During Final Four weekend, the NCAA, NBA and USA Basketball joined forces to bring together 66 prospects from around the world for two days of practices and scrimmages, one of which was open to pro scouts and college coaching staffs. The Next Generation program, a new venture funded by the NBA and NCAA, was the first time these three organizations have formally cooperated to put on a youth basketball event.
The partnership comes at a fascinating time for the future of the game. College basketball is engulfed in an ongoing FBI investigation. The NBA is ready to get involved with elite high school prospects again as it develops players overseas at the NBA academies. And most of the best American players continue to make their way through USA Basketball, including Darius Bazley, a top-10 high school recruit who decommitted from Syracuse last week to forgo college and play in the G League.
What's at stake for each organization, and what it could mean moving forward?
For USA Basketball, this was a free look -- via all-expense paid trips courtesy of the NCAA -- at 21 domestic players, allowing program directors and coaching staffs to get a head start on what promises to be a busy summer ahead, with the FIBA under-17 World Cup, and the FIBA Americas under-18 Championship in June.
A number of new USA Basketball players were invited to showcase their talent and willingness to take instruction in practices and scrimmages against the international teams, giving them a taste of what they can expect at the training camps leading up to the official competitions.
The atmosphere was highly competitive, with a huge emphasis placed on the core of USA Basketball's identity and recipe for success: defense, ball-movement, intensity and transition scoring. Culture, accountability and expectations are the words you constantly hear from everyone involved with USA Basketball, and every opportunity to connect with America's most talented athletes is another chance for them to instill those values.
This was an invaluable opportunity for the NBA to get 45 young international academy members exposure in front of college and pro team decision-makers. It also served as an important development tool, as players were pitted against some of the most physically gifted and talented competition they've ever faced in the form of USA Basketball's elite high school prospects.
One of the bigger challenges facing the NBA Academy -- still in its inaugural year -- is the lack of consistent competitive games, since the teams aren't part of any official domestic leagues. This was also a chance to introduce the academy players to the world of college basketball at its most glamorous. Few, if any, of the academy members are ready to make the jump to the NBA or even the G League, and the NCAA is undoubtedly a viable path for many considering the added benefit of receiving an education while continuing to develop as basketball players.
Beyond earning goodwill, the NCAA's goals in contributing to such an ambitious endeavor are not quite as obvious at first glance, though it makes sense when digging deeper. With more alternatives to Division I, there is clearly value in being able to connect with many of the best American high school players and continuing to solidify its relationship with USA Basketball.
Plus, the NBA academies will likely become a fruitful pathway in the coming years for internationals looking to play college basketball. Making sure these players are aware of the steps involved in recruiting and becoming eligible is a process that is already underway. This is perhaps a necessary move for the NCAA to ensure its stays viable in an ever-changing environment that has been rocked by the ongoing FBI investigation over the past six months.
All three organizations participating in this event are facing existential questions about their place in the assembly line of basketball player talent development. Who controls it? At what age does each group need to jump in to ensure the players' best interests, as well as their own, are represented? A massive void opened up with sneaker companies Adidas and Under Armour taking a step back from the grassroots basketball world, and each of these organizations needs to decide how it want to proceed moving forward.
The discussion about the NBA's one-and-done rule along with Bazley's decision made for an interesting backdrop to this event and led to plenty of spirited conversations over the course of the weekend about the future of college basketball.
Despite the scandal, college basketball remains the most consistently reliable pathway for high school players to develop into professional prospects. Virtually every NBA executive we've spoken with over the past few months remains steadfast in their insistence that the status quo is perfectly acceptable from their standpoint, and there will undoubtedly be pushback from teams if the NBA attempts to eliminate the one-and-done rule.
Most NBA executives we spoke with feel that Bazley is making a mistake by attempting to enter the NBA via the G League, as he's far too physically underdeveloped to hold his own against players in their mid-20s, and he will likely become a nightly target for opponents. A concern also exists among G League officials that if Bazley struggles then it could be difficult to recruit future high schoolers down the road when the league is better prepared to handle players in his mold.