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Breaking Down Darius Bazley’s Decision: Syracuse’s Loss Is the G League’s Gain

Darius Bazley's decision to choose the G League over going to Syracuse could have major implications going forward.

The searing scowl of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim—hypothetical, but no less real—scorched its way into basketball brains across America on Thursday, as Darius Bazley, a five-star recruit who was committed to the Orange, became the first five-star high school prospect to forgo college in favor of the NBA’s G League. Currently finishing his senior year at Princeton High School in the Cincinnati area, Bazley played in the McDonald’s All-American game and is also ticketed for the Hoop Summit and Jordan Brand Classic in the weeks to come. Those opportunities to be evaluated up close by team decision-makers are now that much weightier.

With the conversation surrounding the league’s age limit and its effect on pathways to the draft having been reignited this season, Bazley’s decision is significant. The rules stipulate that Bazley cannot enter the draft until 2019, when he will turn 19 and be one season removed from his high school graduation. He is set to spend a year learning as a professional in the minor-league system before becoming available for selection in the NBA draft. It’s a situation full of nuance that will be a fascinating case study for American amateur prospects, and the optics are strong for the league when it comes to growth and visibility.

A source with knowledge of the situation told the Front Office earlier this week that it’s unlikely the one-and-done rule “changes anytime soon.” Any alterations to the rule would likely nullify the value of Bazley’s precedent. As it stands, his G League experience will be monitored closely by top high school prospects in the years to come. In an interview with Yahoo Sports, Bazley said he hopes to break ground for players interested in skipping college ball to get a head start on their professional futures. A handful of top prospects have opted to go overseas in recent years and gone on to secure first-round selections, including Brandon Jennings, Emmanuel Mudiay and most recently Terrance Ferguson, who came back from Australia and was drafted last season by the Thunder.

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The first professional step for Bazley is entering the G League draft, which takes place in October. Selecting him does not mean a team gets his long-term rights when he matriculates as draft-eligible, but given his on-court upside and the value of learning about him firsthand going into the NBA’s 2019 draft, league sources expect him to be one of the first players selected.  At the conclusion of the 2018–19 season, he will enter the NBA draft, where he will be available like any other prospect.

The G League’s draft order runs in reverse order of record and has not been made official for 2018, but the first pick is expected to belong to either the Greensboro Swarm (Charlotte Hornets) or Salt Lake City Stars (Utah Jazz), meaning their parent clubs essentially have dibs. Interested G League affiliates can also make offers to trade up and draft him. Bazley can also choose to wait and enter the league as a free agent on waivers later in the season but would lose the benefit of attending his team’s training camp and an opportunity to learn and integrate into its system.

The highest salary Bazley can receive in the G League next season is $26,000, in addition to whatever shoe deal he takes plus any off-court endorsement opportunities. Presumably, the agency he chooses will also help prop him up financially. It’s possible he parlays it all into guaranteed money through a first-round contract, as NBA scouts view Bazley as a prospect with legitimate upside, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. His offensive creation abilities and jumper remain a work in progress, but his agility and length on the wing—he stands 6’8” with a wingspan that’s been measured at 6’11”—are tools teams will be happy to work with. 

Naturally, there is some mixture of opinion on the matter. Bazley will face myriad on-court challenges and a major adjustment, but there will be developmental value in taking the leap, from learning pro-style schemes to facing zero college-style restrictions on practice time. Last week, Iowa Wolves coach Scott Roth called the prospect of teenagers in the G-League “disastrous,” as reported by 2 Ways & 10 Days, a site dedicated to covering the league. Others are far more optimistic.

“I think it’s genius,” Cody Toppert, coach of the G League’s Northern Arizona Suns, said Thursday. The Suns saw a league-high five players called up to the NBA this season, and Toppert emphasized how much growth potential G League programs can offer prospects of any age. Though affiliates are independently operated and differ philosophically, Toppert offered a reminder: it’s no longer called the Development League, but coaches’ focus should always be on long-term player improvement.

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 “Why go to school, get to NBA training camp a year later and have no idea how to ice a ball screen?” Toppert told the Front Office. “Why not get a year under your belt of learning to defend in space and picking up defensive rotations? If the desired end result is to be the best player you can be, the G-League is better. You don’t have to be in class at 8 a.m. You can really dedicate yourself to your craft.”

When considering Bazley’s situation, the initial dilemma is this: if a player lands with a franchise that will likely only get him for a season, what value is there in making a serious investment in his growth? There’s certainly a possibility of a prospect failing to find minutes and gaining little from a G League stint, but a player of Bazley’s caliber need not worry. Inherently, the value of an opportunity to gain free, intimate information about a promising prospect greatly reduces the chance he lands somewhere wholly uninterested in helping him improve. Even if that did happen, that team could simply trade him–—and there would be no shortage of interest. There is plenty to be said for rostering him regardless of the fact you’ll probably lose his rights.

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“Coaches want to show they can develop a kid like that,” says one G-League general manager. “Organizationally, you spend a ton of money and manpower to know all you can on draft prospects that you never draft or sign. So why short-change this kid when you get him on a five-month extended tryout? I think it's more likely a team slow plays it, plays him fewer minutes to ensure they can draft him in their range, rather than just giving him DNP-CDs.”

The G-League’s quality of play has improved in recent years, as the NBA has facilitated the league’s expansion, creating one-to-one relationships between franchises and their affiliates. Every team has two-way players and prospects who spend time on assignment, but the great majority of talent can be signed by any interested NBA team at any time. Only the Trail Blazers and Pelicans lack direct subsidiaries, with the Wizards ready to debut the aptly-titled Capital City Go-Go this fall.

Macro improvements aside, the league will serve as a reality check for players like Bazley, who are coming out of the high school ranks completely green to the structure of professional life. “There will probably be an adjustment level for a player at a young age like that,” says another G League GM. “In terms of going from playing against high schoolers to grown men, and also in terms of being a pro and having a lot more responsibility than ever before. But that could potentially speed up the maturation process.”

If nothing else, the G League will offer Bazley a realistic, blue-collar basketball education. The underlying factor with G League competition is that every player on every roster is battling teammates and rivals alike for a finite number of spots in the NBA. Travel quality is akin to what mid-major college programs offer, and commercial flights and ordinary accommodations await. The facilities don’t hold up against the shiny palaces many high major programs boast. The life can be a lonely, unglamorous experience, and being a touted high school player means nothing between the lines: 35 former McDonald’s All-Americans laced it up in January’s G-League Showcase.

Politics aside, it’s still tough on an X’s and O’s level to envision a situation where Bazley plays major minutes. His slender build coupled with inexperience playing at such a high level will pose challenges as he tackles a steep learning curve. He may take the court with a target on his back in the wake of his high-profile move. The ability to train whenever he wants as well as the body-building aspect of NBA-caliber strength programs are definite benefits, but it’s possible Bazley’s education doesn’t include a massive amount of game time. Still, it will be pointless to gauge his success or failure based off his stats or minutes: if the experience is beneficial and aids him in creating a place for himself in the NBA, then the option will look that much more viable for future prospects.

The key variable in more kids following this path likely pertains to the growth of G League salaries, which increased as part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Standard contracts remain comparatively meager to the overseas route, or even the estimated dollar value of a one-year college scholarship. The NBA is invested and moving toward all 30 teams owning and operating their affiliates, which will go a long way. Bazley’s route won’t make sense for every kid, but his commitment to professional skill development over collegiate pomp and circumstance is a significant first. If nothing else, the entire basketball industry is watching closely.