The No. 1 player in the Class of 2020 won't be attending Duke, Kentucky or any other college for that matter.
Instead, Jalen Green finished his April 16 Instagram Live announcement bearing the logo of the NBA G League, where he’ll spend a year with a recently organized Select Team training with professional coaches, competing against other G League and foreign national teams and collecting a $500,000 paycheck.
Later that day, fellow five-star recruit and former Michigan commit Isaiah Todd announced he’ll be joining Green on the Select Team as well.
Green and Todd’s decisions shook the sports world, with analysts and fans alike immediately questioning whether this new avenue for top high school talent would be the beginning of the end for college basketball. Two weeks later, the NCAA responded to this newfound threat by announcing it was moving toward allowing its athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness (NIL) starting in the 2020-21 school year.
These recent events are anything but surprising to Mike Krzyzewski. The legendary Duke head coach spent a multitude of press conferences this past year sharing his thoughts on the future of the sport that has treated him so well over the last four decades, including his first extract before the college season even began.
“I think it’s good for the player and his family to have decisions and not be put in a situation where they have to do one thing,” Krzyzewski said during the ACC’s preseason media day Oct. 8. “As a collegiate community, if we think that the NBA is just going to stand still…. We’re not good game-planners for the future. We’re very much reactionary. We’re reactionary to [the California “Fair Pay to Play” bill]. We don’t set the pace, and we need to learn how to do that.
“We need to try to catch up and then look into the future and work with partners in the game in figuring this thing out. We feel like we’re an isolationist country or something, that it’s never going to affect us.”
Identifying the problem
If there’s one word that defined college basketball this past season, it's unpredictable. Seven different teams ended up ranked atop the AP poll, tying a record set in the 1982-83 campaign.
Some people may enjoy that unpredictability, and others may not. But according to Krzyzewski, it’s being caused by problems that aren’t going away anytime soon.
“There’s so much attrition,” Krzyzewski said following Duke’s win against Georgia Tech Jan. 8. “It’s not just the guys after one or two years going pro. You probably have 70 to 80 kids who tested the waters who were not drafted who didn’t return for college basketball. You can’t take that type of a hit, along with the guys that normally go. And we haven’t kept up to date yet.”
Surefire one-and-dones have dominated the college basketball landscape ever since the one-and-done rule was implemented in 2006. But even beyond the one-and-dones, an increasing number of players are leaving school with eligibility remaining, even if they’re about to go undrafted.
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College basketball is quickly becoming younger and more inexperienced than ever before. Combine that with the fact that the sport is starting to lose its best crop of young talent to alternatives such as the G League and the future looks even grimmer.
Of course, the Big Ten did thrive this past season with upperclassmen such as Luka Garza and Cassius Winston leading the way. But then there was the ACC, which struggled immensely after not returning a single member of the top two All-ACC teams for the first time in conference history. And if current trends continue, more and more conferences will become similar to this year’s iteration of the ACC rather than the Big Ten.
“You know, when you lose the reins and your horse—that’s kind of how we are. It’s just going now, it’s just going,” Krzyzewski said. “But it’s such a great game, it can handle that for a while. But it’s going to need some help. I’m telling you it’s going to need some help.”
‘We’re asking bureaucrats to see’
It’s clear that there are serious issues college basketball needs to address. But perhaps the bigger issue is the sport’s lack of urgency in addressing them.
“Do you see anything coming out from the NCAA saying what our future is? Or what our plan [is]?” Krzyzewski said after Duke’s win against Boston College Feb. 4. “And by the way, who would say that?.... For 30 years [I’ve wanted a college basketball commissioner]. NCAA football, they run it big time. We don’t do it, and it’s sad.”
The recent NIL decision is a step in the right direction. But as Krzyzewski alluded to in the preseason, it was a reactionary step rather than a progressive one.
Perhaps if competitors such as the NBA weren't so actively engaged in the changes affecting basketball, the NCAA could keep trudging along with policies that are seemingly decades late. But that simply isn’t the case. Led by Duke alumnus Adam Silver, the NBA knows exactly what it’s doing. And it’s coming for college basketball’s life.
“As soon as they said high school kids could go sometime soon, we as a college community don’t think of what that means. The NBA does,” Krzyzewski said. “The NBA has ramped up the G League, unionized, you see things on TV. How many high school games do you see now on TV?
“I see in the future a high school mega-league that has a TV contract. Can that happen? You bet your butt it can happen. Especially if those kids aren’t going to go to college, the NBA is going to want to promote those guys.”
Even as powerful as Krzyzewski is in the college basketball world, he isn’t the one making these kinds of decisions. When it comes down to it, he’s just a coach speaking his mind, and it’s up to the NCAA to listen.
“It’s so complicated, that’s why it’s tough for me to see. And I’m an entrepreneur. I’m not a bureaucrat,” Krzyzewski said following Duke’s blowout of Notre Dame Feb. 15. “So we’re asking bureaucrats to see. You know how difficult that is? And so it really doesn’t make any difference what I see…. I’ve said this for a long time, so really no one cares what I’m saying.”
‘A traditions niche’
College basketball does, however, have one advantage over its professional counterparts: tradition.
It’s what has defined all college sports no matter the pro leagues that have formed along the way, and it’s likely what will carry college basketball into its cloudy future.
“I love the game. There is a spot in this world for Duke against North Carolina, Michigan against Ohio State, where it’s not a player,” Krzyzewski said after the Notre Dame game. “The NBA has promoted stars, and when the guys have left early, ESPN and everyone has promoted stars in college and used the same marketing thing.
“Whoever would be in charge needs to make sure that we always do traditional, where these kids are part of it. That’s the beauty and that’s the niche we have. We don’t have a players niche; we have a traditions niche. That needs to be celebrated.”
North Carolina head coach Roy Williams seems to agree.
“There’s going to be a game twice a year where one team has on a Duke uniform and the other team has on a North Carolina uniform, and they’re still going to play,” Williams said on the Dan Patrick Show April 30 in response to the G League threat. “And it’s going to be that way next year and 10 years and 20 years from now.”
And in terms of competition, Krzyzewski doesn’t necessarily see the NBA or the G League as rivals. Rather, he believes these separate entities can and should work together to promote the niches of each and every part of the game.
“We should look at the NBA and high school and G League and all that as our partners,” Krzyzewski said. “And I still say, when one of these kids is 15 and we recognize that they’re good, they have a journey of about 20 years. Whoever benefits from that journey should get together so that each part of the journey is coordinated the right way…. In other words, take care of the game, and you take care of the game by taking care of the kids, who become men, who become stars along the way.”