Former 10-year NBA and ABA veteran Len Elmore provided this special contribution to CBS Sports. An All-American and All-ACC selection out of Maryland in 1974, Elmore is a graduate of Harvard Law School who served as Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn, New York. He has worked as a television analyst for CBS Sports, ESPN and Fox Sports, and is currently a senior lecturer in the Columbia University Sports Management program as well as a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.
Daishen Nix’s recent decision to play for the NBA’s G League rather than join UCLA and play college basketball next season has been called a possible “sea-change moment” for the sport — and not in a good way. That after fellow five-star prospect Jalen Green also went the G League route in what one commentator called a “crushing blow” to the college game.
We’ve heard these cries too often. We heard it 10 years ago when Brandon Jennings opted to play in Italy. We heard it seven years ago when Emmanuel Mudiay decided to play in China instead of at SMU. We heard it most recently last season when RJ Hampton joined the Australian NBL after high school, and Darius Bazely opted to accept a guaranteed $1 million as part of a five-year endorsement deal from New Balance to work as an intern and train for the NBA instead of playing college basketball.
Somehow, despite these well-publicized opt-outs, college basketball has more than managed to survive. Were it not for the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament due to COVID-19, the game would have generated its usual high level of interest. And if anything, the lack of dominant individual players would have been a boon to March Madness, increasing parity in the college game.
I’ve always felt that playing college basketball is a privilege, not a right. Ideally, one choice is a college experience with (for better or worse) exposure to an education and campus life and benefits including a cost of attendance allowance of several thousand dollars. If a young man chooses this special advantage afforded him because of his skills, then he chooses to play by college basketball’s regulations. For myriad reasons, this choice is not for everyone.
For those who wish to experiment and accelerate their exposure to a professional sports life experience, playing in the NBA G League or an international league are alternatives. Both carry risks along with potential rewards.
Ironically, many of the same observers who advocate the pro “pay-for-play” model for college basketball now view the choices by Green, Nix and Isaiah Todd — another highly-touted high school player — to sign with the G League as a negative “seismic” shift in the sport.
In reality, their choices — and those of others who opted not to play college ball in the current environment — reflect an understanding of the option to pursue a lucrative opportunity and bypass the perceived constricting rules of college basketball.
The college game will be the better for it. The lament that college basketball will suffer is nonsense.
For most fans, the draw to the games is about the name on the front of the jersey, not the one on the back. College stars come and must go, based on options or eligibility. The game’s fans remained steadfast and the numbers grew from the early 1970s, when I played, through the high-school-to-pros period that produced Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnet and LeBron James, to name a few. Back then, we heard the same “sky is falling” chorus.
Players develop at different rates and under different modalities of practice and instruction. Some are ready after high school, while others require several years of maturation, repetition and confidence building. That is what college basketball can provide as well — if not better than — the other options.
Real college basketball fans will tell you that they revel in witnessing the growth and maturity of a player and his personal development, whether that player ultimately makes it in “The League” or not.
The NBA has been losing its television audience. For college basketball, in this new reality, admittedly, some TV networks won’t have as many stars to spotlight and constantly overuse to promote the game. But maybe that’s a good thing.
In the post-coronavirus “new normal” era, the absence of the “chosen few” might actually get the broad swath of coveted casual fans — the ones television really seeks to capture — to appreciate the richness and vibrance of the team game rather than the performance oscillation of an 18- or 19-year-old, who, while talented, is still learning to play.
For those of us who have always seen a young athlete’s participation in college sports as a vehicle for positive personal growth beyond mere entertainment, we ought to rejoice that the avenue for getting paid for performance is clearing for young men who choose not to play in college and live by NCAA eligibility rules. They should not have to accept what amounts to a Hobson’s choice and play in college if they don’t want to.
The game and that player will be the better for it.
And for those who decry the fall of college basketball, take solace in the fact that fans can replace college hoops and follow their favorite prodigy in the G League, Australia’s NBL or any other international basketball league. Surely, those leagues would embrace your fealty.
College basketball — highlighted by pre-conference matchups, holiday tournaments, post-Super Bowl bracketology interest and the NCAA Tournament — will keep and possibly grow its eyeball count while maintaining its level of popularity.
College basketball won’t die. It will simply change.