When previously uncommitted five-star recruit R.J. Hampton appeared on ESPN’s Get Up on Tuesday to share what the chyron teased as his “college decision,” perhaps equally as interesting as Hampton’s announcement—that he is signing a pro contract with the New Zealand Breakers, of the largely Australia-based NBL—was the reception of his reasoning. “My dream has never been to play college basketball,” Hampton explained. “My dream has always been to get to the next level and to play in the NBA.” At that, Get Up hosts Jalen Rose and Jay Williams, former college and NBA stars themselves, each pursed their lips and nodded, practically in sync. In their turns to speak, both Rose and Williams said that they “commend” Hampton’s choice.
In the wake of Hampton’s announcement there is talk of trend-setting regarding the doors Hampton—who unlike prep-to-overseas predecessors reportedly has no eligibility issues—might open for alternative career paths. But the potential trend that has to be most troubling to college basketball, and to those with a vested interest in its popularity, is the harsh reality that to many young people and modern sports fans that’s mostly what college hoops amounts to: part of a career path toward bigger and brighter things. As North America’s most talented teenage basketball players face increased options of where to play after high school, including the likely lowering of the NBA’s age limit in the near future and the G-League’s new six-figure salaries for elite prospects, college basketball’s status as a talent incubator is only going to continue taking a hit. And with that, its national relevance will too.
There are plenty of reasons that plenty of people love and will continue to love college basketball: longstanding school or local loyalties, diverse styles of play, the way young amateurs seemingly always verge on chaos and unpredictability, etc. And it’s true that it does seem to retain strong appeal and/or utility to bright talents. Zion Williamson has said he would have gone to Duke even if he had the option to enter the NBA out of high school (though notably he said this while at Duke, having not had that option) and that as a child he thought college was the highest level of basketball. Trae Young, the sensation of the previous collegiate season, was not even on his own radar as a one-and-done candidate until he shot and dished his way into a full-blown phenomenon.
Yet the truth is that as fantastic as stars like Williamson and Young were to watch in college, and as much as many fans tune in for other reasons, college basketball’s quickest and most dependable path to relevance in the larger national sports discussion—to the social media buzz and morning debate shows that drive the conversation—is as a showcase for pro talent and generator of draft speculation. There’s a reason that Duke was the sport’s must-see team even when it was not ranked No. 1 and why a bubble team from the OVC, Murray State, sparked more intrigue and spilled ink than any number of ranked, solid power-conference teams: not just the joy of watching what the likes of Williamson and R.J. Barrett and Ja Morant are now, but projecting, speculating, and arguing about the prospect of what they might someday become. Outside of March, college basketball’s best selling point is its introduction of the sports world’s Next Big Things.
More top recruits playing overseas or entering the G-League (or, eventually, the NBA directly) out of high school won’t totally rid college basketball of that appeal. Not every player will go those routes, nor is every top draft prospect a one-and-done player or highly touted high schooler. (See: Morant.) But if a few players each year go each of those routes, resulting in, say, only half the top NBA prospects coming from the college ranks—like in the pre-age-limit 2004 NBA draft, when only 11 of the top 23 picks played in college—that adds up quickly to a big blow in top-level talent and the attention that comes with it.
The bottom line is that an actual market might be developing for under-19 American basketball talent. If college basketball does not appeal to top domestic players as an end in itself, and if it wishes to continue to compete for their services, then it will have to adapt. The means of doing so are as obvious as they are played-out: open up means for players to be compensated beyond scholarships and stipends. That is, create an actual, above-ground market for their talents. Even just allowing players to profit from their likeness via endorsements and commercials would give college basketball, with its much higher visibility, a potential advantage over playing overseas or in the G-League.
The primary reasons for doing so should be the simple fairness and honesty of a more balanced economic system in which the people who double as both labor and product are not limited to such a drastically capped share of the revenues they generate. But maintaining the sport’s most talented and most marketable players could be an added incentive too.
That line of reasoning would surely meet resistance within the sport. After all, most college programs are not in the running for the level of players that could play professionally out of high school anyway, and as the NCAA will gladly tell you, the vast majority of college athletes become professionals in something other than sports. But it’s the cream of the crop—and the idea that they will go pro—that can move the needle for college basketball. Those players are increasingly seeing what those running the sport long have: that it’s a business. And they are understandably looking out for their own bottom line, perhaps to the detriment of the college sports industry’s.
Of course, the NBA has not yet lowered its age limit. Hampton, even if his foray overseas pays off in a high draft pick and successful NBA career, could prove to be an aberrational combination of ability and intrepidness. But the factors at work in his choice should be a reminder to a sport that has so stubbornly tried to insulate itself from market forces that it no longer can. If young players, like much of the public, continue seeing college basketball as merely a way station on the journey to the pros, it may need to work to continue being even that.