The Myth of The NBA D-League As An Alternative To The NCAA

Updated: April 28, 2017

With the NCAA Championship game recently wrapping up as a foul-plagued, missed-call filled nightmare for many fans watching at home, the calls for a brighter alternative to the organization and their oft-maligned ways have become even louder.

These conversations in regards to what top high school prospects could do instead of heading directly to Division 1 colleges inevitably leads many down a path to suggesting the NBA D-League as an attractive alternative, but as the league stands that is simply not the case.

In an interview in 2014 with ESPN’s Tim McMahon, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban derided the practices of the NCAA while propping up the D-League as an attractive option for players looking solely to make a living out of basketball.

“The NCAA rules are so hypocritical, there’s absolutely no reason for a kid to go [to college], because he’s not going to class [and] he’s actually not even able to take advantage of all the fun because the first semester he starts playing basketball. So if the goal is just to graduate to the NBA or be an NBA player, go to the D-League.”

Cuban went even further in his criticism of the college organization in saying, “Then you wouldn’t be under the stupidity of the NCAA,” Cuban said. “There’s no reason for the NCAA to exist. None.”

Cuban’s long-standing status as a proponent of unpaid internships may make his argument hypocritical, but the NCAA is certainly deserving of any criticism hurled in its direction. While that may be the case, the NBA D-League is by no means a city on a hill.

During the recent Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) talks, rumors swirled about the NBA potentially raising the paltry salaries that D-League players are currently earning.

Despite the massive influx in revenue pumped into the NBA through the new television contracts, D-League players are subjected to earning either $19,500 or $25,000 each year, a payment level that many of the players throughout the league have had a tough time living with.

Andrew Goudelock, a former Los Angeles Lakers draft pick and D-League standout throughout the 2012-2013 season with the Sioux Falls Skyforce and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, shared his D-League story with ESPN’s Arash Markazi in 2013.

“I was so broke I had to borrow money, I’ve had the same girlfriend since college, and I had to call her to give me money and she’s still in college, but I didn’t have any other choice. I didn’t want to call my parents. I’m too old for that. Some days I couldn’t even eat, and she sent me money. It’s definitely an experience I’m going to tell my kids about.”

Current Santa Cruz Warriors guard Cameron Jones shared many of the same thoughts with Jacob Pierce of Good Times Santa Cruz magazine.

“Shooting guard Cameron Jones, who had spent a couple years playing overseas, said that although he was happy to be back in Santa Cruz, it was difficult talking himself into what he knew would be smaller paychecks than the ones he cashed when in Russia, Greece and Israel. ‘The D-League has so much potential. The players are good, but the travel and the pay—the NBA can do better.”

The actual salary is only one part of the benefits package that D-League players receive though, Santa Cruz Warriors president Chris Murphy to Pierce.

“Chris Murphy, president of the Santa Cruz Warriors, says that although it is true these players aren’t going to get rich while in the D-League, money doesn’t tell the whole story. The Santa Cruz Warriors, he notes, have free lodging at a hotel on Beach Street, across the road from the ocean. They get fed after games and are given a few free meals a week through partnerships with local restaurants, not to mention health insurance.”

A base-level analysis would conclude that yes, a salary of $19,500 is higher than the $0 that college athletes earn in a given year, but that negates the value of other factors that go into the collegiate experience.

Cuban may have stated that there is no reason for an athlete to go to college, but the earning potential that is related with a college degree of any sort negates that idea.

With much of the NCAA/D-League conversation revolving around one-and-done players who attend one year of college and then head to the NBA, the focus can drop to associate’s degrees rather than the Bachelor’s degrees that athletes in each of the other major sports may strive towards.

In just one year, one-and-done athletes could earn half of the credits (for free) necessary to achieve their associate’s degree and would be able to return to school to finish the additional year either once their playing career came to a close, or during their offseason as many NBA players have found time to do.

According to the Census Bureau, high school graduates earn an average of $1.2 million over the course of an adult’s working life. In comparison, associate’s degree holders earn about $1.6 million.

With the costs of education paid for, the value of a degree increases even further. Many will doubt the willingness of players to return to school once their careers have ended, but a program set in place by Major League Baseball operates to the contrary.

In a story by Jonathan Abrams in the New York Times, it was noted that nearly 70% of players over a thirty-seven year span returned to college to finish their degrees.

“Major League Baseball established the Professional Baseball Scholarship Plan in the early 1960s to provide benefits and reimbursement to players, many of whom are drafted out of high school or by their junior year in college. From 1962 to 1999, 69.2 percent of baseball players returned to the classroom, said Pat Courtney, a spokesman for Major League Baseball.”

In the same story, Debbie Rothstein Murman, an employee with the NBA Player’s Union, noted that there has been an increase in players that have made it back to the classroom.

“The N.B.A. union began tracking the classroom migration this year. Debbie Rothstein Murman, the director for career development for the union, said the number was much higher than in the past, although she does not have earlier numbers. For elite athletes, who command seven-figure salaries, returning to college is an investment and a hedge against what can be an uncertain future.”

Beyond the inherent financial advantages that college education offers, there are intangible benefits. In a 1998 report published by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, college graduates experience a number of different positives.

“Individual benefits that college graduates enjoy, including higher levels of saving, increased personal/professional mobility, improved quality of life for their offspring, better consumer decision making, and more hobbies and leisure activities.”

In an analysis performed by USA Today it was determined that a typical men’s basketball player for a Division 1 program, receives at least $120,000 annually in goods, services and future earnings.

“But more than scholarships, players receive benefits including: elite coaching; academic counseling; strength and conditioning consulting; media relations assistance; medical insurance and treatment; free game tickets; and future earnings power that comes with some college education.”

It continued, “There also are incalculable perks not included in USA TODAY’s $120,000 figure, most notably the regional and national exposure players receive that typical students don’t.”

The exposure that is gained from playing at the top collegiate level is something that simply cannot be replicated by the D-League. In the USA Today report, Matt Balvanz, a director of analytics for Navigate Marketing, explained the benefit of just being on an NCAA roster.

“Men’s basketball players at top-100 programs — from an average member of an eight-man playing rotation to a standout on a high-profile team — can receive exposure value from $150,000 to $630,000 a season. He based those figures on the values that sponsors receive for the impressions their names or logos garner during a televised game and secondary exposure through highlights, etc.”

Being associated with the NBA through the D-League is undeniably a positive, but the exposure doesn’t match with that of the NCAA.

With 26.1 million viewers during the NCAA Championship game of Gonzaga and North Carolina, the NCAA achieved well over one-third of the views that the NBA D-League has accumulated on their YouTube page in its nine years of being active despite the league previously hosting each of their games on through that platform.

Financial earning potential and exposure are only two of the major benefits, but for those looking to take the step to professional basketball development should also be at the forefront of their decisions.

The D-League boasts the ability to jump right into an NBA-lite atmosphere and throughout the staff rosters of teams around the league that seems to be the case.

Out of the 22 teams in the league this year, there are four head coaches with NBA playing experience and six coaches with a background of coaching in the NBA.

While it is a separate league entirely, the NCAA offers much of the same experience. In just the Power-Five (ACC, Big Ten, Big-12, Pac-12 and SEC) conferences, there are seven head coaches with NBA playing experience and six that have NBA coaching experience, including three former NBA head coaches.

The ability to play within an NBA system cannot be understated, but the NCAA are no slouches in terms of player development either.

In all of the areas that the NBA D-League falls short, there are others where they can separate themselves from the NBA. Their player development in many cases can be better than the NCAA and the overall atmosphere of a professional league can help players prepare for what they will face in the NBA.

Robert Hite, who played in parts of two seasons with the Iowa Energy and the Canton Charge, told AXS in an interview that the D-League stands as an adjustment to the real world.

“The biggest adjustment is being on your own in the real world. It’s not like college where there’s a set plan laid out for you and a regimen to follow daily. At the pro level, it’s all about basketball but then you have to learn how to manage your time. You have to keep yourself productive and get better on your own.”

By being able to sell that aspect, the D-League can help set itself apart from the exploitative ways of the NCAA. If the league wants to take a real step, however, they are going to have to make a real investment into player salaries.

The current team salary cap stands at $209,000, a mark that is just over what LeBron James earns each half that he plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers. For the D-League to market itself as a true alternative, an increase in salaries across the board to an even $100,000 would appeal players around the world to the league.

While the number seems like an astronomical jump, the overall impact is not all that heavy in comparison to what NBA owners are paying now. Assuming each team eventually obtains their own D-League affiliate and then expands the rosters to 12 rather than the 10 that the league is at currently, the total cost for salaries in one year would be $36 million.

To put that into context, an entire league could be paid for the same cost of one year of the super-max contracts that Stephen Curry, DeMarcus Cousins and other superstars will be eligible for in upcoming offseasons. For the ability to attract the world’s best talent and potentially best high school players, $36 million seems like a small yearly investment to make, especially considering the $100+ billion combined net worth of the NBA’s owners.

With paltry salaries and limited exposure, the NBA D-League cannot currently market itself to players as a viable alternative. Given the fact that college can offer increased earning potential, increased exposure and expanded life skills, the NCAA will continue to remain the right option for high school athletes around the country.

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