Bradley’s Buzz: How NIL breathed new life into college hoops

College basketball never quite went away, but it was no longer the college basketball of our – well, some of our – youth. The NCAA Tournament remained a must-watch, but the months leading to March became skippable.

The football season ran longer and longer, eclipsing all else. Only in late February would we pivot toward hoops, and that pivot brought an inevitable question: “Who are these guys?”

College basketball got huge because we knew the players. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played 88 collegiate games, Bill Walton 87, David Thompson 86. (And that was before freshmen were eligible.) Some stars began to leave early – Magic Johnson jumped after one year, Isiah Thomas after two – but Ralph Sampson and Patrick Ewing spent four seasons in college. Those were the days.

And then they weren’t. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard bypassed higher education. Deeming it unseemly to pay millions to teenagers, the NBA decreed in 2005 that a player had to be one year removed from high school to be draft-eligible. By the second decade of the 21st Century, the best college players were one-and-done.

Kentucky won the 2012 title with three freshman starters who never became sophomores. Duke did the same in 2015. Kyrie Irving played 11 college games, Ben Simmons and Zion Williamson 33 apiece, Anthony Edwards 32. Each was an overall No. 1 pick.

But look now. Zach Edey of No. 3 Purdue has worked 126 college games. Armando Bacot of No. 10 North Carolina is on his fifth collegiate season, having logged 158 games. Of the 15 players named AP All-Americans in 2023, only Alabama’s Brandon Miller was a freshman.

Of the first 11 players drafted in June 2018, nine were freshmen. Of the first seven draftees last summer, only two played college ball. Scoot Henderson, taken No. 3, opted for the G League Ignite, an entity created by the NBA as an option for those who preferred a gap-year salary to spending seven months on a college campus.

At the NBA All-Star convocation last weekend, commissioner Adam Silver conceded the Ignite might have become irrelevant. He said: “All of those same opportunities have become available to (college players).”

The availability of such opportunities is spelled N-I-L, which came into being on July 1, 2021. In March 2022, Kentucky junior Oscar Tshiebwe was named the national player of the year. He opted to stay in college. His NIL value was estimated at $2 million. A year later, Edey won the same award and made the same choice.

NIL money has changed all of college sports, but its greatest impact – Georgia quarterback Carson Beck’s deal with Lamborghini notwithstanding – hasn’t been on football. The NFL doesn’t do one-and-done. It does three-and-done, which isn’t nearly the same.

The 21st Century hadn’t been kind to college hoops. March Madness was still a destination event, but even that wasn’t quite the same. The Magic-Larry Bird final of 1979 drew a TV rating of 24.1. The Villanova-Michigan final of 2018 did 9.2, the Baylor-Gonzaga title tilt of 2021 a 9.4.

The NBA became a colossus by marketing stars, Magic and Bird being the first in line. In the time of one-and-done, college stars exited as soon as we learned their names. Why were the sport’s most famous faces always coaches? Because we recognized them. Why was Coach K the star of every March commercial? Because he, unlike his players in those days, could bank endorsement money.

That has changed. It was possible to watch a college game this December and recognize someone. (Bacot, still of UNC, is four months older than Williamson, a pro since 2019.) A freshman assured of being a lottery pick will still be a one-and-done, but a junior with iffier draft prospects – examples: Edey and Tschiebwe – might chose to dwell in the realm of NIL a while longer.

That’s good for them. It’s better for their sport. College rosters remain fluid – there’s a transfer portal; maybe you’ve heard – but more college players are staying in college. As much as we on the periphery gripe about NIL money being the root of all evil, the people who play the game see it as an answered prayer.

We end with a what-if. Georgia Tech won the 2021 ACC tournament. Because of COVID, seniors Moses Wright and Jose Alvarado – the league’s MVP and most outstanding defender, respectively – could have played another college season. Both went pro. Neither was drafted. Alvarado found a home with the NBA Pelicans. Wright is playing in Greece.

In the summer of 2021, nobody knew how, or if, NIL would work. Had Wright and/or Alvarado believed there was a monetary reason to stay, Josh Pastner would still be coaching there.

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