MANSFIELD, Texas – Chris Livingston won’t go as far as saying that it effected his ultimate decision to go to Kentucky, but when he saw Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren sidestep the pro route and instead pick Memphis, it “opened my eyes even more about the NIL and college.”
Bates and Duren were the consensus No. 1 and No. 2 players in the 2022 class before both reclassified to 2021 earlier this summer. Both were perceived to be leaning heavily toward the pros, more specifically the G League, but in the end both players decided to suit up for Penny Hardaway this coming season, putting Memphis squarely in the hunt for a national title.
“I was looking at the G League,” Livingston said. “But, for me, college just made more sense. With NIL and seeing what guys like Emoni and Jalen did definitely make me feel like the money is there in college now that NIL is something we can tap into.”
Livingston’s sentiments were shared by most prospects at the Coach Wootten Top 150 Camp this weekend, who contend that the key decisions either kept or slanted their focus toward the collegiate route.
“The NIL didn’t just even the playing field,” said 2022 wing MJ Rice, who committed to Kansas in August. “It tipped the scale to college.”
In May, NCAA president Mark Emmert recommended the approval of name, image and likeness (NIL) rights by July 1, and as of that date, all NCAA athletes have been able profit from their NIL after the governing bodies from all three NCAA divisions voted to approve the interim NIL policy.
College athletes must still abide by NIL rules in their specific states but can now profit from sponsorships and endorsements.
The NCAA passed a rule to permit individual schools who reside in states without a law to create their own compensation rules.
“When the NIL thing happened, I knew that college was the best option,” Rice said. “People seeing Jalen and Emoni pick college just opened more people’s eyes I think because you don’t really hear about guys going pro since NIL.”
Compass Prep (Ariz.) point guard Kylan Boswell noticed that too.
The spring trend among elite recruits was to post edits of their top options, which often included logos from the G League, NIBL and Overtime Elite pro leagues where applicable.
While elite prospects maintain that they’re open to pro options the trend has seemed to stall.
“You definitely don’t see it as much,” said Boswell, who is widely regarded as one of the top point guards in 2023. “The buzz was big that Jalen and Emoni were going pro, but the fact that they both ended up at Memphis definitely stuck out to me. I had always thought that college was the best route, especially now with the NIL. Just look at the fanbases and opportunities in college towns and things like that. I would look at everything, but I think college is the best route for me.”
Skyy Clark, a Kentucky commit who hails from Montverde (Fla.) Academy, said the NIL news was "a huge 'W' for the college game" and made it a "no-brainer," yet still he contends that, in the end, “it still comes down to a personal decision.”
That would explain why Michael Foster, referred to the pro route as “the golden path” when he signed with the G League in June over Florida State and Georgia.
Foster said the lure wasn’t just about money, but also expedited development with the access to NBA veterans and trainers while competing against pros every day.
“There are just so many opportunities that you miss out on by going to college,” Foster told Sports Illustrated. “It’s a whole new world as a pro.”
Foster’s perspective makes even more sense when you consider that he’s making his acting debut alongside Adam Sandler and Queen Latifah this fall in the movie “Hustle.”
Still, in just three short months the NIL hammer has proved to be a game changer for college athletes as well as prep stars.
Elite junior scoring guard Mikey Williams, the most famous athlete in high school sports with more than 3.2 million Instagram followers, signed a deal with Excel Sports Management in July, becoming the first prep basketball player to partner with an agency to pursue NIL deals.
He’s reportedly in talks with PUMA for a major endorsement deal.
From a wide array of national brands like Pet Smart, Boost Mobile and Kool-Aid to the local car dealership, companies are lining up to line the pockets of college stars, a practice that Rice and other elite players feel will only grow.
“I just think you’re gonna see it get bigger,” Rice said. “Just think, this is the first year, so everybody is figuring it all out. As it gets bigger, it’s gonna probably keep more of the stars in college.”