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Naidu: Time to pay up

Congratulations Villanova. You are the national champion of college basketball (once again).

But this isn’t about the thrill of victory or agony of defeat. This is about a much more pressing topic — athlete compensation.

Darius Bazley, a five-star recruit in high school, de-committed last week from Syracuse and instead will join the NBA’s developmental league, the G-League. G-League salaries are roughly $20,000 for the season. That’s $20,000 more than he’d make in college.

Bazley is the first high-profile prospect to ditch college for the G-League. Highly touted prospects in the past like Brandon Jennings and Emmanuel Mudiay have bypassed college, but that was by playing in professional leagues in different countries, and even then that didn’t happen very frequently. While they would make more money overseas, the hassle of going abroad just for one year often deterred prospects from doing so. Instead, NBA-bound players “enroll” in college for a semester to participate in the college basketball season and then declare for the draft and drop out as soon as their season ends. This “one-and-done” trend has worked for quite some time since the NBA enacted its age requirement, but it isn’t ideal for the athletes.

It’s no secret elite talent generates massive profits for schools and the NCAA through deep tournament runs and overall national attention — yet the players don’t see a dime of the revenue. One-and-done hasn’t been the best system for programs, but it has still allowed top talent to play in Division One basketball and create excitement every year. Bazley’s decision is the biggest threat to college basketball. If the decision works out well, there will be no reason for elite prospects to follow in his footsteps and go straight to the G-League.

Moreover, if enough players start doing so, the G-League will be more entertaining and feature more prominent talent than college basketball, and the developmental league will almost certainly steal at least a portion of the NCAA’s viewership. More viewers means bigger TV contracts for G-League teams which will only increase league salaries and allow for expansion of the G-League, creating more lucrative roster spots and further incentivizing elite talent to bypass college. In not too long, the NBA could have a full-fledged system just like the MLB has with minor league baseball. Even if a player isn’t ready to join the NBA, a promising talent equivalent to a three-star prospect could be drafted after his first year in the G-League, but still stay in the league to further develop. Some of the biggest stars in the MLB were drafted as teenagers and spent a minimum of two years in the minors before making the leap.

College basketball will never go extinct, and neither will the rivalries. People are too strongly bonded to their schools to stop supporting them over a lack of NBA talent. But the superhuman athleticism, the dueling of elite talent on a big stage, the overall excitement — everything that makes college basketball better than the G-League — will slowly wane if more high school players choose the G-League.

The only solution is for the NCAA to amend its rules about athlete compensation. Let’s see what it comes up with.

Contact Zach Naidu at znaidu ‘at’ stanford.edu

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