In the build up to last year’s 2019-20 season, this site did a “State of the G League” piece that basically broke down how the G League stood at that period of time. In the eleven months since that article was published, the league has changed in significant and fantastic ways. Over the course of this piece, we’ll be breaking down the evolution that the NBA’s little brother has made over the last 335 days.
The most publicized way that the league deals with the success of the league’s Professional Path program when it comes to bringing in high level high school prospects. The beginning of that collection process occurred on April 17th when five-star prospect Jalen Green shocked the basketball world by deciding to sign a contract to play in the G League over big time college programs like Auburn, Oregon, and Memphis.
As the Green family was celebrating that life-changing announcement, ESPN’s Jonathan Givony and Adrian Wojnarowski were releasing more details about the program that he and fellow McDonald’s All-American Isaiah Todd would be joining. If you want more details about the team’s location and planned schedule, make sure to check out this piece from mid-April.
In the three months since then, the way that the team is going to look is starting to become more clear. In that time, 7’2 Fillipino standout Kai Sotto, 6’5 pass-first guard Daishen Nix, and elite wing prospect Jonathan Kuminga have all announced they’ll be playing for the G League Select Team. In addition to that, the league announced on June 6th that former Denver Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw would be hired for the same role for the squad headlined by those elite high school prospects.
While we’re unsure about when the team will be in California together, let along participate in scrimmages or games, the level of talent on the Select Team’s roster is amazing to see when you consider where we were at this point last year. In 2019, the Professional Path program was honestly looked like as an early failure due to RJ Hampton and LaMelo Ball deciding to go to the other end of the globe to play in Australia’s National Basketball League.
Those elite talents deciding to travel thousands of miles rather than stay in the states largely came from the NBL offering those prospects more money than the $125,000 that the G League planned to give out at that time. In addition to that, the players themselves could choose which team to play with, which was a far cry from the mystery that surrounded the beta version of the Pro Path Program.
One year later, those issues are gone as these prospects are all going to be at one central location in California where they’ll get a chance to learn from experienced coaches like Brian Shaw and learn from veterans in scrimmages and practices. Also the pay for the players has increased significantly as the salaries reportedly range anywhere from Kai Sotto earning $200,000 to Jonathan Kuminga and Jalen Green receiving $500,000 apiece.
The combination of an established infrastructure that they’ll have in California with the higher pay unsurprisingly made the improved Pro Path Program into a more appealing option for some of the top players in the class of 2020. Although it’ll be a while until we see how well they’ll develop in this new ecosystem, the young men will have the financial freedom to help both themselves and their family that they wouldn’t have if they took the route of college hoops.
In addition to that, they’ll have an opportunity to make additional money from brand deals or sponsorships, that won’t be available to college players until the 2021-22 academic year. In addition to the clear financial benefits, those players will also have access to the league’s academic, life skills, and mentorship programs, which are also available to everyone else in the G League
Along with getting a chance to train under veteran players and coaches, earning good money, and still getting a college education, these young prospects will get a chance to participate in another venture that will help prepare them for life as a pro: union organizing.
On July 21st, the NBPA (National Basketball Players Association) announced in a press release that they assisted G League players in forming a new union that will be temporarily known as the BPU (Basketball Players Union). Approximately 80% of G League players voted to authorize the BPU as their collective bargaining representative, which is significantly more than the 50% requirement to make it happen.
Thankfully, the G League itself was quick to voluntarily recognize the union. Now, players that aren’t two-way prospects or assignees are able to collectively bargain for issues like improved salaries, benefits, and better working conditions. Back in December 2019, an ESPN report stated that the players are interested in a collective bargaining agreement that include “salaries, broader benefit packages, and travel.”
For those prospects on Select Contracts, they’ll have at least a year to get educated about the benefits of being part of a union and being able to collectively bargain with other players can bring about positive change to pay, benefits, and working conditions. While we’ve established that pay and benefits are already clear and solid for those five prospects, this experience will make them better prepared to know how to work within the NBPA than other rookies.
This knowledge could help them become part of the board as they move further into their NBA career. in addition to that, they’ll also be more equipped to collectively bargin for better conditions if their trajectory as a player pushes them closer to being in the 2nd unit than regular All-Star games.
While the union will be beneficial to the educational process for the five players on Select contracts, it was largely formed to benefit the 200+ players in the G League that aren’t on two-way deals or have the luxury of being an assignee that’s signed to a guaranteed deal by an NBA team.
If you’re not aware, players that are signed by to standard G League deals currently make $7,500 for the month or $35,000 for the year. In the grand schemes of the league’s history, that’s a solid salary when you consider that it was a two-tiered system as recently as the 2016-17 campaign where A-level guys received $26,000 while B-level players got $19,000. It seems even more lucrative when you compare it to how baseball players in Triple A only made $15,000 during the 2018 season.
While the current G League salaries look good when you compare it to the awful contracts of previous years in the league or the crumbs that minor league baseball players receive, it’s still an issue that needs to be collectively bargained for the good of the league and players.
In terms of the league, improved salaries would push top-flight talent to want to stay in the league longer than 2-3 years while also bringing over some American-born talent that have been shining in international competition. When it comes to the players, improved salaries would give them more financial security to help them in the seven months that they’re not playing for a G League team. Whether that’s enough to allow players to have an ease of mind, start a new business, hire a basketball trainer to improve their crafts, and helping support a young family, fighting for an improved salary would have numerous benefits for each player in the G League.
Along with fighting for better salaries, another fight that this new G League union is going to push for is better working conditions. In my eyes, a lot of that pertains to improving on how the players travel around the United States and Mississauga during the 50-game season. Currently, G League players move to different locations on long bus rides or red eye flights where you have to travel in commercial class. While those conditions would be a grind to any person during a five month stretch, it’s especially concern when you really think deeper on this subject.
For each player in the G League, their main objective is to either get into the NBA or play well enough that you’ll get a lucrative offer by an overseas club for the next season. To be at that level, your body needs to be in the best condition possible whenever you step on the floor.
That objective, that becomes grueling as the season goes on, becomes even more difficult when you didn’t get much rest in the previous night, only have enough money to eat fast food, or someone that’s 6’5 or taller who has to sit in a bus or plane seat that’s meant for someone that’s a handful of inches shorter. When you consider those factors and combine it with how players only have a limited amount of time to prove themselves and get paid before they have to move on to the next chapter of their lives, those conditions should be looked at as unacceptable to NBA teams that look at the G League as a way to develop talent and find hidden gems.
Of course, the issues that the new G League union will fight for extend beyond salaries and travel conditions. However, those are two issues that show the difficult grind that G Leaguers go through both during the season and when the year is done. Of course, the solutions that I brought up will only start to be rectified if we get a 2020-21 G League season, which largely depends on the actions of both government leaders and individuals when it comes to dealing with the current COVID-19 pandemic.
To conclude this piece, the upside of the NBA G League’s future seems to be a bit ridiculous when you consider look at the 180-degree turn of the Select Team and the change that can be brought up by the union bargaining for necessary improvements to the working conditions of the players. Even though there’s uncertainty about if/when there’s going to be a 2020-21 G League season, it honestly stands as one of the leagues that folks to keep their eyes on for the next 12 months because you never know what other significant changes are going to be made.