Even as one of the top high school basketball players in the country, MJ Rice knows it’s cliché to tout his work ethic as a catalyst that could improve his chances of reaching his ultimate goal of making it to the NBA.
Countless hours in the gym, three-a-days, diet plan and moving across the country to pursue a better opportunity for his senior season are just a few of the sacrifices Rice is making to realize his dream.
“Everybody feels like they work the hardest or make the most sacrifices,” said Rice of Team Loaded (N.C.). “I don’t even talk about it. I will always feel like that’s the best way to get to the NBA, but now with the NIL being a big thing, popularity may be the best way to get you paid in college. I just wonder what that’s gonna do to the work?”
Rice’s curiosity was echoed by other elite players at the adidas 3SSB in Alabama this weekend who are fielding sales pitches from college coaches about turning their marketability into cash once they touch down on campus.
On July 1, the NCAA Division I Council ruled to allow college athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness (NIL) without violating NCAA rules.
States like Alabama, Georgia and Florida, among others, have already passed NIL laws and athletes are allowed to engage in NIL activities consistent with those laws.
Athletes in states without NIL laws, can still engage in NIL activities, but schools could choose to adopt their own policies.
Multiple college athletes are already cashing in in a major way.
Tennessee State freshman guard Hercy Miller, the son of hip hop mogul Master P, signed a four year, $2 million endorsement deal with tech company Web Apps America, Fresno State women’s basketball players Hanna & Haley Cavinder inked a massive NIL deal with Boost Mobile and Miami quarterback D'Eriq King signed a $20,000 deal with College Hunks to name a few.
WACG (Tenn.) shooting guard Chris Livingston recently finished up official visits to Kentucky and Kansas and said NIL was at the forefront of both schools’ presentations to lure him in.
“On my visit to Kentucky they talked a lot about how every game they play is on national TV and they have the most televised games and how they would market me,” Livingston said. “Kansas was the same way, just talking about the alumni base and how being there could payoff big. I’ve had schools throw out projections on what I could potentially make. It’s a lot to think about.”
Livingston plays alongside, easily, the most well-known prospect on the adidas circuit in Mikey Williams, who is the second most popular athlete in high school sports after Bronny James, the son of NBA superstar Lebron James.
Williams has amassed an Instagram following of 3.1 million and calls hip hop stars like Drake and Da Baby friends, as well as LeBron and other NBA superstars like Kawhi Leonard.
Last October, Williams appeared in promos for Drake’s clothing lines.
Williams is widely regarded as one of the top players in the 2023 class, as is Bronny, whose Instagram follower count sits at 5.9 million, but as it stands DJ Wagner, a point guard out of New Jersey, remains the consensus No. 1 player in the rising junior class.
That said, Wagner has just over 69,000 Instagram followers, meaning, from a marketing perspective, Williams is the bigger draw.
That much was evident at the 3SSB event where crowds at Williams’ games were consistently surpassing the “standing room only” level.
“It’s a business now, more than ever,” said one college coach who spoke to Sports Illustrated on condition of anonymity. “The reality, though, it that the percentage of guys that can make real money is small. The part that’s scary for us is that guys could concentrate more on being famous and growing followers than being good. The bottom line is that your greatest marketing tool is your production. You can’t produce without hard work. Period.”
North Carolina football coach Mack Brown echoed those sentiments in his weekly press conference earlier this week, saying, “don't let your brand get ahead of your ball because your ball is what's going to lead to your brand.”
That won’t be a problem for Midwest Basketball Club (Ohio) point guard Gabe Cupps, who considers himself a throwback and plays “because I really just love the game.”
He worries that the focus could potentially go to highlights and wow plays in attempt to build brand and social media followings.
“I think it could get crazy,” Cupps said. “I just hope it doesn’t go away from playing winning basketball. That stuff is not what wins the games; it’s the dirty, gritty plays that win games. I just don’t want it to get away from that.”
Southern Assault combo guard Keyonte George totally gets being more conscious of branding and how you’re presenting yourself on social media and otherwise but stops short of being consumed by the business side at this point.
“You have to remember what got you the attention,” George said. “It’s the game. Any money that you make for that year or those years that you’re in college probably won’t be more than an NBA salary, so guys have to remember what the main goal is. We all want to get to the NBA; you won’t get there just because you’re known on social media.”