The NBA has seen a number of individuals shape the liberties that current players enjoy. For example: Former Seattle Supersonic turned Phoenix Sun big man, Tom Chambers, gave rise to unrestricted free agency.
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf asserted his right to maintain his personal beliefs regarding the ongoing war(s) when he covered his eyes during the National Anthem
Ed O’Bannon led the fight against the NCAA when he and 20 other former NCAA players challenged the use of his image claiming he was deprived of his rights of publicity.
The issue of player freedom is a recurring theme and the options available to young players are growing rapidly. Player mobility is a hot-button issue and will surely be discussed when the new collective-bargaining agreement is negotiated. The most immediate noise may very well come from current New Orleans Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball’s younger brother.
The Ball family has a reality show that streams on Facebook and dissects the NBA career of Lonzo, his two younger brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo, and the polarizing opinions of the patriarch of the family, Lavar Ball.
The most relevant Ball member when it comes to shaping the path for potential future stars is the youngest of the bunch, LaMelo. What makes LaMelo’s case interesting is that he will not have played a single game for an NCAA team as he withdrew from high school to play professional basketball for BC Prienai in Lithuania. NBA journeyman Brandon Jennings took a similar route playing for Lottomatica Roma in the Euroleague prior to entering the 2009 NBA Draft.
LaMelo is not only looking to be a lottery pick as Jennings was, he is considered by some to be the best prospect and could be the number one selection overall. If LaMelo is picked #1 overall, he will be the first 19-year old with that distinction since Dwight Howard in the 2004 NBA Draft.
Prior to Howard being selected, the NBA enjoyed a renaissance period that featured blossoming legends in their teens such as Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Tracy McGrady. In the 2005 negotiations between the league and the NBA Players Association agreed to a rule that effectively eliminated players going straight from high school to the NBA. As new collective-bargaining agreements have been amended, adopted, and ratified, the age-restriction has remained in place. As stated in Article X, Section 1(b) of the current collective-bargaining agreement:
“A player shall be eligible for selection in the [NBA Draft]” if the “player is or will be at least nineteen (19) years of age during the calendar year in which the Draft is held” and unless a player is a defined international player “at least one (1) NBA Season has elapsed since the player’s graduation from high school (or, if the player did not graduate from high school, since the graduation of the class with which the player would have graduated.)”
The NBA has these parameters in place to avoid the “straight from high school to the NBA” scenario. One effect of the rule was to encourage a “one and done” philosophy where elite players attend college for a year and then enter the draft. The “one and done” rule encourages players to attend college and develop their skills before embarking on the rigors of an NBA season. From an athlete’s vantage point, the “one and done” rule allows athletes to put little emphasis on academics as they only need to pass one semester’s worth of classes to be eligible for an entire NCAA season. A player could ignore all spring semester academics, play in the NCAA tournament, and then enter the draft without any notable consequence.
While players have been free to showcase their talents in any way they choose to boost their draft stock, the conventional choice has been committing to a top NCAA program and getting national exposure so teams can make a decision on who they would consider selecting. But in recent years, other options have emerged.
Along with the international route players like LaMelo and the aforementioned Brandon Jennings have taken, the NBA has a “minor league” system known as the “G-league.” In order to make the G-league a viable option, the NBA has increased the base salary for G-league players to $7,000 a month or $35,000 for the five-month regular season. It’s unclear if international leagues will begin to outspend the G-league to attract younger players, but the link to the NBA is an important one with 50 G-league players having been called up to the NBA, earning more than $11 million last season alone.
If Ball is able to excel in the NBA after playing internationally, the “College or G-league” choice will no longer apply. Historically, international play was reserved for players who were unable to get fair playing time or acceptable compensation. Players like Stephon Marbury were able to carve out successful careers overseas. But playing in China or Europe didn’t seem like anyone’s first option. That appears to be changing.
Despite multiple states passing legislation allowing NCAA athletes to receive more financial benefits like California’s “Fair Pay for Play Act” which is scheduled to take effect in 2023, the NCAA has remained unwilling to advocate for a clear policy to reward athletes and share revenue. At best, the NCAA says it will allow players to “benefit” from the use of their images and likeness, but has not articulated a plan that shows any real progress.
LaMelo Ball actually committed to UCLA before being ruled ineligible due to his stint in Europe. If the NCAA continues to move at a snail’s pace, they may be painting themselves into a corner. The “down side” of playing overseas in the past was the lack of exposure to the NBA but with modern technology and international scouting, a player can be discovered anywhere on the planet.
Ball is only one player, but he could create a domino effect if he succeeds in the NBA. In doing so, Lonzo’s younger brother could set the stage for future players to go from high school to the NBA by taking a “gap year” with pay via another country. Will the international option render the college game and the G-league irrelevant? We won’t have an answer right away. However, just as Chambers, Abdul-Rauf, and O’Bannon stood up for their respective rights, the players of tomorrow will stand up for what matters most to them.