When I started to follow the NBA G League in the fall of 2012, things were a lot different than they are today. At that time, it was still known as the NBA Development League (NBADL), there were only 16 teams that were split between three separate conferences, the games were either broadcasted live on YouTube or something known as the CBS Sports Network and Hassan Whiteside was working as a backup big for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. While some of those changes haven't necessarily been for the better (I'm looking at you Facebook Live), there's absolutely no doubt that the league has improved in astronomical ways over those past five years.
As we currently stand, there are a record 26 squads in the NBA G League with the Wizards and Pelicans planning on having a team ready to go by 2018-19. Coinciding with that, the league is actually attempting to promote itself as you can regularly see commercials during various NBA games or on YouTube. Within those advertisements, you see former NBA All-Star and current Raptors 905 head coach Jerry Stackhouse sitting in a dark room nodding at some game film of his squad going against the Santa Cruz Warriors.
More important than those advertisements is the increased level of talent in the G League. Although the G League talent pool improves on a yearly basis, that progression intensified this year due to the addition of two-way deals. While two-ways are essentially meant to add a 16th and 17th roster spot to individual NBA teams, the biggest beneficiary has been the NBA G League.
That's due to how most of the players signed to two-way deals are either G League All-Stars and/or younger American-born veterans that have played ball overseas. More times than not, players that fit that criteria shine in the G League, whether thats overseas vet Torrey Craig (Denver Nuggets/Sioux Falls Skyforce) or Quinn Cook (Golden State/Santa Cruz Warriors).
Even if you look away from those two-way prospects, the diversity of talent in the G League is something else. In no other league would you be able to watch an NBA veteran like Emeka Okafor or Jeremy Evans square off against former Ukrainian National Team forward Maksym Pustozvonov or a former mid-major stud turned G League superstar in Walt Lemon Jr.
While that evolution over the past five years has been fantastic to watch, I don't think that pales in comparison to what the future will hold for the NBA G League. That incredible optimism is due to three separate news stories that have dropped over the past month.
To start things out, we go to a story that’s been lingering over the past few years but has really gained steam over the last month. That story deals with NBA commissioner Adam Silver coming out and stating in a late October interview with Mike and Mike that “a change was coming” to the one-and-done system, implemented in 2005 by David Stern.
Silver’s thought process was how that one-and-done rule pushes these young freshmen to mostly focus on retaining their stock as elite draft prospects rather than anything else. That mindset pushed a record 16 one-and-done freshmen to declare for the 2017 NBA Draft. That amount of one-and-dones ends up depreciating the value of college basketball and essentially destroys the idea of the student-athlete due to those players being at the school for only one semester.
Another idea that Silver explained during that interview is how the last two #1 overall picks, Ben Simmons (2016) and Markelle Fultz (2017), didn’t get a chance to compete in the NCAA Tournament due to their teams having lackluster regular seasons. The commissioner argued that their exclusion meant that those players didn’t get an opportunity to play against quality competition in extremely meaningful games which hinders their progression as players..
While that explanation might initially seem decent, it’s a lie due to one major reason. Most draft experts and NBA scouts agree that it's not good to evaluate a player's performance solely on their performance in the NCAA Tournament. Yes, they do get an opportunity to play against elite teams but that isn’t really isn’t a change from them being able to face off against great competition in conference play or early season tournaments. By the time that the NCAA Tournament arrives, those scouts already have 30+ games of college and even some HS tape to study to determine if their squad should select him in that year’s draft.
Obviously, a change won’t come until Silver rectifies a deal with NBPA’s executive director Michele Roberts, president Chris Paul and vice president LeBron James. Whether the new system gives prospects the option to go pro right after high school or spend two years in NCAA, which seems like the most likely outcome, it’s at least great to see that the wheels inside the commissioner’s mind is starting to move a little faster about this rule. So if/when that rule gets repealed, who stands as the beneficiary? Well, it has to be the NBA G League.
Of course, every player that makes the jump from high school to the NBA would have an opportunity to immediately get playing time with the team that selected them. However unless they’re either the 1st overall pick or that one-in-a-generation prospect, they’ll probably be spending most of their time in the G League. That’s largely due to how most high school graduates during their rookie season.
From the time that the T-Wolves drafted Kevin Garnett to the introduction of the one-and-done rule in 2006, there were only eleven players that maintained more than one win share during their rookie year. When you factor in the 38 high school graduates that were selected in the NBA Draft in that ten year period, only 28% of those prospects ended up making some kind of positive impact on their NBA team as rookies.
So while there’s a chance that a team could select the next LeBron, Garnett or Dwight Howard, it would be a better idea if they sent that rookie to the G League for their initial season as a pro player. Obviously, the level of talent in the G League doesn’t match what we see in the NBA, however it probably stacks up there with the EuroLeague in terms of quality of players
On any given night, that 18 or 19-year-old prospect will have an opportunity to compete against a player bang on the boards against 2008 NBA champion Kendrick Perkins on one night and then have to troll the perimeter to defend Luke Kornet or Zhou Qi in the following game.
Even if you look away from those examples, just one glance down the G League roster page will show a great mix of NBA veterans, international studs, young up-and-coming talent and also unknown players that are just trying to establish a reputation in major pro basketball. That level and sheer experience of most G Leaguers would allow those prospects to have tougher competition in the NBAGL than they would have against squads in the BIG 10 or ACC.
Although the on-court experience is definitely important, arguably the most crucial benefit that the G League has over the NBA is how it helps young players get adjusted to live as a pro athlete. Rather than spending most of your time at a single campus, those prospects would get to experience the day-by-day grind of being a pro athlete, whether it’s the late-night flights, living in hotels or having total and complete freedom. Obviously, the G League’s lack of pay is a bit of a deterrent for what a player can do when they’re off the court. However, that experience still pushes that young player to mature and grow quicker as men than they would if they were college athletes.
So if the competition is better and the day-by-day nature of the league does better of preparing prospects for the NBA than college, why haven’t high school standouts decide to choose the G League rather than NCAA? That absence is largely due to two significant reasons: insufficient pay and the promise of higher education.
In regards to the G League’s lack of pay, that’s been an issue that this site have been discussing for a half decade and will keep ragging on until they get paid a living wage. However, that other issue might’ve actually been recently solved.
On November 13th, the NBAGL announced in a press release that they would be introducing the NBA G League Education Program, a new initiative designed to help prepare G League players for life after basketball. This program will be run in partnership with Arizona State University and Game Plan, a student-athlete development platform.
In regards to their affiliation with Arizona State University, each G League player will have an opportunity to take classes and earn their degree through their various online undergraduate and graduate school. An option for players that didn’t go to college would be to take courses through their Global Freshman Academy, which allows them to earn academic credit that they’d be able to use when they enroll in one of their programs or transfer to another college. Meanwhile, the players ability to utilize Game Plan to help determine which topics the players should major in at Arizona State while also helping them figure out which career path to take when their run in basketball wraps up.
Although this is currently just a method for international prospects or players that declared for the NBA Draft before graduation, this singular move could pay gigantic dividends in future years. When the one-and-done rule finally reaches its inevitable death, this affiliation with Arizona State & Game Plan could be enough to help convince the parents to let their superstar teenage son to enter the G League rather than going to college. Because while that 18-year-old might not get that college experience, they’d still be promised a solid education while getting paid for the labor that comes from being a basketball player.
On-the-court, those players will have a chance to get acclimated to the rules of the NBA while being able to compete against solid G League competition on a game-by-game basis. When they’re away from the hardwood, they’ll have an opportunity to get solid schooling from from an institution that’s recognized as a leader in high quality online education. Even better, that affiliation with Game Plan will allow those young players to study up on a topic that they can go into when their basketball career wraps up.
Looking away from the education, those young players should be able to mature more as men due to spending their time with actual grown-ups. Rather than staying with college kids that are either 19 or 20-years-old, they’d spending every day with players that actually know what it takes to make as a pro athlete. Sure, most of those G League veterans may never know what it's like in the NBA However, that grind of being a pro athlete still remains in the hearts and minds of most players, no matter where they’ve played.
Speaking of players entering the G League from other locations, we could be seeing a slew of elite international prospects making their way to the league in future years. That confidence comes from an ESPN report that stated that the NBA will be announcing that they’ll be opening a basketball development and training academy in Mexico City during the Global Games on December 7th. The impending Mexico City academy will be the seventh academy that the Association has built. The prior six academies are located throughout the world from Thies, Senegal, Delhi India, three in China (Jinan, Urumqi and Hangzhou) and a Global Academy in Canberra, Australia which essentially serves as the locale for the finest players from those other spots.
Although Canberra will serve as a temporary hotbed for those prospects, their next step should be the NBA G League. Later on in that extensive report, ESPN’s Jonathan Givony noted that Mexico City could eventually be home to the 31st squad in the NBA G League. Clearly, that move probably won’t happen for a few more years as Denver and Portland don’t seem to be in a hurry to have their own affiliate. In the event that it does happen, the Mexico City team will apparently be the exclusive host to the prospects that graduate from the seven academies. That graduation to the G League should help their development as they’ll have an opportunity to play competitive games against tough competition.
Over the past few years, the G League has featured young international prospects, whether it’s Boris Dallo in 2016-17 or Rockets prospect Isaiah Hartenstein in the current 2017-18 season. However, a G League team that’s just filled with international prospects developed within the NBA”s various international academies is a significant improvement and a bigger leap than what you’d see from frog Mario in Super Mario Odyssey. On any night, G League fans in Sioux Falls, South Dakota or Oshkosh, Wisconsin will have an opportunity to watch a prospect that could turn into the next Joel Embiid, who was developed in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program when he was in Cameroon.
As someone that has been a follower of the NBA G League for the last five years, I continue do to be extremely impressed with how quickly this league has developed. However, that solid progression just pales in comparison to how the league might look in five years when we reach 2022.
Within that period of time, we’re likely going to see the eradication of the one-and-done rule, significant pay increase (my brain would burst if that didn’t happen when we have 30 G League teams), increased level of talent and expansion that could see a team being located in Mexico City that would consist solely of international prospects that have been developed through the NBA”s various academies. Just the thought of a NIKE Hoops Summit type competition taking place between international prospects and G Leaguers just excites the hell out of me.
Even if you look away from the McDonald’s All-Americans, there’s a chance that we could see some other high school graduates find some benefit for the G League even if they don’t plan on declaring for the following year’s NBA Draft. Sure, their NBA dreams might not be in their sights but those young prospects can still utilize the G League to help develop as players while enjoying the benefits of actually getting paid and receiving an education through the league’s affiliation with Arizona State University.
Those solid benefits could push the young players to stay in the G League for more than one year as they continue develop both on and off-the-court. Personally, I think that a multitude of those young players spending multiple years in this league working on their craft both on and off the court might be the best example of the G League actually being a real farm system.
Would it be fascinating to see someone like LaMelo Ball spend one year in the G League and then move up to the NBA? Absolutely. However, the idea of a lesser known player spending multiple years in the G League just working on their craft until they’re ready to make their way up to the NBA would seem like a better example of the pinnacle of what the G League could actually be.
It’s that one league in the world where a relative unknown prospect has the ability to make their NBA dreams come true if they work their asses off and just show the basketball world what they got. Although the exciting action and great competition that the G League offers will always keep me entertained, that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that the G League offers players will make me a fan until my dying day.