How NIL Makes This Season One to Remember

If you're the type of college basketball observer who watches the sport at this level mainly to observe talent that will eventually get to the next level, this may seem like a particularly odd season to come.

Victor Wembanyama, arguably the best NBA prospect since LeBron James, is playing pro ball in France. The consensus No. 2 pick, Scoot Henderson, is in the G League before he's eligible to be drafted next June. The Thompson twins, Amen and Ausar, are two other possible lottery picks playing professionally for Overtime Elite.

If you listen to some, college basketball losing its hold on showcasing some of the best 18- and 19-year-old talent for a year is reason enough to ignore college hoops until at least mid-March.

And yet, there's a remarkable sense of stability at the top of college basketball heading into this season, with more nationally significant juniors and seniors returning to their teams than I can remember in quite some time.

There's reigning National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe back at Kentucky. Drew Timme has returned to show off a ton of post moves at Gonzaga. Defensive wizard Marcus Sasser has returned from injury at Houston. Tenacious lead guard Isaiah Wong is back for Miami after a surprising Elite Eight run last March. North Carolina's big four who led the program from looking potentially dormant in January to 90 seconds from a title in April, Armando Bacot, Leaky Black, R.J. Davis, and Caleb Love, are still in Chapel Hill for the Tar Heels.

Then, despite Wembanyama, Henderson, and the Thompsons not being on a Division I roster, there are plenty of potential one-and-done freshmen playing for major programs this season. Look at pretty much any mock draft and you'll see mostly college freshmen in the lottery. Most of those freshmen are playing for teams in the preseason top 25.

Add it all up and there's a very compelling mix of developed upperclassmen skill and young hyped talent in college hoops this season, despite the new pathways available to draft prospects.

I think we can thank name, image, and likeness opportunities for keeping college basketball relatively full of names that are recognizable to March-only viewers and talent soon to make the NBA draft jump.

Without NIL in place, high school seniors would have a much easier time going overseas or to a G League or Overtime Elite pro opportunity. That's been an obvious implication for five-star college hoops recruits from the time NIL started.

But for the quality of the sport as a whole, I think the biggest impact has come for the upperclassmen who can now choose to stay another year and still get endorsements.

Four or five years ago, a player like Tshiebwe would have been in a sort of no man's land with his draft/return decision: a borderline second-round pick due to playing style and size, but proven at the highest levels of the college game and wanting to cash in on his accomplishments. Now, he can make as much money in college as a late-first round pick gets in rookie salary, improve his skills to become a more NBA-friendly modern big man, and attempt to lead Kentucky to a ninth national championship. A similar calculus can be applied to the decisions Bacot, Love, Timme, and Sasser made to return.

A year ago, I predicted that the free transfer rule would have a more significant impact on competitive balance than NIL. This season, there are plenty of significant transfers, including Tyrese Hunter at Texas, Malachi Smith at Gonzaga (not to be confused with Dayton's Malachi Smith), Baylor Scheierman at Creighton, Kendric Davis at Memphis, and many more. Also, it's a pretty safe assumption that the transfer portal means the days of a player like Damian Lillard staying three years at Weber State are gone for good.

But for now, it seems NIL may make more of a significant impact to college basketball than the transfer portal — especially when it comes to deciding the NCAA tournament.

With a longer NFL season, college football ending after the start of conference play for basketball, a November/December World Cup, and the NBA and NHL both back to their normal calendars post-pandemic, college basketball is probably going to be on the backburner until at least mid-February for most sports fans. I certainly understand not paying close attention to college hoops until we're at the doorstep of March Madness. Once fans tune in this season, they should find a compelling mix of names from previous seasons and new, pro-bound talent to focus on.

Leave a Comment

Featured Site