Jalen Green's Decision Is a Big Win for the G League

Jalen Green’s presence will bring the G League more eyeballs than ever before, and in turn, he’ll be heavily marketed on NBA platforms. But his decision still welcomes a great deal of risk.
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Jalen Green will become the latest in a series of high-profile college basketball defectors on Thursday, per sources, with a planned announcement that he will spend next season as part of the G League’s professional pathway program. Green is set to make his announcement at 1 p.m. ET. The news was first reported by ESPN.

Green, hailing from Fresno, California, becomes the first top high school prospect to make the leap directly to the G League, forgoing a one-and-done year to compete against players sitting on the NBA’s doorstep before entering the 2021 draft. Memphis was widely thought to be the leader for Green in the fall. After he opted not to commit or sign early, a protracted recruitment that included a big push from Auburn ultimately led to Green choosing the professional path. Per league sources, another five-star prospect, forward Isaiah Todd, who this week announced his intention to turn pro rather than play for Michigan, is also heavily considering the G League route.

There has been a degree of consternation in various corners of the NBA surrounding the G League’s inability to secure commitments from highly rated prospects following the rollout of the league’s Select program in fall 2018. Current Thunder forward Darius Bazley was at one point committed to the G League, but opted to take his predraft year and train independently while interning for New Balance. The NBA’s group has remained omnipresent at top high school events in the subsequent time period to evaluate and meet with players and families. Green’s commitment marks not only the first high-profile recruiting win, but a shift in perception regarding the G League as a legitimate option for players to spend what amounts to a gap year before entering the draft.

Per sources, the G League has considered developing top prospects in an academy-type structure, which would involve the creation of a new team that would play a unique, travel-heavy schedule and allow elite talent to team up together. That scenario would circumvent having to assign players to NBA-affiliate franchises and facilitate prospects’ development in a player-friendly setting. Upon inception, the G League Select program offered prospects a base salary of $125,000 over the course of a five-month season. Per sources, that number for top prospects is now thought to be in the range of $500,000, inclusive of incentives and sponsorship opportunities. The league has made offers more competitive relative to what a player can make to attend college or play professionally overseas.

The worldwide impact of the coronavirus has taken a toll on international leagues including Australia’s NBL, where American prospects LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton spent the past season, and a place that might have offered an alternative under better circumstances. Another five-star prospect who has openly discussed playing internationally next season, Minnesota-based guard Jalen Suggs, signed his letter of intent to play for Gonzaga on Wednesday, having waited to make things official after committing in January. Loud chatter around the industry had been linking Suggs to the NBL for months, and while that move doesn’t preclude him from turning pro instead, the timing of his decision to actually sign is at least indicative of the current climate and the level of trepidation surrounding the health risks of international travel. Per sources, the NBL is among many international leagues facing a major financial impact, ostensibly diminishing some of the appeal to prospects, at least in the short term.

What continues to be clear is that power has shifted away from the hands of college programs when it comes to recruitment. The availability of feasible financial alternatives that bypass the NCAA’s academic charade and the independent branding power granted by social media have worked in concert to devalue the traditional college hoops experience for some. Green’s presence will bring the G League more eyeballs than ever before, and in turn, he’ll be heavily marketed on NBA platforms, with potential for added exposure and brand awareness, and also immediate opportunities for sneaker and marketing money. These alternative routes will remain a strange middle ground for top prospects as long as the NBA decides to maintain its current age minimum, and, for a small group of prospects, it’s more than feasible.

The financial setup may be beneficial, but Green’s decision still welcomes a great deal of risk, as the level of competition in the G League is frequently understated. Rosters are lined with elite former college players, some knocking on the doorstep of the NBA, and the competition is physical and fast-paced. Green will certainly receive just as much, if not more exposure to NBA personnel and front-office types making the pilgrimage wherever he happens to be playing, but avoiding college doesn’t automatically correlate to a boost in draft stock. Green currently projects as a top-five pick in what’s shaping up to be a strong 2021 draft class. It’s commendable to see him lean into the challenge, but he’s also walking into a situation that arguably offers more room to stumble.

While LaMelo Ball helped himself in Australia in a situation that gave him freedom to showcase his elite passing skills, RJ Hampton was arguably less than prepared for the NBL, and a relatively underwhelming season has made him a tricky eval for NBA scouts. He’s still a projected first-round pick, but it’s hard to argue that his struggles made clearer his case as a prospect. Green is a high-end athlete and one of the better individual scorers to come through the high school ranks in recent years, but he’ll still face a major adjustment when it comes to the physicality and game-planning of the pro level. The G League has become a legitimate proving ground for talent, and there’s sure to be added scrutiny given a heightened platform. The sustainability of the G League as a viable option for top talent may ultimately hinge on how this move plays out for Green, and for others who choose the route, on draft night a year or so from now.