NBA Mailbag: How Will the G League Pathway Program Impact College Basketball?

Top high school players are flocking to the NBA G League instead of college. Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman gives his thoughts on what it means for the future of the NCAA.
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There is plenty to digest with the NBA’s new G-League initiative, which intends to lure top NBA prospects away from the college ranks and into a select program that will pay them more (Jalen Green, the potential top pick in the 2021 draft, reportedly will earn $500,000) and coach them well on a team that won’t face the same schedule as other teams in the league.

But the biggest question: How significant an impact will this have on college basketball?

It’s important to note that this G-League program is likely a temporary one. The NBA is expected to eventually eliminate the one-and-done rule, paving the way for high school stars like Green to go straight into the draft. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has repeatedly indicated as much, with the league informing teams in a memo in 2018 to be prepared for the possibility that the one-and-done rule could be eliminated as early as 2021. That seems unlikely now, but the message is clear: It’s coming.

In the meantime, college coaches must adjust to life with new competition. While Green never formally committed to a school, Isaiah Todd, a 6’10” power forward who will join Green on the select team, decommitted from Michigan to do it.

“We're going to have to make adjustments,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman told The Crossover podcast, “So that the college game becomes even more intriguing for a prospect who eventually wants to go to the NBA.”

Musselman has a unique perspective. He’s been an NBA coach, with three years as a head coach in Golden State and Sacramento and another ten as an assistant. He’s been a G-League coach, with tour of duties with two minor league teams. And he has evolved into a high level college coach, leading Arkansas to a 20-win season last year, his first with the Razorbacks.

“I went to the University of San Diego, played Division I basketball, those were the four best years of my life,” Musselman said. “I coached in the G League with the Reno Big Horns, and the LA Defenders, and those were my two worst years of my life. I say that because the G League, it's a great coaching experience, it's great for players, but everybody's trying to get out.”

“For a player, what best prepares a player to have longevity in the NBA? And there's probably arguments on both sides. When you play in the G-League, you might play in front of 2,000 people or less. I've been a part of games in the G-League where you could count under 200 people. If you play a game at Bud Walton Arena, or you play a game in the SEC, at least in our home arena, you're going to play in front of 19,000 people. I think if you play in front of 19,000 people as opposed to 200 people, that pressure is going to prepare you better for the NBA.”

I think if you have to go into a media room after playing an SEC conference game, and your media is 10 to 25 people, we have up to 25 media members after a game at Arkansas, as opposed to the G-League where there might not be anybody covering the game. And I mean that. I've come out of the locker room, there's no media coverage, you get on the bus, and you go to your hotel and get ready to take a 6 a.m. flight the next day. So I certainly think, media wise, preparing yourself to deal with the larger contingency of media, college basketball can help you.”

“Certainly there're some things that are advantageous with the G-League. I like the fact that they play a 48 minute game, which is what the NBA plays, as opposed to our 40 minute game. There's four quarters in the G-League, and in college, there's two halves. So I think what college basketball has to do is, I think we've got to all come together, and we've got to have rules in our game that are very similar to what the NBA has. I think college, FIBA, and the NBA, and the NBA are not going to change, we know that, but certainly we need to make some adjustments.”

Musselman isn’t proposing radical changes, “just stuff to our game that makes it a little bit more intriguing.” In addition to mirroring the NBA’s four quarters format, Musselman would like to see teams be able to advance the ball past half court on a timeout. Mussselman would like to see college basketball adopt FIBA’s goaltending rules, which allow players to knock the ball off the rim. “It adds to the entertainment value,” Musselman said. “And it takes away some of the referees having to make a judgment call.”

Indeed, the NBA is ready to re-embrace high school stars. And college basketball will have to adjust.

On to your email …

Was there any reaction to that wacky interview Carolyn Goodman gave on CNN? Not a great look for Las Vegas. -Marcus, Reno

Plenty of people within the NBA saw it, that’s for sure. The NBA has a longstanding relationship with Las Vegas, having held a summer league there since 2004. And as SI has reported, Vegas is considered the strongest option for an abbreviated, quarantined postseason. But that interview Goodman gave was bonkers. In a rambling, 30-minute conversation with Anderson Cooper, Goodman, 81, likened the coronavirus to other viruses Vegas has dealt with, refused to credit social distancing with the city’s relatively low number of deaths and offered Las Vegas up as a control group to determine the impact of not social distancing while not seeming to fully grasp the downside of being the placebo in a controlled study.

The “Let’s open up now!” argument rarely holds up to any kind of examination, as Goodman’s off the rails interview showed. Will it have any impact on the NBA’s consideration of Las Vegas as one of the “bubble-like concepts” the league has been pitched? NBA officials have made it clear they will rely on medical experts, not politicians, when determining when and where it’s safe to play, and it’s worth noting that Goodman can’t open up so much as a food court on the Strip, which is considered an unincorporated part of Clark County. Still, the few NBA people I talked were stunned by Goodman’s interview.

Is there any way to tell which teams will be best positioned when (if?) the NBA returns? A postseason, no matter what the format is, could be pretty wild. -Stephen, Inglewood, Calif.

Agreed, and the short answer is no. On the surface you can say a team like Boston, which had Kemba Walker battling a nagging knee injury, could be in a good position, as could Milwaukee, which had Giannis Antetokounmpo dealing with one, too. If players are rusty, teams that rely heavily on the three-point shot (Houston, Dallas) could face more problems than teams (Denver, Oklahoma City) that don’t. But who knows?

Do the Celtics have any shot at being a number one seed next year? My thought is yes because of the development of Jayson Tatum. Gordon Hayward will be a star again, along with Jaylen Brown. Thoughts? Greg Paris, unknown.

A 2021 question! Boston has a great chance to be a top seed next year. Tatum is a spectacular scorer (and rapidly developing defender), Brown is an All-Star caliber two-way player and Kemba Walker has been brilliant in the first year of a four-year contract. Hayward has looked like the Utah version of Hayward for most of the season, and while he may never make it all the way back from the catastrophic leg injury he suffered in 2017, the Hayward we saw this season was 90% there.

The question is: Will Hayward be in Boston next season? Hayward has a $34 million option he can exercise this summer, or he could elect to become a free agent. Hayward, 30, will be an appealing free agent, but he won’t command anywhere near that in annual salary. If Hayward opts in, he can collect the money and still hit free agency in 2021, at 31. There are contributing factors, like the uncertainty of the salary cap next season, with the coronavirus wreaking havoc on this one, as well as the possibility, even probability, that next season could be disrupted as well.

The guess here is that Hayward opts in, and if he does Boston will once again have one of the most lethal offensive lineups in the league—and be a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference.