G League’s Pathway Program Poses Serious Threat to NCAA Basketball

Jack Nelson, Staff Writer

Despite the painful lack of sports news amidst the pandemic, one developing story is captivating the media: the new NBA G League Pathway Program is turning heads as an enticing alternative to college basketball for promising athletes. The program is designed to help highly-touted recruits (typically four or five-star) develop their skills at the professional level prior to entering the NBA draft. Interested prospects sign a “Select Contract,” which earns them a minimum of $125,000 over the G League’s five months of play. 

Consensus five-star shooting guard Jalen Green, who was ranked by ESPN as the number one prospect in the 2020 class, opted to join the G League’s new select team rather than committing to a college. Subsequently, other athletes followed suit. Five-star power forward Isaiah Todd de-committed from Michigan, and five-star point guard Daishen Nix de-committed from UCLA to join Green on the select team. In the eyes of college basketball fans and college coaches alike, this is nothing short of a nightmare. To first understand why this new program threatens the NCAA, one must understand its appeal.

The immediate benefit of playing on the G League’s Select Team is from a financial standpoint: all players receive six-figure salaries, and many of them can earn much more than the $125,000 base. For talented athletes who have risen from impoverished backgrounds and who want to provide a better life for their family, this makes the pathway program a no-brainer choice over the college route.  

For decades, the NCAA has operated under the strict rule that no athlete within their organization may profit from the use of their name or likeness, but in recent years, efforts have been made by the opposition to soften their stance. On April 29th, a significant milestone was passed as the NCAA approved recommendations for collegiate athletes to profit from their name conditionally (through endorsements and social media.) However, given the unprecedented territory that the NCAA is entering with this approval, there is a lot of uncertainty regarding the immediacy and extent of athletes’ ability to profit, which pales in comparison to the promise of at least $125,000 over five months in the G League.

Another appealing aspect of the pathway program is the skill level and competitiveness: select team members will be playing against athletes who are often called up to play for NBA teams. In this intense environment, players will be pushed to develop their skills more efficiently, take on greater challenges, and in general, be better prepared to compete with pros when they get to the big show. They are also given the opportunity to engage in on and off-the-court professional development as a condition of their contract.  

The level of competitiveness at the Division One level in the NCAA is storied and admired by all fans of the game, but even the blue-bloods like Duke and Kentucky can’t offer the same level of competition as the G League. When rising athletes, no matter their sport, are given the opportunity to play against the same talent they might face at the professional level, they will almost always take that opportunity.

This new pathway program is undoubtedly a big win for highly-recruited athletes, but for collegiate head coaches, it’s like a punch to their already bruised guts. Recruiting talent in the modern age is an extremely difficult, tedious, and sometimes absurd task. Infamously, schools like USC, SMU, and ASU have been so desperate and excessive in their recruiting tactics that NCAA rules were broken repeatedly and punishment had to be laid down.  

By convincing many of the highly-touted basketball players to spurn college for the G League, this pathway program will make recruitment an even harder process for coaches to endure. Perennial powerhouses, given all of the money and luxuries they possess, will probably still find ways to persuade the remaining talents, but smaller schools who are financially struggling are now crippled in the race. Regardless of the strength of their basketball program, dissuading the best players from choosing the G League will be a new facet of recruiting that must be embraced if colleges want to get the top dogs.

For college basketball fans, the impact of the pathway program is going to hit harder and harder as the years go on. The era of Jalen Brunson, Zion Williamson, and Obi Toppin dominating ESPN highlight reels and bringing coverage to their schools is coming to a close.  Fans will have less and less hope that their school can build a roster with five-star players and make a thrilling March Madness run.  With a lack of top-tier talent to watch at the collegiate level, these fans will likely shift their interest to the G League’s select team, a league which is sure to see soaring profits and higher ratings if the trend of the past few weeks continues in the coming years.

If the NCAA wants to avoid seeing considerable drops in revenue, they need to approach the college athlete payment debate with serious urgency. The best way to combat the threat that the pathway program poses is to allow NCAA athletes to profit–and to embrace it as the future of their organizational mindset. The idea of paying student-athletes does contradict the purpose of college, and it’s certainly immoral on many levels, but as it stands right now, that is the primary option in halting a mass migration of highly-touted recruits to the G League.