The NBA’s farm system is trying to become a premier alternative for elite high school players who would-be one-and-done college or one-year international talents. The G-League’s ultimate dream: to end the NCAA’s monopoly on amateur talent, both before and after the NBA’s age minimum of 19 is inevitably nixed.
In October, the G League announced a new “professional path” that promises “opportunities for basketball development, life skills mentorship and academic scholarships.” Rod Strickland, the former NBA point guard and Kentucky assistant coach, was named its program director, and he’ll pair with former WNBA player and Harvard grad Allison Feaster to vet potential applicants.
The real draw is the salary increase for players who are deemed “elite.” Those accepted into the program are set to make $125,000 over the five-month season, nearly a four-fold increase from the league’s minimum salary. The option for players to join the G League after their 18th birthday has always been available, but with base salaries at just $7,000 per month for a five-month season, the incentive to pioneer a new path was never there monetarily.
But how attractive is this option, really? To help us find an answer, we spoke with three recent high-profile teens who spurned college for an alternative option, and thus would have been targets for the G League’s new professional path had it existed then:
- 2015 No. 7 pick Emmanuel Mudiay, now with the New York Knicks. Mudiay was ranked as the No. 2 recruit in his class and committed to playing for SMU. However, amid eligibility concerns, Muiday later made the decision to go pro, saying he wanted to help provide for his single mother. He signed a $1.2 million deal with the Guangdong Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association.
- 2017 No. 21 pick Terrance Ferguson, drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Ferguson, who also attended the same prep school that Mudiay did, was a five-star recruit that committed to Alabama and later Arizona, but was never cleared academically. He played a season with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian professional team.
- 2018 No. 24 pick Anfernee Simons, a rookie with the Blazers. This piece explains Simons’ unique path to the NBA.
SB Nation: What drew you to where you played after high school?
Ferguson: It was the opportunity to play professionally right away out of high school. It was the first place to contact me, and a few others followed. I knew Australia was English-based, people spoke the same language as me. I wouldn’t have a language barrier, and it was more Americanized. It was an easy job for me.
Mudiay: Better living for my mom, and I wanted to go out and compete against pros.
Simons: I think I had a good opportunity to get selected in the first round, so I sort of bet on myself. I knew how it is. The main reason to go to college is to get a college degree, so I knew I could always go back for that. You can’t go back and get picked in the first round. You go to college and have a bad year, maybe stuff doesn’t work out. So I felt like that was the best option.
SB: Had you thought about playing in the G-League?
Ferguson: I hadn’t thought about it. At the time I hadn’t heard that much about the G-League. I just tried to play professional basketball, overseas or anywhere, to just provide for my family.
SB: Would you have considered the G League with the new “select contracts” worth $125k?
Ferguson: I still think I would’ve went overseas. It was about basketball, but it was about having financial stability for my family, especially out of high school. And there’s no taxes out of there, so can’t go wrong with that.
(Ferguson declined to share his salary in Australia, but we can confirm it was higher than the G League’s select contracts.)
Mudiay: I still would’ve went to China. $1.2 [million] and 125k is a whole different type of game, if I’mma be real.
Simons: I think it depends on what space you’re in at the moment. If you’re confident enough to go to the G League that you’ll get bumped up for the draft, but I think it’s all on confidence. Everything lined up pretty perfectly for me. I de-committed from school, and then NBA stuff came up, and I was like, ‘Whoa.’ That’s telling me something.
SB: If money wasn’t a factor, would you have considered the G League?
Ferguson: If it was all basketball, no money, I would’ve definitely taken the G League. You have NBA facilities. In Australia, we used trash cans for ice baths. It wasn’t the best, but we made it work. We’d go to the ocean, it’d be cold outside, we’d sit in the ocean for three minutes and walk around. That’s how you’d recover.
We didn’t have cold tubs. We didn’t have hot tubs. On recovery days, they’d make us go to the beach in the winter, the beach was freezing and we’d sit in the ocean for 3-to-5 minutes, then walk around then get back into the ocean for 3-to-5 minutes. We had to use our resources.
Mudiay: It’s tough to say. No disrespect to anyone in the G League, but most of those guys are pretty young, too. Some of them are coming out of high school and they’re on 10-day contracts. Not saying they’re not NBA players, but in China, you have ex-NBA players and people who were going back and forth between the NBA and there. It was a professional league. It’s a different talent level and different athleticism.
SB: How did coaches work with you, knowing that your ultimate goal was to get drafted in the NBA?
Ferguson: I was kind of treated a little differently. They didn’t put everything into me. They knew in one year I was out.
I feel like at one point, they had to [play me]. At the start, they didn’t really care about putting me in.
SB: Overseas you were among the youngest players in your league, making a higher salary than players older than you. Were you ever targeted for those reasons? G League “select” players will be in the same situation.
Ferguson: Every game I was coming out and there was some fight trying to happen. I was the youngest guy, so everyone was picking on me, just because I was the youngest guy getting so much attention, coming out of high school and only playing there for one year. I don’t think the players liked that.
The thing that keeps you out of trouble is to not talk about your money. I never did it around my teammates.
Australia was a grown man’s league. I was playing against guys who were freakin’ 30 and had played many years over there. Very physical basketball, which got me prepared for this league.
Mudiay: Yeah, I had to earn their respect and it wasn’t easy. Midseason, late season, that’s when they started [coming after me].
I think about it how it is in the NBA. I came here as a rookie, started here, and got it easy. I didn’t really have to work for the starting spot [in Denver]. It depends on the situation you’re in, but teammates are going to challenge you. It’s a job.
SB: What advice do you have for players who will have to make the same decision you did, but now with this new G League professional path as an option?
Mudiay: You have to be built different. You have to be mentally tough, because there’s going to be times when you question yourself and you have to stick through it. If that’s what you decide to do, you can’t regret it. Go with it.
That’s something a lot of people, when they make a decision, they think ‘Dang why did I do that.’ If I had to choose all over, I’d do it again.
Simons: Have credible people to ask where you’re going to be and if you should go. I had people to ask who were around the NBA or overseas to see where I’d be if I went overseas. They said they there was no way I wasn’t going to be in the first round.