“Should college athletes be paid” is a bad way to frame the pay-for-play debate. It assumes that future pros have to be in college. That requires any plan take into account many unrelated issues including Title IX, the academic mission of the university, and taxpayer support of both public and private colleges. It also leaves unanswered other questions like “Should athletes be able to jump straight from high school to the pros?” and “What is the responsibility of pro leagues to develop their own players?”
Paying college basketball players without fixing the system immediately below it also threatens to simply shift problems downward. To fix basketball, everyone needs to get what they want. The best prospects need the shortest path to a pro career. The NBA needs a system to evaluate players before they are drafted or signed. And the NCAA wants a supply of talented players who are committed to college.
My plan steals liberally from the changes the US Soccer Federation and Major League Soccer have made to produce better and younger professional soccer players. Given the scale of youth basketball and the size of the teams, many of the same principles can be applied to basketball. But the changes involve only the NBA in most cases, meaning getting multiple parties (beyond the owners and players) to agree to this system is not needed.
Step One: Start an NBA youth league
To combat some of the negatives of AAU requires a big name. If athletes are being courted by agents and receiving extra benefits from their AAU programs, only the NBA has the cachet to get them to consider another system. Each NBA team would field at least two youth teams, U–16 (high school freshmen and sophomores) and U–18 (high school seniors and juniors). NBA teams might have affiliate clubs as well, to cover geographic areas without an NBA team or population centers with large numbers of elite prospects (Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, D.C., etc.). Figure at least 60 teams.
The schedule would be modeled after the USSF Development Academy: lots of practice and skill development with fewer, high quality games. Figure one, occasionally two games per week, with playoffs in June and showcase tournaments during traditional AAU periods (September and April). This takes the best players out of the grassroots AAU system and into one controlled top-down by an organization that can enforce rules and impose meaningful penalties. It also takes players out of high school, giving them a single system to learn from high quality coaches.
Step Two: Allow teams to sign homegrown players
Each NBA team would be assigned a geographic area so that every team is working with roughly the same population. Once a player has been with an NBA youth team or affiliate for one year, the NBA team would be able to sign them to a professional contract. That contract could be fixed according to a set scale, and would likely be exempt from counting against the salary cap or roster limits (more on those in a second).
A young professional who was signed by the NBA team would be allowed to continue playing with the youth team alongside unsigned amateur players. Like in MLS, homegrown rights would stay with the player in college. Instead of adding a player during or right out of high school, the team might have him play college basketball for a year or three before signing him.
Step 3: Handpick the best unattached players
Instead of allowing players to pick when to renounce their eligibility and enter a draft, the NBA should select the ones it wants before hand. The league would do its own scouting alongside teams. NBA clubs would submit lists of early entry candidates they are interested in drafting to the league, who compiles a master list and targets a group of 8–15 players for early entry.
Those players would be signed to a standard, guaranteed contract by the league before the draft, ending their collegiate eligibility. That contract would be adjusted based on their draft position and assigned to the team that drafts them. By making the players very enticing (roster and salary cap exempt), the NBA would minimize the chance that a player goes undrafted and not picked up by a team, forcing the league to eat the salary.
Step 4: Expand rosters and start a reserve league
NBA teams currently can have 15 players on their roster, but may only dress 13 for any one game. The league should expand the rosters by a significant amount, up to 20 players, while still only dressing 12 or 13 for each game.
But those five new players would not be on the same salary structure. They would be “developmental slots” on a lower, fixed salary than the NBA minimum, unless they are homegrown or early entry players. In soccer, developmental players have a minimum salary of about 75% of normal roster players. The NBA could start a little lower than that, say $250,000, and scale up from there if possible. Players in these spots would have to be under an age limit, say 25 or 26, or else the minimum salary goes up.
With 7–8 players not playing each game, players at the end of the bench who played minimal minutes, youth players the team has signed or might sign, and players trying out for the team, we have plenty of players for a reserve team. The reserve team would mix games in during the NBA season against other NBA teams, with a focus on competition within a division to keep costs down. Just enough games to keep players sharp, anywhere from 20–40.
How is this all paid for? Mostly the same sources Whitlock cited: a shoe/apparel deal and broadcast contracts. The difference is that this creates much more inventory for broadcast partners, including all of the top prep games in the country. Nike and Adidas will also jump at the chance to outfit every single one of the top 1800 or so young players in the country without dealing with individual AAU programs. Money could also be saved by eliminating the D-League.
In this system, the best players gravitate to NBA youth teams or affiliates. The very best will be signed by NBA teams and still be able to develop with players their age or players that are mostly a bit older. Some will attend college for a number of years before their NBA team signs them. And the draft will still be there for late bloomers, players without an NBA academy program nearby, or players whose rights are relinquished by an NBA team. But players move on to the NBA when they and an NBA team decide they are ready rather than an arbitrary age limit.
NBA teams will like it, especially if the costs are covered, because they get even more evaluation of players before they are signed. A year of playing against college competition is nice, but it is no match for actually coaching the player in the team’s system for at least a year, likely more. NBA clubs can also still use the free college system for further development of their prospects.
The only question is whether it would be good for college basketball. One data point is that college soccer attendance, on much shakier ground than college basketball, has stayed strong and grown despite losing more of the best players to MLS and European teams. This system could also attract more NBA fans to college basketball, to watch players whose rights are held by their favorite NBA team. But without a way to exit on their own to the NBA, college players would have to be patient and stay focused on school until a contract offer comes, unless they want to look to Europe which is an option under any system.
Everybody appears to win, or least not lose too much. Players move onto the NBA based on skill and upside, not age. NBA teams have more access to players early on to groom and evaluate them for the pro game. And the players at the center of much of the controversy in college basketball will not be there, along with possibly a new audience.