Is the NCAA Still the Best Path for Future NBA Prospects?

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor INovember 26, 2021

Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Many top NCAA men's basketball programs are geared in part toward growing their school's players for the next level, but that is not always the case for today's elite future NBA prospects. 

Even with new Name, Image and Likeness money-making opportunities, it can be difficult for a college freshman to outshine his head coach, who's often one of the state's highest-paid employees. 

"The kids are starting to realize some of these college programs f--k them," said one assistant NBA general manager. "It's not really about development. It's about winning games, and the stars are the coaches."

But NBA executives are also skeptical of the NCAA's biggest rivals for high-level talent. In conversations with B/R, scouts and other team personnel questioned the staying power for both the NBA's G League Ignite program and 2021 startup Overtime Elite, quick to note the shortcomings of each alternative NBA prospect program. 

Thanks to the new NIL rules, the calculus for future NBA lottery picks has changed once again. How can you make the most money off your stardom but also still position yourself to make it to the NBA?


What NIL Means for the College Route

Multiple player agents told Bleacher Report that star prospects can now generate an estimated seven figures worth of income by starring at a Power Five athletic program, including schools that aren't considered elite blue bloods. 

"If you go to Arkansas, you can make millions depending on how [the prospect] plays," said one agent. "That's the thing people don't understand. You can monetize moments now. You can make a T-shirt of a game-winner and sell that." 

"I would just go and ball out at Kentucky and build my brand there all on my own," said a high-ranking NBA team staffer. 

It's hard to beat the exposure the college game affords emerging talent. In 2018, Trae Young morphed from a high-level prospect to a superstar and eventual top-five pick at Oklahoma, playing each game in front of a national television audience. Fans and scouts alike tuned in to see how far he could lead Oklahoma in the NCAA tournament as his draft stock soared.

While more scouts than ever gripe about the slower playing style prevalent in the NCAA, they all maintain the level of competition for prospects still remains strong at the college level. Top 2022 draft prospects Chet Holmgren and Paolo Banchero will face high-major college foes while playing at Gonzaga and Duke, each of which have national fanbases and guaranteed national TV exposure throughout the basketball season like Young had at OU. 

L.E. Baskow/Associated Press

Of course, there are drawbacks. There's no guarantee of a paycheck in college, and it delays the professional-grade experience by at least a year. College players have to attend classes, meet with tutors and do homework throughout the season, too. Is that the best use of time for an athlete dead set on becoming an NBA player? 


G League Ignite's Competing Agendas

The results from the G League Ignite's first year were an objective success. Current Houston Rockets rookie Jalen Green and Golden State Warriors rookie Jonathan Kuminga were valued as near-unanimous top-10 picks, and they were drafted No. 2 and No. 7, respectively. Five-star prospect and Ignite forward Isaiah Todd was the first selection of the second round. 

This year, G League Ignite's Jaden Hardy and Dyson Daniels are considered top-tier prospects. Hardy is currently projected as a top-five pick by B/R Draft expert Jonathan Wasserman, and Daniels figures to be a first-rounder.

"Ignite is the easiest to sell parents that their child is going to be OK and make a lot of money," said one player agent.

Top Ignite players can receive maximum salaries of $500,000. Sources told B/R that Green, Kuminga and Todd all received that full amount last year. Those players can also land endorsement deals and sponsorships, so Ignite has a half-million-dollar-plus head start in earning potential as opposed to joining a college program. Yet Ignite's schedule isn't nearly as visible as that of Jabari Smith at Auburn or Jalen Duren at Memphis. 

Many NBA figures still maintain G League Ignite's 2020 launch was a direct response to top 2020 prospects LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton joining Australia's NBL as part of that league's Next Stars program. The NBL still views itself as the most viable path for players to spend one season in a true professional league. 

Earlier this month, Indian prospect Princepal Singh signed with the NBL's New Zealand Breakers after playing last season with the Ignite. The Breakers also have two top 2022 draft prospects from France, including Ousmane Dieng, who projects as a first-round pick. 

Singh was expected to join the Stockton Kings in this year's G League season. However, the goals of the Ignite program may not perfectly align with the aims of the rest of the G League's constituents. 

Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

The NBA's minor league affiliate was originally created to benefit all 30 clubs, but Ignite only benefits a handful of players and the teams that eventually draft its prospects. Wedging Ignite into the overall G League schedule has brought some noted friction among team staffers. 

The salary discrepancy alone is quite jarring on paper, and it raised questions from NBA executives about how the league is dispersing its budget. Not only can those Ignite prospect players make upward of $500,000, but their veteran Ignite teammates such as Kosta Koufas and Amir Johnson can make four times the standard G League salary of $37,000. 

Ignite can even add veteran players whose rights are technically held by other G League teams. Dakota Mathias was originally slated to join this season's Ignite outfit, but he has since returned to the Texas Legends while he's recovering from a minor ankle injury. 

"You're treating these other guys like second-class citizens," said one Western Conference staffer. 

G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim told B/R in an email: "The programs are different, so it makes sense that the salaries are, too."  


New Kid on the Block

There is no formal relationship between Ignite and Overtime Elite, and neither appears to view the other as a competitor. 

OTE, a spinoff of the content and e-merchandise company Overtime, launched this September as a startup team based in Atlanta. The team's leadership has targeted high school juniors and seniors who theoretically could join Ignite as 18- or 19-year-olds before entering the draft. 

Players can make a minimum salary of $100,000 and are awarded an additional $100,000 scholarship if they eventually choose to attend college. They also earn an accredited high school diploma, as well as equity in Overtime. 

NBA scouts recently descended on OTE's Atlanta campus for an Oct. 23 pro day, and most were impressed with the quality of facilities and the program's basketball operations staff, spearheaded by former NBA executive Brandon Williams and former UConn head coach Kevin Ollie. Scouts were also impressed by OTE's academic curriculum and defined schedule. 

"I think they're better run than the NCAA and the Ignite program," one assistant general manager said. 

Several scouts told B/R they will travel to assess OTE's players just like any other grassroots AAU program or summer event. 

Still, there's a healthy amount of pessimism about the quality of Overtime Elite's competition. The schedule mostly consists of prep schools across the country.

"They're going against 19- and 20-year-olds trying to get to JUCO," said one team analytics staffer. "From a scouting perspective, it's gonna be really interesting to see how you evaluate these kids going up against low-major talent. And it's not like grown-ass men in the G League."

Scouts also left the October event wondering about OTE's own talent pool, while conceding that the program is designed for high school juniors and seniors. According to team personnel contacted by B/R, the majority of the program's current players are not bona fide NBA talents. 

Only Jean Montero, a Dominican point guard, is viewed by NBA personnel as having 2022 first-round NBA draft potential. 

Twins Ausar and Amen Thompson, both of whom are 6'6" combo guards, could emerge as top 2023 prospects despite doubts about their shooting range. 

Jalen Lewis, ESPN's No. 2-ranked player in the class of 2023, made headlines when he signed with Overtime Elite, but he is two years away from being draft-eligible in 2024. 

There are also doubts about OTE's sustainability and its chicken-and-egg conundrum. The ultimate success of OTE seems contingent on the quality of its players, but the quality of players OTE can draw seems contingent on the success of the platform. 

Investors have spoken with their wallets. Overtime has raised over $80 million in funding from prominent investors, including NBA players. OTE has already landed sizable deals with Gatorade and State Farm for branding opportunities across their massive social channels, leveraging their audience of 50 million people who generate 1.7 billion views per month. 

"If you are a brand and you want to reach young people, we know how to reach young people," Overtime CEO Zack Weiner told B/R.  

OTE plans to generate licensing and merchandising opportunities for its players, such as creating Topps trading cards, which Weiner believes will increase in value when players reach the NBA. 

Industry figures believe the current programming interest in streaming live sports will help OTE in its long-term plan to find a broadcast partner for its games. 

"The media rights are quickly going to become extremely valuable to legacy networks and to tech players that have entered the sports space," Weiner said. 

But how lucrative will rights deals and other potential revenue streams be if OTE cannot consistently attract legitimate NBA talent? So far, viewership for OTE Movies has paled in comparison to the staggering numbers produced by Overtime's main channels. 

But Weiner has seen Overtime's social platforms help turn high school players like Mikey Williams into global phenoms. 

"We can make people care about characters and storylines," Weiner said. "If you are 16, 17, 18 this is the best place in the world."

If Elite can prove its viability, it will only create more widespread opportunity in the professional basketball space. Even its detractors all seem to be rooting for its success. 

"I hope it survives," said one agent. "It provides the market with another buyer, and it will make it easier for small agencies to survive."


The Scout's Perspective

With the college basketball season underway, NBA personnel are once again traversing the country following a year of limited in-person visits, doggedly searching for their team's next draft find. There are now even more avenues to observe top talent than when scouts were first barred from the road at the start of the pandemic. 

"If you've got two or three lottery picks, we have to go see you," said another assistant general manager. "That can carry them for three years, where they can keep getting top players and it breeds more success every year, just like at Duke and Kentucky."  

For now, as scouts track the development of the world's top prospects ahead of next year's draft, they're also logging the general growth of Ignite and OTE and their impact on the future of professional basketball.