directly from high school games against overmatched opponents, placing him into an environment where he won’t have to compete for playing time, offensive opportunities or, indeed, consequential results and then throwing him in against established pros fighting to stay in a league where each bimonthly paycheck earned can be literally a year’s worth of salary in the business world?
“MJ didn’t skip steps,” one high-major Division I head coach told SN. “You’ve got to become a go-to guy that makes a team win. That makes you ready to go against grown-ups every day. They’re trying to skip steps. Most kids need those steps or they’re not going to have a career.”
It can be argued that someone as gifted as Green or Kuminga doesn’t need those steps to have a career. Gerald Green skipped steps by entering the draft out of high school back in 2006 and wound up playing 658 NBA games. He never averaged even 13 points — and had to take a two-year detour to the pro league in Russia — but earned more than $21 million from the league. Kwame Brown was one of the great step-skipping disasters in basketball history, scored only 4,035 career points as the No. 1 overall pick, and still earned more than $63 million over 12 seasons.
The NBA is a league in which stars are essential to selling the product, though, and its biggest names are starting to reach the pro-sports version of retirement age. LeBron James and Chris Paul are 35. Steph Curry is 32. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are 31. James Harden is 30. Are there obvious replacements for them?
This is why so many in the league were hungry for Zion Williamson to be, well, Zion. It’s why it mattered for Anthony Davis to find a place where his gargantuan talent could be less obscure, whether that meant LA or somewhere else.
But since James entered the league in 2003, the only true name-brand superstar to develop outside the NCAA basketball system has been Giannis Antetokounmpo, who came through the European club system. Second-year Mavericks guard Luka Doncic figures to be another, and he followed the same route.
“Now all of a sudden, this elite team, these kids have to succeed in order to get the next group of guys. If you’re willing to go all-out to make sure they succeed, are they going to get challenged the way they should?” the Eastern Conference scout said. “I think the idea behind it is good, but I don’t know if the execution is. You go to Kentucky, Michigan or Michigan State, there’s an expectation the school is going to put you in the best position to succeed, which is going to help you and help them.
“These kids see themselves as pros already; you don’t necessarily want to take that away from them. Because the international kids are doing it. The soccer players are doing it. The hockey players are doing it.
“We’ll see, literally, how hard they push these guys and how much they challenge them to make them get better. We really don’t know.”
The 2019-20 Kentucky season demonstrated what it means to be required to compete at the collegiate level — not only to win meaningful games, but merely to get on the floor and stay there.
Freshman wing Kahlil Whitney started the Wildcats’ first game — their first eight games — but struggled as an offensive player and did not commit to earning playing time by employing his exceptional strength and dynamism as a rebounder and defender. His minutes gradually dwindled, and he chose to leave the team after 18 games. Classmate Keion Brooks functions more naturally as a power forward, where sophomore EJ Montgomery was the established starter and grad transfer Nate Sestina the first reserve, so minutes were harder to find. But Brooks remained in the rotation, started the season’s final game, played 27 minutes and scored a crucial basket in the comeback road win over rival Florida.
“For that year, you have a coach at that level who says: You have to be here, be accountable, get up on this guy,” NBA draft analyst and historian Matthew Maurer told SN. “I do worry about the outside distractions with giving anybody, even myself, a half-million and saying: Here’s a ball, here’s a gym, get better. I do worry about that.
“Adversity is a huge thing for athletes. Where does the adversity come in. I think that’s a thing people talk about with LeBron James, something he gets ripped about. I think people miss adversity with players. A guy like Jalen Green, he’s got a responsibility to try to work on this thing character-wise and hone in on a guy like MJ, Kobe Bryant. What makes them psychotically competitive.
“My old coach told me, he’ll take three dogs over three superstars. I want a dog. I want a guy who’s going to go in there, will take whatever it takes to win a game. Who does not care. That’s the part of this new age; there’s not a lot of dogs. And when you do get a dog — like Kawhi Leonard is a dog — when you do get them, they’re special. That’s a big fear for a lot of these guys. They live in such a bubble. They did their due diligence to be in that bubble; I’m not ripping them for that. But they never hit that speed bump. That’s needed in order to achieve to the next level. I don’t know where they’re going to get that.”
One NBA Western Conference scout disagreed, saying this program eliminates the “college injury factor” and that although he sees value in playing real games, the “high-level” exhibitions might not be bad.
“The appeal of college is not what it used to be. Let’s just be honest. Some guys don’t want to go to school. Those kids are going to get paid,” the scout said. “They’re going to play games and work on their game. That’s going to be their job. Financially, some may or may not need it for their families, but it’s another avenue for them to get paid earlier.
“I think they’re putting the NCAA on alert, saying: We’re going to go around this thing. They make it sound pretty attractive.”
Then again, any approach with fewer obstacles is going to be appealing. Will it be as fruitful, ultimately, for the players and the NBA? That answer won’t just be learned in the 2021 draft, and the outcome likely will have a greater impact on the future of the league than any individual player.
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