Can the D-League really take over the NCAA?

Christian Petersen

Considering Mark Cuban's plea for the NBA D-League to squash the NCAA once and for all. SB Nation's GIF Tournament V

You think you hate the NCAA? No. Mark Cuban, that's a guy who hates the NCAA. In recent comments to ESPN Dallas about the NBA age minimum and all of that, he said:

"There's no reason for the NCAA to exist. None."

Yeeeah. The comment came in the context of Cuban arguing for the primacy of the NBA D-League in transitioning prospects from high school and AAU to the NBA. Cuban, of course, owned the Dallas Mavericks when NBA owners voted to institute the so-called one-and-done rule requiring prospects to spend a year outside of high school before being eligible for the draft.

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Cuban has some interesting ideas, though the framing is a bit wonky: he seems to blame the NCAA for one-and-done when it's really the NBA's fault it exists. Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News uses this opening to pounce.

In his rant, Cuban talked about his desire to have the NBA promote to high schoolers that they should join the NBA D-League rather than college on their way to the draft. It is important that players have this option if they decide that college or college basketball is not for them, but it's patently absurd to suggest it could be, for most players or the league itself, a superior course.

The coaches who Cuban suggests talented players should avoid have developed the likes of Grant Hill, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Danny Manning, Chris Webber, Anthony Davis, David West and Lance Stephenson for the league. [...] What high school players has the D-League sent to the draft? Latavious Williams, who has played in Spain, Germany and the Dominican Republic. (But never the NBA).

That's a pretty neat argument ... until you realize DeCourcy is giving college coaches credit for players' excellence despite many of those players (like Durant, Davis and Stephenson) hanging out for just one year and not necessarily playing for coaches known for developing NBA players. (Rick Barnes is responsible for KD's development? Really?)

It also ignores the giant freaking elephant in the room named All Of The Amazing NBA Players Who Skipped College And The D-League Entirely Yet Seem To Be Pretty Fine Developmentally Wise. Like, you know, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Tyson Chandler and Tony Parker. Cuban's own superstar Dirk Nowitzki passed on college offers to join the NBA in 1998. He turned out OK without the guiding nudge of Coach K, Roy Williams, Tom Crean or Ben Howland. And scores more non-superstars made it work just fine: Amir Johnson, Josh Smith, Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings ... and the list goes on and on. Plenty more players turned out fine despite playing for college coaches that DeCourcy would not herald as master developers.

This is a major flaw in many arguments in favor of extending the age minimum another year. There's a pervasive idea that prospects flounder without the guiding light of a humble college coach. It's complete B.S., proven as such by the wild success of many preps-to-pros and international stars who skipped the racket entirely.

There's another flaw inherent in DeCourcy's argument: he suggests that the D-League — the NBA Developmental League — is incapable of developing NBA prospects because it's only product is Latavious Williams, a prospect who isn't in the NBA. This line of reasoning misappropriates Cuban's point, which is that the NBA needs to do a better job making the D-League an attractive option for prospects currently choosing college. Cuban isn't saying that the D-League currently rivals the NCAA as an option, only that it could and should.

Which is absolutely right.

Adam R. Johnson over at Ridiculous Upside makes the two basic arguments as to why the D-League should be a better option: unlike the NCAA, its players get paid and the competition is deeper. On the latter point, the vast majority of NCAA teams have zero to two pro prospects. The power clubs like Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina can have more. But pretty much every D-League team has multiple former or future NBA players, from younger kids to veterans looking for another shot.

The money argument is obvious, with a catch: the D-League's pay is rather lousy in terms of pro basketball. Players make less than $50,000. That leads some players to sign in Europe or China. The NCAA, of course, pays $0 in actual salary. But there's no question that money gets moved around, that the people around prospects get paid off to pick this school or that. Too many AAU coaches, street runners, uncles and even fathers have been hired by Division I-A programs after getting high-profile commits. And with some regularity, someone gets caught actually paying players themselves. See: USC circa O.J. Mayo.

So the D-League either needs to offer more money than is feasible through NCAA back channels or otherwise differentiate itself as an option. One option that Friend Of The Hook Dan Shanoff has discussed at length: get the shoe companies involved. Nike and adidas invest tons of dollars in AAU basketball and various prep camps. If the NBA set up a partnership between a shoe company and the D-League for which certain NBA-ineligible prospects received endorsement deals up around $100,000 or higher, the D-League starts to look a lot more attractive. Incorporate Cuban's ideas about pairing each D-League club with a local college so that education is a part of the equation, and you're pulling together a real competitor to the NCAA.

There's another way in which the D-League could look more attractive, and I discussed it in my column explaining why the NBA will definitely raise the age minimum to 20.

There are some basketball prospects who, because of the age minimum, attend college despite being woefully underprepared. Some, like Derrick Rose, allegedly cheat on their SATs to get in. Still more who know they'll be there for only one year before entering the draft just go through the motions academically or ignore labyrinthine eligibility rules - they can't be punished, really, once basketball season ends in March. [...]

Imagine if Rose had to stay at Memphis for two years. If the NCAA investigation had cranked faster, he could have been suspended for his sophomore season. (The scandal came to light after his NBA rookie season.) What would his options have been approaching the draft? He could have trained privately for a year and hoped the lack of competition didn't curse his status, or he could have joined the D-League to stay in front of NBA GM eyeballs.

Raising the age minimum puts an extra burden on prospects who would not be in college if not for the age minimum. Now they need to maintain eligibility for a longer span. That's a burden even for well-prepared students: the Lopez twins got suspended for academics despite getting into Stanford, for example. Take a guy like Rose with an age 20 minimum. Would he take the D-League option instead of playing the fake SAT game to get into Memphis and trying to maintain eligibility when his only career interest is making the NBA?

What Cuban is correctly arguing for is for the NBA to make the D-League more attractive for players who attend college only because they seemingly have to in order to achieve their NBA goal. The thing is that the mere expansion of that rule could go a long way to achieving Cuban's aim. The age minimum is still a horrible rule that needs a die a fiery, violent death. But if it helps make the D-League option viable and popular, then there's a silver lining in it.

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