As Benjamin Franklin once pointed out, “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
Were he still alive to be quoted today, Franklin might have added: “…And committing to play sports at a major university.”
Sure enough, that sure-thing, hard commitment from one of the nation’s top high school point guards to play next season for the UCLA Bruins turned out to be a mirage after Las Vegas Trinity Prep’s Daishen Nix broke his contract so that he could take his talents to the fledging NBA G League’s new developmental academy.
Given the option of attending UCLA and playing for coach Mick Cronin in the Pac-12 and making them a national title contender, or inking a six-figure deal to join a select group of five-star standouts as part of the new G League developmental program, Nix chose the NBA’s minor league system as his one-and-done stepping stone to the Show.
In so doing, Nix and three teen phenoms become part of a newly revised strategy by the NBA to keep homegrown talent from heading overseas to start their professional careers.
By offering Daishen Nix, Isaiah Todd, Jalen Green and Kai Sotto six-figure contracts to come study, learn and develop their games under the auspices of the NBA’s minor league system, the G League’s revised Professional Pathway program now finds itself in direct competition with major collegiate programs that otherwise might attract potential superstars for at least a year.
“The world has changed,” said UCLA coach Mick Cronin, during a recent online interview with Andy Katz of the Pac-12 Network.
“Roster turnover is just going to be the wave of the future.”
When Nix reversed course and declared his love for the G League Academy and a reported $300,000 contract, he became the first player to actually break his college commitment to turn professional.
As the Alaska native told Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times,
“I think it was the right thing for me because it was a family thing and a ‘myself’ thing. Playing in G League is basically getting me ready for the NBA draft. It’s just one step below the NBA.”
Though small in numbers for now, the G League’s revised developmental program throws yet another wrench in the playbook of major college recruiters who had hoped to secure such players for one or more years at their university. It won’t kill the college game, but it certainly is a harbinger of change to come.
The G League is giving a select few a well-compensated alternative to spending a year in a college dorm.
Of the four players signed to G League contracts, Nix was the only one who had signed a letter of intent with a college (UCLA) before de-committing to go pro. And while his high school coach and legal guardian had nothing but praise for Cronin and the Bruin program, Gregory Lockridge says the decision to jump was made easy by all that the new program offered his star player.
“It was timing,” Lockridge told TBW. “It was when preparation meets opportunity. When you look at the overall picture of what the G League is offering, the preparation to not only get into the first round (of the draft) in 2021, but to be a potential lottery pick.
“With the expertise of training that the G League has laid out for him, coaching of former NBA coaches and only five select players that they’re targeting.
To play on a team with veterans that have played either NBA or G League, that can offer him the expert training that he needs in order to be successful. It was a solid decision.”
Lockridge realizes there are no guarantees that Nix will succeed, though he does feel he is “built for this” at 6’5”, 215 pounds, “with incredible instincts, the ability to make every pass, to finish at the rim, shoot the three-ball, defend and play multiple positions.”
Why haven’t I ever heard of this kid until yesterday???? Real Deal
— Brad Ballislife (@BradBallisLife) November 4, 2018
As for Nix, he feels 100 percent certain that he made the right move in giving up a chance to play for UCLA.
“I have never been to college, so I can’t miss something that I’ve never experienced,” Nix told TBW.
“I will graduate in honors this year with a 3.4 GPA. I understand the importance of an education and, at some point in time, I will attend college. But at this moment, I’m focusing on my professional career.”
Nix is familiar with both Todd and Green, having played each other at the recent Grind Session, a series of games featuring top high schools from around the country.
“So, I am excited for Isaiah and Jalen as well,” he said. “I’m looking forward to being coached by NBA coaches, learning the NBA terminology, NBA sets, and everything about being a professional.”
G League officials have done their homework on what to offer elite players for the select team.
In addition to big contracts—Green was considered the nation’s top recruit, was signed for $500,000 and could earn up to $1 million with endorsements—the league also gives each player a scholarship to take online courses at Arizona State University for up to five years after they retire from professional basketball.
The developmental program is more of an elite training academy than the grind of a 50-game season that the league’s 29 teams go through as feeding ground for their NBA affiliates. Nix, Todd, Green and Soto will play about 25 exhibition games against G League and other organized clubs from around the world.
“I don’t think this is us in competition with college basketball,” said G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim (via the AP).
“For those young men who are looking for alternatives to the natural route, we’re offering an alternative that we believe will be a good program for them.”
Abdur-Rahim said more kids turned down offers from the G League than accepted, preferring to go to college. Greg Brown III, the seventh-ranked high school senior, turned down a reported $300,000 offer to turn pro and chose to attend the University of Texas instead.
Prior to the NBA’s one-and-done rule currently in place, there were a number of star high school players who opted to turn professional rather than learn from a college program.
A few made it and truly flourished, including LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Shawn Kemp, Moses Malone, Amar’e Stoudemire, Kevin Garnett, Al Harrington, Dwight Howard and Amir Johnson, the last high school player drafted back in 2006.
But many more never adjusted and all too often wound up out of work with no education at a young age.
The NBA has about 450 job openings for players, making it an exclusive club. The percentage of kids who come out of college and able to play in the NBA is minuscule. According to a survey in 2019 by the NCAA, just 3.5 percent (18,816) of high school players made an NCAA team. Of that, 4,181 were draft-eligible and only 52 (1.2 percent) were picked in the NBA draft.
And, of those 52, not all will have long careers in the league.
“If you look at the majority of players,” said Lockridge, “not everybody is ready or built for this opportunity. If you go back and look at when kids were able to come out of high school, how many were actually able to do it and be successful?”
While coaches like Cronin, (Pac-12 Coach of the Year in his first season at UCLA), understand the nature of college basketball today, there is still a feeling that most kids are better off securing a college education.
And while not directly addressing the loss to his program of Nix, Cronin did sound off about all the recent changes affecting the college game, including the expanding presence of the G League. While Nix and the other select players will earn substantial money for their one-year of preparation and tutelage, the majority of players opting to join the 29 teams in the G League average $35,000 for a five-month-long playing season.
“The NBA is luring kids and convincing them it is a good thing to be able to use them for cheap in the G- League,” Cronin told Katz. “And, if it doesn’t work out, so what? They just go to the next guy. There was a time nobody would’ve thought that was a good deal.”
Nix, Todd, Green and Kai Sotto will play a limited 25 game exhibition schedule starting in November against established G League teams and several international clubs as well. The program promises NBA related training both on and off the court to prepare players like Nix for the next level of competition.
It’s the NBA version of one-and-done, only it comes with a heftier payday.
The NBA revised the select program, in part, because it not only feared losing kids to major college programs but also to overseas leagues willing to pay increasing fees for their services. Two examples were potential top lottery picks LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton, both of whom played in Australia this past season and earned around $100,000, not counting endorsement deals and free lodging.
The reality is that elite high school players will have more options than just college when they graduate. They could play overseas or possibly in the G League. And, as early as 2022, the NBA could reinstitute the prep to pro rule, which would allow high school kids to make the jump directly to the league. How that all affects the college game remains to be seen. It is a work in progress.
But as Cronin told Katz in their recent interview: “The world has changed. We’re going to have a good team (regardless). I’m a day-to-day guy.”
A communications specialist based in Los Angeles, Howard has created media campaigns for hundreds of brands in sports, music, publishing, and nonprofit. As a journalist, his stories on sports, business, and lifestyle have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine, GQ, Adweek, WWD, and Advertising Age. As a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, Howard’s articles on the Los Angeles Lakers, UCLA basketball, and the Olympics generated close to 3 million reads. A proud recipient of a Sigma Delta Chi Award for sports featuring writing and graduate of Missouri’s School of Journalism. Among his basketball favorites, the former All-American point guard Willie Smith (“Mr. Magic”), who averaged 24 points on 47 percent shooting during his stellar career at Mizzou.