The great basketball exodus: a Slate thought experiment.

The stadium scene.
July 10 2008 4:03 PM

The Great Basketball Exodus

What would happen if America's best high-school hoopsters went to Europe? A Slate thought experiment.

Brandon Jennings. Click image to expand.
Brandon Jennings (in No. 3 jersey)

Brandon Jennings, hoops experts say, was the most talented high-school basketball player in the country last year. Don't expect to see Jennings in the NCAA Tournament next March, though. On Tuesday, the player's lawyer announced that he'll prepare for the NBA by playing in Europe next year.

If Jennings sticks with his decision and makes his way to the top of the 2009 NBA draft, other high-school stars may follow his lead. The father of one of the most heralded players in the high-school class of 2009, Lance Stephenson, told the New York Times that the family was aware of Jennings' decision: "We're looking at it and we're interested just like anyone else." Let's conduct a thought experiment: If America's best prep players all decided to play abroad, what would happen to the global basketball ecosystem?

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Let's start at the bottom of the basketball food chain. For all the talk of multimillion-dollar contracts, the initial reason Brandon Jennings considered going overseas was far more mundane: his SAT scores. For elite players, grades and test scores have long been the highest barrier to entry for major college basketball. Prospects who can't qualify academically have traditionally had two options to get eligible: taking a postgraduate year at a prep school or enrolling in a junior college. If Europe becomes a viable option for the teenage basketball star, basketball factories like Hargrave Military Academy will lose their allure and, in turn, lose enrollment and revenue.

High school itself could also become less important for basketball prodigies. In terms of its importance to the recruiting process, the varsity squad has been eclipsed by AAU ball. With an attractive alternative to college, why bother paying attention in 10th-grade math when neither your travel team coach nor your European suitors care about your GPA? As high school becomes irrelevant, elite players will increasingly leave traditional schools for places like the IMG Basketball Academy, a sports-focused training center similar to those that are already commonplace in sports like tennis and soccer. The best players will benefit from this rigorous training, improving their games and their economic prospects. A far greater number of teenagers will overestimate their talent, imagine a route to the pros that doesn't involve school, and end up without many prospects for employment—in basketball or otherwise.

Along with putting a hurt on high schools, a shift to Europe might also be the death blow for the NBA's minor-league system. The NBA hoped that its Development League would draw in big-time talent for a pit stop between high school and the big leagues. That hasn't panned out, probably because there's little allure in playing for $20,000 a year in Sioux Falls, S.D., or Bakersfield, Calif. By offering a direct pipeline to the NBA, though, the D-League has kept many former college stars stateside who probably would've made more money by going overseas.

That calculus will change if a bunch of high-school stars ditch the NCAA for Europe. Every NBA front office already follows the European leagues, but an influx of young American talent would greatly increase the attention paid to teams like Olympiacos and Montepaschi Siena. With more scouts in the stands to watch the likes of Brandon Jennings, veteran players—whether they're European or American by birth—would get more chances to impress NBA reps. Secure in the knowledge that they wouldn't be sacrificing their NBA dreams, second-tier prospects would be more likely to jump at the chance to goose their earnings across the Atlantic.

While the D-League would certainly feel the pinch, the NCAA would seemingly have the most to lose from this scenario. Since the NBA imposed a minimum-age requirement two years ago, the college game has benefited from an influx of one-and-done star players like Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, and Derrick Rose. Indeed, imagine how much less attention NCAA hoops would've received if Durant and Beasley pounded the boards in the A1 Ethniki instead of in the Big 12.

A mass exodus to Europe would return college basketball to the days when America's best amateur talent—Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James—never set foot on a college campus. While the quality of its stars would decrease, the NCAA itself might not suffer—ratings for the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament actually went down after the NBA's age-minimum rule went into place. The nature of college basketball, where recognizable players rarely stick around for more than a couple of years, has ensured that fans root for schools rather than individuals. A shift that draws away less-scholarly hoopsters would also burnish the NCAA's tenuous case that it's an academic institution rather than a big business. It might also prevent the embarrassment of the next O.J. Mayo scandal, in which a famed student-athlete is accused of taking money from agents.

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