For a long time, the NBA has seemed to invite elite basketball prospects to join its development league, now dubbed the G League. The doors have technically been open since 2005’s age minimum rule came into effect, but no top-tier prospect has taken the bait.
One player — Latavious Williams in 2009 — went straight from high school to the development league, but he wasn’t a future lottery pick and never played a minute in the NBA. A handful of other future draft picks left college abruptly to join the development league before declaring for the draft. There have been international players who made a pit stop there.
The NBA has held the door open for a long time for top high school prospects, and no one’s really walked in.
On Thursday, Darius Bazley, a top-10 high school class of 2018 recruit, withdrew his commitment to attend Syracuse and declared he would spend next season in the G League. In an interview with Yahoo!’s Shams Charania, Bazley said on the elite prospect circuit, players never talk about the G League. He hopes that after his decision, that will change.
Much is being made about how being in the G League will affect Bazley’s development. That’s actually relatively uninteresting, all told. Bazley will play against professional-level talent in a professional environment for a professional coach, much as power conference college or international players do. He won’t have to worry about school, but travel is likely to be tougher. His teammates will be older than they would have been at Syracuse, and those playing for their basketball careers may be a little frosty at losing time to an 18-year-old with a multi-million dollar guaranteed contract waiting for him.
But every team can have those dynamics. What’s more intriguing is whether the NBA has a playbook for this.
There are many key questions the league must address. How will the NBA make sure Bazley isn’t the last All-American to go from high school to the G League? How will NBA franchises decide whether to have their G League teams try to draft Bazley, or pass given he’s truly a one-year rental with no guarantees you’ll be able to draft him into the NBA? How will whatever team that grabs him work to develop him? Will he play starters’ minutes regardless of his on-court impact? Will he have to earn minutes? Will a team strap him to the bench? Would Bazley have the leverage to demand a trade?
Already, one G League coach, Scott Roth of the Iowa Wolves, has publicly expressed consternation at Bazley’s decision and the potential floodgates it could open.
“It’s tougher than the NBA, tougher than Europe. There’s just so many things constantly going on down here. You got a bunch of guys with a bunch of different agendas, you’ve got agents telling guys what they want, you got teams telling them what they want. And so you’re going to get a 17-, 18-year-old kid and throw them in this environment with 26-, 27-year-old men who have a different agenda and try to manage a kid, and it’s already hard enough to manage young kids with one year of college experience. The travel, the flights, the 5 a.m.s, all that stuff is a grind and you have to be mentally tough and to throw a young high school kid down in here. I think would be disastrous at the end of the day.”
Roth brings plenty of hyperbole, to be sure. NBA and European teams deal with crazy travel and disparate agendas, as well.
But these are real concerns that the NBA is going to have to figure out. College programs know how to handle elite prospects. The Australian league is developing specific methods to bring prospects over and make them comfortable. How is the NBA going to deal with that? How are the G League coaches and general managers going to deal with that?
How well-represented Bazley is in all of this will be a factor. Finding the right G League fit could be huge: whoever coaches Bazley needs to be willing to commit to play him. That might mean some franchises pass. It might mean that some NBA teams force their affiliates to play ball with the prospect and his agent.
Remember that the Minnesota Timberwolves own and operate those Iowa Wolves. Roth is a Timberwolves employee. If the parent club tells him to draft Bazley and give him 25 minutes and 10 shots per game, he’ll listen. This isn’t the case for every G League squad — a handful are affiliated with a specific team, but operate via a hybrid relationship rather than direct ownership. But direct ownership the most popular relationship.
NBA teams already meddle in G League affairs when they send down raw draft picks for development. In that sense, the G League staffs are accustomed to balancing the needs of the parent club, the needs of young players who need reps and education, and the needs of veterans looking for a way into the NBA. This is just one more high-profile, potentially complicated ingredient into the bouillabaisse.
If the NBA handles it well, and Bazley has some success, it could be a mammoth paradigm shift for the G League and college basketball. If not, Bazley may just end up as a blip with the status quo remaining firmly in place. We’ll see.