Author: David Cooke, Graphics: Bella Aharonian
The BRB Bottomline
The development of the name, image, and likeness (NIL) rules within NCAA sports will greatly affect NBA draft prospects’ career paths and income potential. Draft prospects are now more likely to return to school than ever before.
The Path of the Prodigy
For most young basketball prodigies with the potential to play professionally, the route to the NBA draft has more or less been predetermined for them. It starts out with one year of post-high school play, most often with an NCAA Division I college team, followed by an early departure from college to declare for the NBA draft. For many of these young, promising athletes, much of their lives were spent fantasizing about pursuing their passion and playing basketball at the highest level. When they finally shake the commissioner’s hand, sealing their spot in the NBA, that moment serves as a culmination of their dreams—as well as the point at which they’re about to become millionaires.
Now, imagine an alternative scenario. You, a talented basketball prospect, have been told your entire life that “you are special,” “you are different,” and that “you are the next Lebron, Kobe, KD, Michael Jordan, or [another NBA superstar].” You’ve spent all of your high school summers away from your friends and family playing the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) club basketball circuit, grinding in sweaty gyms filled to the brim with scouts. Your hard work at the high school level paved your way to an opportunity to play in a top college program; however, your freshman year was disappointing and didn’t go the way you envisioned it to. Despite the disappointing year in college, you still believe that your talent merits a first-round pick. After all, you are special, right?
Then, something happens that defies your expectations: you are not drafted. Your dreams are shattered. What are you going to do? You can’t go back to college because you already registered, irreversibly, for the NBA draft. You are stuck in limbo. It’s a nightmare scenario for any young basketball prospect, but unfortunately, one that is all too common. For perspective, out of the 217 individuals who declared for the 2021 NBA draft, fewer than a fifth of them were eventually selected by a team. However, the NIL gives them the opportunity to earn money without getting drafted.
In situations where players are not drafted, they now have a new option to turn to—the NIL, or “name, image, and likeness.” It refers to the 2021 policy implemented by the NCAA, which allows collegiate athletes to profit from their name, image, and likeness—permitting them to sign sponsorships and endorsements, something they were previously barred from doing. The new NIL policy thus effectively allows athletes to profit off of their social media channels, partner with local businesses, and sign deals with clothing brands.
Who Does the NIL Impact?
Individuals most affected by the NIL policy are the players projected to be borderline second-round picks, as well as the players who are likely to be undrafted in the two rounds of the NBA draft. These “fringe prospects,” athletes who are not sure they are going to be drafted, are estimated to have a NIL worth potentially starting at $500,000. It’s an extremely attractive option for college-aged athletes whose non-NBA professional prospects were once primarily limited to one of two options: the G League (the NBA minor leagues)—the NBA Development League, or a professional league overseas. Among these options, the G League pays a measly average annual salary of $37,000. Overseas annual salaries vary wildly, ranging from $2,000 to over $1 million—but generally are well below six figures. In short, the NIL allows student-athletes to be paid NBA money even though they do not actually play in the NBA. Some athletes who benefited from the new NIL policy include Jordan Bohannan, a Wisconsin basketball player who signed a deal with a firework company, and Doug Ebert, a former St. Peter’s University player, who signed a deal with Buffalo Wild Wings to market his mustache to promote and sell chicken wings.
How the NIL Comes Into Play
A compelling way to examine the impact of the NIL is to look at the journey of the former University of Kentucky forward, Oscar Tshiebwe. Tshiebwe is projected to be, at best, a late second-round pick and realistically to be undrafted. In his decision to forgo the draft and return to college, he is expected to make approximately $2 million in sponsorship money through name, image, and likeness deals. The decision to forgo the draft is now seen as a more viable option because second-round picks in the NBA do not generally receive contracts guaranteed in length or amount of money. Therefore, in Tshiebwe’s case, his decision to return to school was actually better off for him financially—an idea that would have sounded absurd a few years ago, before the NIL was implemented. Furthermore, the NIL also implicitly grants wealthy college boosters quite a bit of say as to who plays on their team via offering NIL contracts. For instance, billionaire University of Miami booster John Ruiz recently signed a player to a NIL deal of $400,000 annually to incentivize him to play for the Hurricanes at the University of Miami instead of turning pro.
Going forward, it will be interesting to watch how developments within the NIL will impact the cost-benefit analysis and, ultimately, the draft decisions of athletes. It will undoubtedly have unforeseen consequences that will alter the NBA draft forever. Eventually, even some sure-fire draft prospects may stay in school for longer due to economic opportunities presented by staying in school, additionally culminating in fewer players taking the traditional steps laid out for them to reach the NBA. Some sports pundits believe that in the future, larger state schools will dominate the recruiting landscape with donors funneling in millions of dollars in order to secure recruits. Additionally, large schools with massive fan bases allow additional avenues of profit for players to profit in—avenues such as merchandise sales. While all-star athletes with millionaire earning potential can still leave college to pursue their professional careers, the advent of the NIL gives players the ability to defer their entry into the NBA and capitalize on their skills while still in college.
- The earning potential of NBA draftees will change with the implementation of the NIL.
- The career paths of both star and fringe draft prospects will be altered by the NIL.
- The NIL may drastically change the playing field for the funding of college athletics.