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Understanding the Financial Burden of NBA Summer League Free Agents

Free agents continue to go unpaid while competing in NBA Summer League.

ACC Basketball Tournament - Second Round Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

It’s been well documented that G League athletes aren’t ones who live the life of luxury often associated with NBA royalty. Salaries are trending in a positive direction and last season’s introduction of two-way contracts certainly help the cause, but the money such players make still pales in comparison.

All the while, these up and comers must grind it out and work that much harder for additional opportunities to strut their stuff and prove they belong at the next level. It’s in The Association that the financial comfort and appealing lifestyle awaits. But alas, it’s a waiting game and there’s no rest for the weary.

A good amount of players find overseas opportunities in the “offseason” after putting the finishing touches on a G League campaign. This nets them some additional income, but for most, the international stay isn’t very long. They need to make sure they return stateside to compete in NBA Summer League...where free agents are not paid for their time at all.

In the interest of separating the best from the rest, not paying such youngsters while they show out in Las Vegas must guarantee that players arrive hungry — almost desperate to prove themselves yet again. In 2018, all thirty NBA teams will compete for the first time, so each and every squad will be as dialed into the action as ever. Increased competition also means that even more international scouts will be in town, setting up a higher earning potential for players open to playing abroad next season.

Speaking of staying hungry, the “per diem” players receive is less than $150 per day. Some may argue that such an amount won’t go very far when rationing out three meals in Sin City. However, a handful of players tell that because of the lack of compensation during competition, they are more inclined to become a bargain shopper when it comes to food. This allows them to pocket the remaining per diem as income, regardless of how small it may be. Teammates in similar circumstances often share the same belief, so players are never short of good company despite perhaps opting to eat at moderate establishments. On the flip side, some teammates who are already under contract are considerate enough to front on the bill on occasion.

Over the duration of their stay in Las Vegas, players are put up at the hotel of their team’s choosing and a roundtrip flight is covered. It’s worth noting that the flight times aren’t always optimal, so a player may have to wake up at the crack of dawn to head into town. Many will also be “forced” to head back home straight from the arena, venturing to the airport shortly after their final game ends.

NBA Summer League isn’t the only showcase of sorts where these conditions apply. Following the conclusion of the minor league campaign, many players hit the audition circuit and compete in a slew of individual workouts or free agent mini-camps. Players without contracts (and/or those who barely scrapped together a livable salary during the season) can be likened to hamsters running up and down the wheel. They compete without being paid, are provided an underwhelming per diem, and travel under less than stellar conditions. For some, that means jumping on a plane after a sleepless night and hitting the hardwood right after stepping foot out of a cab from the airport.

Some teams held multi-day camps earlier this offseason, providing players with a hotel to stay at while they participated. Such a luxury is not one that consistently benefits everyone, however. Speaking to, one athlete said trying out for his hometown team wasn’t as exciting as it was cracked up to be. “If I’m from here and I stay with my family, why shouldn’t I be given a credit for the hotel room I’m not using? Other players use the rooms. There’s a cost I’m not benefiting from,” he added.

Not paying players during NBA Summer League ensures that teams identify who wants a shot at the next level that much more. The motivation from that standpoint is clear. Still, such a justification doesn’t make carving out a career any easier for such athletes in the meantime.