The college basketball world is still reeling from the FBI's investigation into the allegedly corrupt business practices of coaches, agents and financial advisers. With many more names to be revealed, possibly more arrests to be made and more programs likely to incur significant NCAA penalties, quite a bit of uncertainty looms regarding the status of dozens -- maybe even hundreds -- of athletes enrolled in college or about to enroll this summer.
And the Australian National Basketball League is looking to capitalize. The NBL has already proved to be a soft landing spot for one U.S. high schooler facing NCAA eligibility concerns in Terrance Ferguson, the No. 11 high school recruit in ESPN's 2016 Top 100. Ferguson elected not to enroll as a freshman at Arizona, instead signing with the Adelaide 36ers. He ended up being drafted in the first round by the Oklahoma City Thunder at No. 21 a year later, despite an up-and-down season abroad.
After benefiting from the exposure of helping Ferguson reach the NBA, the NBL has formalized a rule that should make it much easier for future prospects in his mold to forgo college and develop in Australia instead. As part of its new "Next Stars" program, the NBL will be adding an extra roster spot next season intended strictly for draft-eligible players such as Ferguson, the league told ESPN. Sources told ESPN those players will be paid 100,000 Australian dollars gross guaranteed (approximately $78,000 U.S.), funded directly by the league.
"Unlike other countries where players and agents deal with clubs, the NBL will directly contract the players," NBL owner and executive chairman Larry Kestelman said in a release provided exclusively to ESPN. "We will make sure the players get the development they need as part of the program with our clubs, giving them the best chance of success.
"The NBL provides strong visibility back to the U.S. Our league is closest to the NBA in terms of style of play and game day presentation. We will work to build a program to provide the right access to NBA teams and scouts alike."
Players must be NBA draft eligible to qualify for the roster spot, and they will be evaluated, contacted and contracted directly by the NBL, not its individual teams. The mechanism in which they will get to specific clubs is yet to be decided.
"The NBL is considered one of the best leagues in the world and this initiative will give these up and coming stars an opportunity to create a name for themselves on the way to being drafted into the NBA," NBL CEO Jeremy Loeliger told ESPN. "As Terrance Ferguson demonstrated, there are a number of players who for whatever reason won't be part of the U.S. college system but have NBA aspirations and are good enough to be drafted. This will give them the chance to develop in a world class league in the NBL and push their claims for the NBA."
Currently, the NBL restricts its teams from having more than three foreign players on a roster at any time, which had made it difficult for coaches to justify using one of those spots on an unproven and inexperienced teenager such as Ferguson. While the coaching staff at Adelaide did an admirable job of incorporating Ferguson into its roster and ended up finishing the regular season in first place, the young wing proved to be too raw and physically immature at times. He averaged just 15 minutes per game and posted modest numbers of 4.6 points and 1.2 rebounds per game. Examples like these have made other NBL teams (as well as clubs in Europe) somewhat hesitant to invest significant resources in attempting to lure similar prospects, as it could hamper them from winning games and potentially result in coaches being fired for poor results.
With a fourth import spot now in place, intended to be used strictly for NBA draft-eligible prospects, there is little to no risk for teams. Depending on the deadline date to sign players (yet to be decided), they could potentially pursue older players such as USC sophomore De'Anthony Melton or Auburn freshman Austin Wiley, both of whom have been suspended from all competition by their respective schools in the wake of their involvement in the FBI investigation. This is especially relevant since any player who enrolled in college is ineligible to compete in the NBA G League during the calendar year without being ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA.
While looking to recruit elite high schoolers in the summer may be a possibility, it wouldn't be surprising to see NBL teams in Australia and New Zealand also consider saving their roster spot for players like Melton, Wiley or Mitchell Robinson (who withdrew from Western Kentucky after just a few weeks) and adding them to their roster during the season. Not only will they be able to pick up a talented player, they could also put themselves in place to earn a significant financial windfall.
NBA rules currently allow franchises to pay up to $700,000 in buyout money to international teams. Should the NBL be able to convince a high-level NBA draft prospect to join one of its team on a multiyear contract, it could be richly rewarded with a buyout the following summer, which would then be split between the club and the league itself .
Kestelman told ESPN that a major priority for the NBL will be stressing development off the court as well as on it, to produce "complete basketball players, and better adjusted young men. We want to get them outside of the glitz and glamor, and make this a mentoring school for basketball and professionalism."
As more American star players' names trickle out as the FBI's investigation progresses -- something that could continue for years once potential trials start -- it will be fascinating to see how this new NBL option is evaluated by players caught up in the investigation, as well as others who would simply prefer to explore alternatives to playing college basketball. The NCAA's leadership and model has seemingly never been less popular than it is at the moment, with LeBron James being the latest to criticize the system. It was only a matter of time until challengers tried to take a bite out of its billion-dollar apple.
The NBL is betting that its increasingly respected status as an international league and the high quality of life found in Australia and New Zealand will combine to make for an attractive option for draft-eligible Americans. Prospects will be able to get paid to practice and play, and the league has a unique schedule that ends in February (with playoffs going into March).
One potential hurdle is the amount of money being considered as compensation, though the 100,000 AUD number may still be tweaked. Will it be enough to entice players to travel halfway around the world rather than sign in the G League, which pays salaries that range from $19,500 to $26,000?
There may be scenarios in which sneaker companies (like Under Armour, which played a significant role in sending Ferguson to Australia and Emmanuel Mudiay to China) could be willing to supplement this number.
While NCAA rules still prevent players from cashing in on their likenesses and signing endorsement deals, the NBL is under no such restrictions. Will the likes of Nike, Adidas and Under Armour attempt to get ahead of the competition and lock up elite-level prospects a year (or more) before they enter the NBA draft and send them to Australia? A sneaker company supplementing a playing contract with a multiyear shoe deal, like we've already seen happen with Brandon Jennings, Mudiay and Ferguson, would be a powerful incentive that would likely be very difficult to turn down.
"Absolutely we would like to see Australians spend at least a season playing in their home country before moving on to the NBA," Kestelman said.
In recent years, the NBL has made more of an effort to keep top young basketball players in Australia, rather than see them take the familiar and well-forged path of being recruited by NCAA schools. Australian national team coach Andrej Lemanis has been outspoken about the need to keep more players home.
"There have been lots of unfortunate cases of kids going to college and having poor experiences, and that's becoming more known," Lemanis has said. "The kids who stay in the NBL tend to have good experiences and have great development. I think the NBL is becoming a pathway."
"We currently have a record number of Australians playing in the NBA right now and Australian basketball is probably more highly regarded around the world than it has ever been," Loeliger wrote in the release provided to ESPN. "We see this [as] an opportunity to further strengthen the talent pool of the NBL and enhance its standing both domestically and globally."