The end of the Coach K era comes next April, but a new era of Duke men's basketball has already begun.
The NIL era started when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against the NCAA in an antitrust case June 21. The court ruled that the NCAA could not restrict education-related benefits to student-athletes. In fear of another lawsuit with harsher consequences and the growing appeal of competitors like the NBA’s G League, the NCAA passed a temporary rule allowing players to profit off of their name, image, and likeness (NIL) June 30.
The move triggered an avalanche of corporate partnerships with college athletes. Duke men’s basketball houses some of the most monetizable assets in the country, and players have been quick to jump aboard the prosperity-bound NIL train.
“NIL didn’t happen when I committed,” said freshman forward AJ Griffin, who committed to Duke back in 2019. “I know the effect it has on players now is huge.”
Look under your chairs...
It seems like every Blue Devil wants a piece of the NIL pie. Griffin signed with CAA Basketball, the sports agency that represents Zion Williamson. So did superstar Blue Devil freshman forward Paolo Banchero. Banchero was ranked the No. 4 prospect in the nation last year by ESPN and No. 2 by 247 Sports.
For Banchero, a player many believe will be drafted first overall in the 2022 NBA Draft, NIL profits seem like easy pickings. In September, Banchero became the first college basketball player to appear in the NBA 2K series.
“[2K Sports] had reached out to my dad,” Banchero said. “My dad asked me if I wanted to do it, and I was like, ‘Of course.’ No hesitation.”
The video game series is known worldwide and sells about four million copies each year. Despite Banchero’s in-game presence, Griffin asserts that he is the best NBA 2K player on the team.
“It’s me. Sorry, I’ve got to,” Griffin said. “I lost a few, but I also won like 10 in a row. Second-best is between Jaylen [Blakes] or Paolo [Banchero].”
Banchero then signed a multi-year trading card deal with Panini America later in September. He became the first college basketball player to sign such a deal with Panini.
It’s not just the headliners like Banchero who are jumping in on the NIL action. Junior forward Wendell Moore Jr. and senior guard Joey Baker, both captains and North Carolina natives, signed deals with beloved fried chicken chain restaurant Bojangles.
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
“I grew up eating Bojangles all my life, so I was happy to take that when they approached me,” Baker said.
It seems like a prudent decision on their part in the era of the fried chicken sandwich. However, the financial details of the endorsements are murky. When Baker was asked whether he receives free chicken sandwiches from Bojangles, he laughed and replied, “Nah.”
It does seem that they received a tender other than the chicken variety, though.
“Obviously it came with some compensation,” Moore said of his deal. “It also came with some company gift cards and stuff like that. So I guess I got free money to go to Bojangles.”
Moore announced in July that he had made a profile on Cameo, a website that allows celebrities to send personalized video messages to their fans—for a price.
Four other Blue Devils also signed up for Cameo. A personalized message from either freshman guard Trevor Keels, sophomore guard Jeremy Roach or graduate transfer Theo John costs $40. You’ll have to cough up $45 for a video from Moore and $50 for one from sophomore center Mark Williams, though.
“I love interacting with people,” Keels said. “Cameo was an opportunity I took full advantage of. I love doing them, interacting with fans is great. I wish I had that when I was younger.”
Those five players organized a special Duke men's basketball Cameo event Oct. 28. A two-minute video call with one of the players costs a hefty $25. This means that each player made a whopping $282 in just half an hour, while Cameo took the rest.
That’s nearly 80 times the minimum wage in North Carolina. Not bad.
A deal with the Devils
But do Cameo appearances and NIL deals mean it is worth forgoing the G League? The answer doesn’t seem clear for the top-tier talent that Duke attracts. Players like Banchero probably earn tens of thousands of dollars with their NIL deals—maybe even hundreds of thousands. Combined with free tuition, room and board (about $80,000 in value per year), playing at Duke leads to a hefty chunk of rewards.
The G League is certainly not as endorsement-friendly as Duke men's basketball. Top 2020 recruit Jalen Green only signed his seven-figure deal with Adidas after completing a season in the league and was projected as a top-three pick.
However, scholarship awards and NIL deals don’t seem to keep pace with G League salaries. Green made $500,000 in his lone season in the G League. It didn’t affect his draft status, as the Rockets took him with the second overall pick. Green will earn more than $9 million in his rookie year.
Plus, the market value of an endorsement deal with a Duke player is suppressed because the Blue Devils cannot display any Duke logos in advertisements unless approved by the University, per Duke’s NIL policy. In Moore’s and Baker’s advertisements for Bojangles, neither wore or displayed Duke logos anywhere.
But for solid players without the star quality of Banchero, like Moore and Baker, picking Duke may have actually been the better option. G League salaries for players who aren’t the crown jewels of their recruiting classes are almost laughable—the base salary is $37,000 this season. The NIL deals combined with the Duke lifestyle and focus on player development may lead to better outcomes for the many players who aren’t college superstars.
The nitty-gritty of NIL
We still don’t know much about the future of NIL. In many ways, this year is an experiment of sorts to see what effect the NIL policy has on the players, Duke and college sports in general. The NCAA’s decision to suspend the NIL restrictions was just a temporary one, and the pendulum may swing back the other way if things go south this year.
One area of NIL policy that is producing controversy is group licensing. This is where athletes pool their NIL rights and license them collectively as a group. For instance, a company may want to have Moore, Roach and Banchero all endorse their product and would simply negotiate with all the players as a sort of union.
Duke’s Tobacco Road rival North Carolina instituted a group licensing policy back in July. The university partnered with The Brandr Group, a licensing agency, to create licenses using North Carolina logos and player images. Duke has not released a group licensing policy yet.
This is perhaps because group licensing is a dangerous tool. The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a nonprofit group that emphasizes the education of college athletes, wrote in an FAQ post, “The concern is that group licenses will become a new tool for recruiting college athletes and will morph into a form of pay for play.”
Former Duke athletic director Kevin White expressed concern with the prospect of the NCAA allowing players to profit off NIL back in June 2020. Among his many worries with the policy, he feared that Olympic sports and female athletes would receive unfair treatment. White retired in September, leaving current athletic director Nina King under the microscope.
Only time will tell whether the NIL policy spells disaster for the Duke men's basketball program and head coach Mike Krzyzewski's legacy. King and incoming head coach Jon Scheyer, who have publicly supported the policy, will have to face the consequences together. Maybe money will tear the locker room apart like some commentators have suggested.
But perhaps North Carolina players will sign a deal with Popeyes, giving each school a fried chicken identity and injecting some Cajun spice into the old rivalry. We’ll have to cross our fingers, lick our chops and hope for the latter.
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.