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In Jalen Duren, College Basketball Has its First Big NIL Recruiting Win

The elite big man’s choice to play for Penny Hardaway's Memphis could be a sign of good things to come for college basketball.

Less than 40 days into the “Name, Image and Likeness Era” of college athletics, college basketball has felt the new rule’s first tangible impact.

Top overall 2022 recruit Jalen Duren announced his commitment to Memphis Friday night. Duren will reclassify into the 2021 class and play for the Tigers this season, becoming eligible for the 2022 NBA Draft in the process. The Montverde Academy forward chose Memphis over college options at Kentucky and Miami and lucrative pro offers from the NBA G League and the NBL in Australia. The G League’s offer was reportedly over $1 million, potentially double the deal that recent No. 2 overall draft choice Jalen Green signed with the G League for last year.

Duren’s decision wasn’t simply a financial one, but the college programs fighting for his services down the stretch had something to sell that they didn’t last year when recruiting Green: NIL. Duren himself told On3 this week that the new laws allowing collegiate athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness “leveled the playing field” in his recruitment because it “eliminated the money factor” of his decision.

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Men’s college basketball was in a precarious position in recruiting before the recent changes in NIL rules. The G League’s Ignite program, NBL’s “Next Stars” and Overtime Elite all are offering six-figure salaries to top recruits to forgo college. A top men’s basketball recruit has far more options to get paid and develop outside of the college ecosystem than a football or baseball player, and becoming eligible for the draft one year after graduating high school rather than three years down the line further complicates matters. In some cases, top basketball players complete one full semester of college in the fall, drop classes after the season ends in March and begin full-time draft prep elsewhere. A basketball-centric development system for the one year between high school and the pros for a recruit of Duren’s caliber makes sense, particularly if that system includes a check like the one Duren was reportedly offered by the G League.

But the college game has one thing its professional counterparts don't: Eyeballs. The value gained from the exposure of starring in college basketball is significant, both while in college and once players make the leap to the pros.

“Zion [Williamson] went from one to more than 3.5 million followers in eight months because he went to Duke, played on that stage, played on ESPN every game, played in the ACC, played in March Madness. And that paid off for him when he was the No. 1 pick,” says Jim Cavale, the CEO of INFLCR, a company that helps athletes build personal brands. “Would he have still done deals with Gatorade and Jordan? Maybe. Probably. But would they have been as valuable? No. And would he have grown from one to 3.5 million followers if he had gone to Sioux Falls and played in the G League? Absolutely not.”

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Duren isn’t the high school social media sensation Williamson was entering college. He has just over 50,000 followers on Instagram. Despite that, Cavale sees more value for Duren in starring in college than a professional path.

“I think the opportunity for him is going to be, in the long run, much bigger because he chooses to go to college over the G League, even though he might be forgoing six or seven figures of salary in a place where he’s not going to get as much visibility,” Cavale says.

Of course, profits from NIL aren't going to stop top prospects from considering pro options. Duren’s former AAU teammate Emoni Bates, once considered one of the best prospects in a generation, is strongly contemplating playing in the G League next season while also considering Memphis, Oregon and Michigan State. Most in the industry believe Bates is likely to turn pro rather than play in college. The G League’s program has real developmental value and it will remain a contender for top prospects. But the opportunity to profit off NIL while in college does for other recruits exactly what it did for Duren: Level the playing field.

Once that field was leveled, Duren could look at Memphis for what it can do for him on and off the court. No college staff has more NBA experience than Memphis has. The Tigers’ head coach is former NBA All-Star Penny Hardaway. Assistant coach Larry Brown is the only coach in basketball history to win both a collegiate and NBA title as a head coach. Fellow assistant Cody Toppert spent a year coaching Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton as an assistant coach for the Suns and is highly regarded for his player development skills. And the man rumored for the team’s third assistant spot is none other than Rasheed Wallace, a former NBA All-Star big man in his own right. The Tigers lacked a true center to round out a talented roster that will almost certainly be ranked in the preseason with Duren in tow. Memphis also ranked in the top 10 nationally in attendance in 2019-20, even topping the NBA’s Grizzlies (who play in the same building) by nearly 500 fans per game that year. All those factors make the Tigers a highly attractive destination for Duren’s lone season in college.

The G League alone poached four of the nation’s top 20 recruits in 2020, per 247Sports. They’ve landed three more in 2021 and could make that four if Bates eventually joins the program. Overtime Elite has already signed multiple highly-touted 2022 and 2023 recruits. Eventually, the college game was going to feel the impact of having less top-end talent—some in the sport would argue it already is being felt in the quality of play. Getting as many top recruits like Duren to come to college, in addition to holding onto college stars like Michigan's Hunter Dickinson and Ohio State's EJ Liddell, helps the sport reverse that trend and makes it more marketable from November to February.

College basketball needed something that could slow down the talent drain at the top of the sport, and Duren’s commitment to Memphis is the clearest sign yet that NIL profits might do just that. 

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