Since the inception of its minor-league system in 2001, the NBA has experimented with cities, rules, salaries. Even the name was changed from the Development League (D-League) to the G League due to a recently expanded partnership with Gatorade.
But grander opportunities await. The low-profile G League has a real chance to grow up.
If the NBA needed a sign – maybe even a smack to the face – to invest more extensively into its farm system, really pump it up until it resembles Major League Baseball’s historically effective minor leagues, the teams and their affiliates need look no further than the FBI’s sweeping investigation into corruption charges involving 25 players at more than 20 of the nation’s Division I men’s basketball programs.
The roots of the scandal traces back to the 1980s, when sneaker guru Sonny Vaccaro began convincing colleges and coaches to endorse his shoe brand in exchange for sums of cash that, over time, grew well into the millions. And how fair is this? Really? While schools and coaches became enriched, student-athletes were compensated with tuition and room and board, yet were denied even a modest stipend comparable to that of any other student who worked 20-25 hours per week in the campus library or registrar’s office.
No, not at all equitable, and certainly not sustainable. But let the NCAA clean its own house, with a little help from its friends at the FBI. If the NBA is proactive and resourceful, it can transform the G League into a viable, appealing alternative for elite players currently shackled by the one-and-done rule that requires them to attend college (or play overseas) for a year before they can enter the league.
If they were allowed to turn pro right after high school – as Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, the late Moses Malone and many others did before the restriction was collectively bargained by the league and its union – they could remain home and take their talents to the minor leagues rather than play overseas. Besides being mentored by quality coaches and eased into adulthood, the G League could allow players to supplement their earnings with endorsement deals, and do so while their progress is closely monitored by NBA scouts and executives.
The idea is swiftly gaining momentum. Within the past few days, LeBron James, Steve Kerr, Carmelo Anthony, and Kings veterans Vince Carter and Garrett Temple, among others, endorsed the G League and the NBA’s plans to expand from 26 to 30 teams within the next few years. The major issue, of course, remains financial.
While first-round draft picks are guaranteed millions by the rookie pay scale, second-rounders are not. If they fail to make an NBA roster, the most they can earn in the G League is a salary of about $25,000.
The top annual salary is a mood killer. In an attempt to bump up the earnings, teams this year were allowed to sign two “two-way” players who were available to their NBA clubs for 45 days and could earn between $350,000 and $400,000.
“We have to figure that out, but kids getting paid (under the table) is nothing new under the sun,” James told reporters at practice Tuesday. “We have to shore up our G League. I just looked at like the farm league, like in baseball. Or you look at the pros overseas. Some of those guys get signed at 14, but they get into this farm system where they’re able to grow and be around other professionals for three or four years.”
Kings executives Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic, along with rookie Bogdan Bogdanovic, are all products of the overseas system. Divac and Stojakovic turned pro at age 16, while Bogdanovic waited until he was 18.
“The systems are so different,” said Stojakovic, who made his pro debut in Greece. “Here, everything is done through the AAU programs, through high schools and college, then you make the jump to the NBA. In Europe, you have club teams, and each club has different levels. The first one is when you are 12 or 13. Then they follow your growth as you move up and change categories. The same with the national teams. And if you are physically ready and mentally mature, you can sign with a pro team very young.”
Stojakovic, who oversaw the Kings' G League affiliate in Reno last year, likes the minor-league concept, but believes both salaries and the caliber of the competition have to improve. “The level of competition is nothing close to 10-15 of the top leagues in Europe,” he insisted. “But it offers great exposure, and with the two-way players now, we are already seeing a better quality of play.”
Temple, who represented his Kings teammates at the players association meeting at the recent All-Star Weekend, said the union members discussed the situation at length, but reached little consensus. The veteran guard further noted that MLB’s approach to eligibility received considerable attention. Baseball prospects can sign right out of high school, but if they accept a college scholarship, they are barred from turning pro for three years.
“It’s tough, it’s tough,” added Temple, who has played overseas and in the G League. “Who’s to say an athlete shouldn’t be able to earn a living after he finishes high school? But there are guys who come out of high school who are second-round picks, they aren’t ready, and they don’t have the support system. We don’t want to lose them. Do we extend the one-and-done, maybe make it a two or three year (requirement)? We have to look at everything, but given what has been going on, it sure makes you think.”