College Basketball's Magical Allure Is Vanishing for NBA Draft Prospects

The NBA's G League is emerging as a serious contender to the NCAA to attract the nation's top high school basketball talents.
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Last week, Roy Williams told a sweetly anachronistic story about recruiting a kid who came to North Carolina’s summer camp when he was an assistant coach of the Tar Heels.

On Sunday night, the campers came through Carmichael Arena to play pick-up ball, then had to walk nearly a mile back to where they were staying. One camper played, left, then made the long return walk to play a second time. Williams, who was watching the games, took note.

He gave the kid a ride back to the dorm afterward. Later he told fellow assistant Eddie Fogler, “I just saw the best 6-4 high school player I’ve ever seen.”

Fogler asked who it was.

“Mike Jordan,” Williams responded.

If Mike Jordan were a high school prospect in 2020 instead of 1980, he wouldn’t be a revelation at a college camp; he would be a well-established commodity. He wouldn’t be on his way to a three-year stay at North Carolina; he would be on his way to the NBA draft after one season. College basketball would be a pit stop, an inconvenience, perhaps something to bypass entirely.

In 2020, precious few elite players grow up dreaming of being a Tar Heel. Or a Kentucky Wildcat. Or a Duke Blue Devil. Or a Kansas Jayhawk. Or a college player of any kind.

They dream of the NBA, and they plot the fastest course to get there. The evidence of that is everywhere, and it’s never been more clear than right now.

Last week, top junior-college prospect Jay Scrubb announced that he is keeping his name in the draft instead of playing at Louisville. Hardly anyone has seen Scrubb play, and there are no pre-draft camps or combines in which he can showcase his game against similar competition. But his dad says he’s going to be a star, so Scrubb has that going for him.

Tuesday, five-star Michigan commit Isaiah Todd told Sports Illustrated that, never mind, he’s not reporting to Ann Arbor and will play professionally instead.

Wednesday, there were reports that the G League — the NBA’s developmental league — is ramping up its efforts to sign young talent straight out of high school. The G League announced in 2018 that it would begin offering six-figure contracts to elite prospects, and although that didn’t make much of an impact on the 2019 senior class, it could be different this time around.

And on Thursday, five-star recruit Jalen Green is expected to announce his future plans — Memphis, Auburn or professional basketball. The smart money says he’s going pro, even though he’s too young to be drafted and play in the NBA. He could wind up taking one of those G League paydays.

Among the 2019 senior class, R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball bypassed college altogether to play professionally overseas. The Rivals.com No. 1 player in the class, James Wiseman, played three games at Memphis, was suspended for impermissible benefits, then just decided to not bother coming back — he dropped out and turned pro. Khalil Whitney, a Top 15 player who went to Kentucky, left the team in January but didn’t transfer — he just dropped out, with the expectation that he’s taking his 3.3 points per game scoring average to the pros.

They don’t want to be in college.

For an increasing number of players, being paid to perform in front of indifferent crowds for the Maine Red Claws, Reno Big Horns or Fort Wayne Mad Ants is preferable to room, board, tuition and the adoring masses in Rupp Arena or Allen Fieldhouse.

Whitney’s former Kentucky teammates are examples A, B, C, D and E of that dynamic. That would be Tyrese Maxey, Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery, all of whom recently announced they’re leaving Big Blue Nation early for pro ball.

Maxey is a no-brainer, a first-round lock who could be a lottery pick. He played one year at UK. Hagans and Quickley were sophomores who had good seasons, and nobody was shocked to see them depart (that doesn’t mean they’ll be drafted in the first round, or at all, but the expectation was that they would move on). Richards was a junior who had a breakthrough season, which makes him ancient in the Kentucky program.

And then there is Montgomery, a former five-star recruit who has been a disappointment for two seasons. He played 65 college games and scored in double figures six times. If anything, he played like a guy in over his head at Kentucky — not a guy ready for the level beyond Kentucky.

But Montgomery is the latest in a long line of Wildcats who viewed college basketball as something to be endured, not embraced, ready to get out as fast as possible. John Calipari has built and sold his program as a drive-thru on the way to the pros — exactly what top prospects want to hear — so it’s no shock when players treat it as exactly that. Ready or not, they’re leaving.

After losing 94 percent of their 2019-20 scoring, Kentucky fans at least have another raft of blue-chippers to get excited about next season. But as hard as those fans cheer for the name on the front of the jersey, it won’t mean as much to the guys wearing them. And the next group isn’t planning on staying any longer than the last group.

That’s just the way it is in college basketball, as the product remains in fickle flux. The mid-major programs are now long-range developers for the high majors, who are short-range developers for the NBA.

If the association changes its minimum draft age come 2022, more players will skip the college option altogether. But even as it stands now, the G League and other pro leagues are gaining favor with high school stars.

They may dream of becoming the next Mike Jordan. But it’s the Bulls version, not the North Carolina Tar Heel. Very few elite players dream of that anymore.