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How elite high schoolers are skipping college to get to the NBA

Today’s top high school basketball players are taking alternative routes to the NBA that don’t involve college.

The final years of the one-and-done era are happening under protest. As the NBA moves closer to abolishing the age limit ahead of the 2022 draft, there’s a growing number of elite high school basketball players choosing to bypass college for alternative pathways to the league.

MarJon Beauchamp, a 6’6 wing out of Seattle, could have been playing at Arizona, UCLA, or Washington next year. Instead, the five-star recruit (No. 24 in his class, per 247 Sports) announced earlier this month he’ll take a year off from competition to partake in a 12-month training program with Chameleon BX, a company founded by infamous strength and conditioning trainer Frank Matrisciano that includes skill development from an assortment of former NBA coaches, including Dave Joerger.

Beauchamp still has to complete his senior season of high school, but his early decision to say no thank you to college basketball is becoming a familiar one. R.J. Hampton was a consensus top-five recruit in the 2019 class who chose to play for the New Zealand Breakers of the NBL rather than going to college. LaMelo Ball, another possible first-round draft pick next June, will also play in the Australian league, as will former Arizona signee Terry Armstrong. Kenyon Martin Jr. also reneged on his commitment to Vanderbilt to explore professional opportunities.

“I’d expect three-to-five more players in 2020 high school class to take this path, whether they’re playing internationally or training domestically,” said Corey Evans, a recruiting analyst for Rivals. “It’s definitely a trend.”

The path to the draft once paved by Brandon Jennings and Emmanuel Mudiay’s choice to skip college for life as a pro overseas no longer feels like it requires exceptional circumstance. Hampton had no eligibility issues, could have picked any school in the country, and would have been a star. He still chose to play in New Zealand. His decision follows a year in which about 90 underclassmen declared for the NBA Draft despite there only being 60 total selections that college seniors and international players are fighting for, too.

More and more players have found success skipping college basketball

High school players thinking about bypassing college basketball can point to four recent success stories from players who have taken similar paths to the NBA.

  • Mitchell Robinson, a consensus top-10 recruit out of high school, dropped out of Western Kentucky to train all year for the NBA Draft instead. Robinson fell to the second round, but had an impressive rookie season for the Knicks and should have a long career in front of him.
  • Anfernee Simons opted for the NBA over college as a fifth-year high school player and went in the first round to the Portland Trail Blazers.
  • Darius Bazley, a McDonald’s All-American as a high schooler, reneged on his commitment to Syracuse and then on his plan to play in the G-League to spend all year training for the draft. Bazley was still taken in the first round with the No. 23 overall pick by the Oklahoma City Thunder.
  • Jalen Lecque originally committed to NC State as a five-star point guard, but chose to enter the NBA Draft instead as a fifth-year high school player. Lecque went undrafted but signed a two-year guaranteed contract with the Suns.

That’s just from the last two drafts. Terrance Ferguson went to Australia rather than playing for Arizona and still became a first-round pick in 2017. Thon Maker went No. 10 overall in the 2016 draft after choosing to enter the league as a fifth year high school player. There is more and more evidence every year that skipping college improves your draft stock.

There are real benefits to bypassing college basketball

Bazley got paid $1 million for an internship at New Balance instead of playing in Jim Boeheim’s zone defense. Hampton signed a five-year apparel deal with Li-Ning that he wouldn’t have been able to get in college. Endorsement opportunities will continue to be a draw for any player thinking about bypassing college, but it isn’t the only attraction.

Quentin Grimes went to Kansas as a five-star recruit last year and was projected as a one-and-done lottery pick. Then he struggled with the Jayhawks, lost all of his draft hype, and now has to sit out a season as he transfers to Houston. Had Grimes chosen to play overseas or train all year for the draft, it’s likely his stock would have been much, much higher. Instead, he got exposed. In many ways, playing college basketball is a bet on yourself.

It wasn’t Bill Self’s job to develop Grimes into a one-and-done at Kansas. His job is to win games. Alternate routes like the one Beauchamp took at Chameleon BX are happy to remind players of that. A promotional video for the company shows its team of trainers and coaches discussing the plight of Trevon Duval. Duval was the top point guard recruit in the country in 2017, attended Duke next to Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr., and promptly went undrafted. The Chameleon BX team says Duke didn’t develop Duval’s jump shot — the biggest hole in his skill set — because it had bigger priorities.

By taking a year off from competition, players can focus on fine-tuning specific parts of their game that a college coach may not have cared about. It’s a way of controlling their own experience in a way that simply wouldn’t happen at the college level.

College basketball can still work its magic

College basketball can still make you a star. Just ask Zion Williamson. A year at Duke made Williamson the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft and the most marketable young athlete alive. Despite his high school mixtape hype, neither of those things was going to happen had Williamson played internationally or skipped a year of playing altogether.

Playing college basketball at a big time program will get you plastered all over ESPN. Going through the college system is still the most reliable way to get drafted. It can provide the enormous stage of the NCAA tournament. When it comes to building name recognition and a personal brand with a national audience, nothing beats playing college hoops. All the athlete has to do is hold up his end of the bargain and play well.

Lonzo Ball never would have become a national phenomenon with his own (short lived) apparel brand without UCLA. Trae Young went from overlooked on his own AAU team behind Michael Porter Jr. to regularly being on every TV in America at Oklahoma. There are countless examples of players who spent multiple years developing their games in college and grew into top-10 draft picks, with Buddy Hield, Mikal Bridges, and De’Andre Hunter standing out as recent examples.

Also: going to college and being the big man on campus sounds like a great proposition to a lot of young people. College basketball is going to be OK even if it loses a handful of players every year to other options.

The end of the one-and-done will change everything

The NBA knew it needed to create an alternate pathway to the league when it started offering young players $125K per season to play in the G League last year, almost quadrupling the previous maximum salary. No one has taken them up on the offer yet, in part because the competition in the G League is becoming so strong. To this point, the structure (and relative shelter) of Australia has had a greater gravitational pull.

While there isn’t yet one definitive path for players who want to skip college, there’s no denying this will continue to be a trend until the one-and-done is abolished. The greatest test case for alternative routes to the league will play out this year.

“A lot of guys are going to keeping an eye on R.J. Hampton,” Evans said. “RJ is really the first true pioneer of the international route that most of these kids will see. He would have qualified anywhere. If he’s successful, I think you’re going to see more of these highly touted guys dipping their toes in the professional waters.”

College basketball’s talent retention problem can be real and the sport can still have a stable future. Players can have no perfect choice for reaching the NBA and still have plenty of viable pathways. All of this feels like it’s in flux, at least until the one-and-done is abolished and the NBA is forced to create more infrastructure to accommodate young players.

We don’t know what the NBA’s vision for the end of the one-and-done will look like or how it will impact the college basketball, the draft process, or the G League. As we wait, alternative pathways will look only look more appealing to this generation of high school stars.