The Expanding Pathways to the NBA



Michael Jordan and North Carolina. Patrick Ewing and Georgetown. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (known as Lew Alcindor at the time) and UCLA. All Basketball Hall of Famers that are forever linked with leading their schools to NCAA titles. Today, those players all seem like distant memories and that era of college basketball is a relic of the past. It’s becoming ever more likely that the next crop of NBA superstars will never step foot on a college campus.


Teenage basketball phenoms opting out of college and taking an alternate route isn’t a brand-new concept. In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled in Haywood v. National Basketball Association that the NBA’s requirement that a player wait four years after high school graduation, essentially forcing players to attend college before they enter the NBA, was a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.[1] Players were no longer required to attend four years of college before going pro.


However, the decision to skip college entirely didn’t become popular until 1995 when the #1 high school basketball player in the country, Kevin Garnett, made the controversial decision to enter the NBA draft just months after attending senior prom. This led to an avalanche of players in the coming years jumping directly to the NBA including Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and LeBron James.


The NBA halted this momentum in 2005 when they agreed with the NBA Player’s Union to place an age restriction to enter the league. In their newly constructed collective bargaining agreement, the NBA set the minimum age at 19 years old, or one year removed from high school. This gave rise to the “one and done” phenomenon in college basketball where a player stays on campus for his freshman season before bolting for the NBA draft.


Still, this didn’t force every top prospect to play college basketball. Throughout the next decade there were examples of high schoolers who recognized their earnings potential and opted on playing professionally oversees instead of college for the mandatory one-year grace period. These examples were few and far between with varying degrees of success so many failed to recognize a major shift that was taking place in the youth to professional basketball pipeline.


In recent years, more players have realized they no longer have to wait to shake the commissioner’s hand as they walk across the NBA draft stage to cash in on their talents. Players can start earning much earlier and without having to open a college textbook in the meantime, and others began to take notice. Several different outlets began attempting to provide a platform for these teenagers to showcase their talent and reap the benefits.


LaMelo Ball, the younger brother of NBA player Lonzo and youngest son of outspoken father LaVar, made headlines when he began playing internationally at the age of 16. His professional career included stops in Lithuania and Australia before entering the NBA and winning rookie of the year in 2021. Many questioned his decision to play internationally at such a young age, but LaMelo never seemed to waver. On the flip side, his decision to play professionally led to confessions in radio interviews about driving a Lamborghini at age 17. The National Basketball League (NBL) in Australia became an advocate for American players like Ball seeking to skip their “one and done” year in college and begin playing professionally immediately.


The U.S. took notice of the opportunity these players were being presented internationally and decided to pounce. In 2017, Darius Bazley was a McDonalds All American and committed to play college basketball at Syracuse. But Bazley had a change of plans, decommitting from Syracuse and taking his talents to the board room. The popular Boston-based shoe company, New Balance, offered Bazley a one-year internship that paid him $1 million as he prepared for the following year’s NBA draft. Bazley worked with New Balance’s marketing teams as he trained and was eventually drafted #23 overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2019.[2]


The NBA also decided to throw their hat in the ring. Although their 19-year-old age requirement still exists, the league still found a way to profit on the youth movement.


The NBA developmental league (referred to as the G-League) historically was a place for players who failed to make NBA rosters to showcase their skills. The NBA recently developed the “professional path program” designed for recent high school graduates to enter the G-League for one year before the NBA draft. Players still can’t enter the NBA directly out of high school, but they can opt to play in the G-League for one year before making the leap.[3]


The 2020 #1 player in the country, Jalen Green, signed a deal for $500,000 to play for the G-League Ignite, a team created solely for the purpose of developing teenagers. Greene, alongside his Ignite teammate Johnathan Kuminga who was also directly out of high school, were drafted #2 and #7 respectively in the 2021 NBA draft.


The popular social media brand Overtime obtains 1.6 billion views on their various social media platforms every month. The brand recently created Overtime Elite; a basketball league designed for high schoolers with NBA aspirations. The league is backed by investors such as Jeff Bezos and Alexis Ohanian, and NBA players Trae Young, Kevin Durant, and Carmelo Anthony. Overtime Elite allows players to sign 6-figure deals as they leave traditional high school, skip college, and work on their game full-time as they prepare for the NBA. This year Overtime Elite provided an opportunity for 16-year-old Jalen Lewis to become the youngest professional basketball player in U.S. history.[4]

With the digital meteoric rise of social media, youth basketball has developed into global entertainment. Players are becoming online celebrities before they obtain a driver’s license. Mikey Williams is 17 years old and the #11 ranked player in the 2023 class. But what’s even more impressive about Williams is that he currently has 3.4 million instagram followers. To place that in perspective, Jaylen Brown is an all-star for the Boston Celtics and one of the best basketball players on the planet. Brown has 1.9 million followers. Williams has a bigger social media presence than most players in the NBA. Thanks to the recent NIL rules, Williams recently became the first high school athlete to sign an endorsement deal with Puma.[5]


High school and AAU games routinely moonlight as quasi-Hollywood gatherings featuring A-Listers such as Drake, Kanye West, and Michael B. Jordan sitting courtside.


While Drake has rapped about the prominent Los Angeles high school Sierra Canyon in his latest album, Kanye West took it a step further. The 21-time Grammy award winning rapper opened Donda Acadmey, a high school in Simi Valley outside of Los Angeles. Within the first year, Donda Academy was able to lure several high-profile players from surrounding schools to join team Donda.[6]


The NCAA observed this momentum and could no longer bury their heads in the sand. This year the NCAA adopted NIL rules that allow athletes to profit off their image by signing endorsement deals with third parties. Finally, college athletes will be eligible to receive a form of payment. But is it too late?


International basketball, the G-League, and Overtime Elite are all proving that teenagers can get paid for playing basketball without sacrificing their chances of making it to the NBA. It remains unclear how many 16-year-olds would prefer to wear a Duke uniform over playing professionally in a league cosigned by their NBA idols or favorite rappers.


The next NBA collective bargaining negotiations are set to take place in either 2023 or 2024, and the 19-year-old age limit may be on the chopping block. But regardless of what transpires during these negotiations, one thing is for certain – youth basketball is no longer just for amateurs.


Matt Netti is a 2021 graduate from Northeastern University School of Law. He currently works as an attorney fellow at the Office of the General Counsel for Northeastern University. You can follow him on twitter and Instagram @MattNettiMN and find him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/matthew-netti-ba5787a3/.


[1] Haywood v. National Basketball Association, 401 U.S. 1204 (1971); William C. Rhoden, Early Entry? One and Done? Thank Spencer Haywood for the Privilege., New York Times (June 29, 2016) https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/30/sports/basketball/spencer-haywood-rule-nba-draft-underclassmen.html. [2] Nick Crain, OKC Thunder’s Darius Bazley Opens Up About New Balance Internship And Path To NBA In New Documentary, Forbes (last visited Dec. 2, 2021) https://www.forbes.com/sites/nicholascrain/2020/11/16/okc-thunders-darius-bazley-opens-up-about-new-balance-internship-and-unprecedented-path-to-the-nba-in-upcoming-documentary/?sh=21ed749e2d65. [3] Jabari Young, A top high school basketball player could net up to $1 million by skipping college and playing for the NBA’s G League, CNBC (Apr. 17, 2020) https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/17/nba-developmental-program-changing-recruitment-landscape.html. [4] Bruce Schoenfeld, The Teenagers Getting Six Figures to Leave Their High Schools for Basketball, NY Times (Nov. 30, 2021) https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/30/magazine/overtime-elite-basketball-nba.html. [5] Nick DePaula, Mikey Williams, 17, signs historic footwear and apparel deal with Puma, ESPN (Oct. 29, 2021) https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/32500553/mikey-williams-17-signs-historic-footwear-apparel-deal-puma. [6] Grant Rindner, Kanye West Welcomes Four Top Basketball Recruits to Donda Academy, GQ (Oct. 7, 2021) https://www.gq.com/story/kanye-west-donda-academy-top-basketball-recruits.