Sports Nut

The Great Basketball Exodus

What would happen if America’s best high-school hoopsters went to Europe? A Slate thought experiment.

Brandon Jennings (in No. 3 jersey)

Brandon Jennings, hoops experts say, was the most talented high-school basketball player in the country last year. Don’t expect to see Jennings in the NCAA Tournament next March, though. On Tuesday, the player’s lawyer announced that he’ll prepare for the NBA by playing in Europe next year.

If Jennings sticks with his decision and makes his way to the top of the 2009 NBA draft, other high-school stars may follow his lead. The father of one of the most heralded players in the high-school class of 2009, Lance Stephenson, told the New York Times that the family was aware of Jennings’ decision: “We’re looking at it and we’re interested just like anyone else.” Let’s conduct a thought experiment: If America’s best prep players all decided to play abroad, what would happen to the global basketball ecosystem?

Let’s start at the bottom of the basketball food chain. For all the talk of multimillion-dollar contracts, the initial reason Brandon Jennings considered going overseas was far more mundane: his SAT scores. For elite players, grades and test scores have long been the highest barrier to entry for major college basketball. Prospects who can’t qualify academically have traditionally had two options to get eligible: taking a postgraduate year at a prep school or enrolling in a junior college. If Europe becomes a viable option for the teenage basketball star, basketball factories like Hargrave Military Academy will lose their allure and, in turn, lose enrollment and revenue.

High school itself could also become less important for basketball prodigies. In terms of its importance to the recruiting process, the varsity squad has been eclipsed by AAU ball. With an attractive alternative to college, why bother paying attention in 10th-grade math when neither your travel team coach nor your European suitors care about your GPA? As high school becomes irrelevant, elite players will increasingly leave traditional schools for places like the IMG Basketball Academy, a sports-focused training center similar to those that are already commonplace in sports like tennis and soccer. The best players will benefit from this rigorous training, improving their games and their economic prospects. A far greater number of teenagers will overestimate their talent, imagine a route to the pros that doesn’t involve school, and end up without many prospects for employment—in basketball or otherwise.

Along with putting a hurt on high schools, a shift to Europe might also be the death blow for the NBA’s minor-league system. The NBA hoped that its Development League would draw in big-time talent for a pit stop between high school and the big leagues. That hasn’t panned out, probably because there’s little allure in playing for $20,000 a year in Sioux Falls, S.D., or Bakersfield, Calif. By offering a direct pipeline to the NBA, though, the D-League has kept many former college stars stateside who probably would’ve made more money by going overseas.

That calculus will change if a bunch of high-school stars ditch the NCAA for Europe. Every NBA front office already follows the European leagues, but an influx of young American talent would greatly increase the attention paid to teams like Olympiacos and Montepaschi Siena. With more scouts in the stands to watch the likes of Brandon Jennings, veteran players—whether they’re European or American by birth—would get more chances to impress NBA reps. Secure in the knowledge that they wouldn’t be sacrificing their NBA dreams, second-tier prospects would be more likely to jump at the chance to goose their earnings across the Atlantic.

While the D-League would certainly feel the pinch, the NCAA would seemingly have the most to lose from this scenario. Since the NBA imposed a minimum-age requirement two years ago, the college game has benefited from an influx of one-and-done star players like Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, and Derrick Rose. Indeed, imagine how much less attention NCAA hoops would’ve received if Durant and Beasley pounded the boards in the A1 Ethniki instead of in the Big 12.

A mass exodus to Europe would return college basketball to the days when America’s best amateur talent—Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James—never set foot on a college campus. While the quality of its stars would decrease, the NCAA itself might not suffer—ratings for the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament actually went down after the NBA’s age-minimum rule went into place. The nature of college basketball, where recognizable players rarely stick around for more than a couple of years, has ensured that fans root for schools rather than individuals. A shift that draws away less-scholarly hoopsters would also burnish the NCAA’s tenuous case that it’s an academic institution rather than a big business. It might also prevent the embarrassment of the next O.J. Mayo scandal, in which a famed student-athlete is accused of taking money from agents.

The worst-case scenario for the NCAA would be if the Euroleague becomes competition for viewers and fans—perhaps reducing the value of its multibillion-dollar television deal with CBS. During LeBron James’ senior year in high school, ESPN regularly televised his games. If enough talented, recognizable American players head to Europe, some stateside broadcaster will certainly bid for the TV rights. It’s hard to imagine, though, that Euroball would put a dent in ratings for March Madness, especially if Lance Stephenson, Brandon Jennings, et al., play for the likes of FC Barcelona for only a single season.

What about the effect on the players themselves? Brandon Jennings could fail miserably. He will be competing against much older players in a different style of play, he is small for a European point guard, and he’ll have to adjust to living and working in a foreign country. Skeptics also point out that European teams, while always on the lookout for new talent, won’t roll out the red carpet for flashy American youngsters: Coaches might not give him much playing time, opponents could try to show him up, and teammates will resent him. (And in a wrinkle peculiar to the European landscape, team management might not pay him on time.)

On the plus side, Jennings will get professional coaching and the benefit of practicing every day with experienced teammates. Opting out of college also confers financial benefits: Not only will he immediately earn a good wage for playing hoops, he’ll also cash in with big-time sneaker money.

It’s no coincidence that the person who floated the idea of a prep star going to Europe was Sonny Vaccaro—a man who worked for Nike, Adidas, and Reebok before deciding to take on the NCAA. The shoe companies jump at any chance to ingratiate themselves with young prospects, even those who are years away from turning professional. It should come as no surprise that Reebok and Nike have already expressed interest in Jennings. Even if high-school stars pull mere six-figure salaries in Europe, going abroad provides the chance to earn an endorsement deal a year earlier—along with getting access to all the connections and leverage the shoe companies bring.

And finally, what about the NBA itself? In the league’s worst nightmares, the allure of a jet-setting life abroad and the strong euro will convince high-schoolers to stay in Europe for good. As soon as the Euroleague becomes a viable rival to the NBA, foreign stars like Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol will decide to play closer to home. (Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban described a similar scenario two years ago.) Consider, though, that NBA Commissioner David Stern has signaled his intention to expand the NBA into Europe. An exodus of high-school talent to Europe could make it even easier for the commissioner to make his move. If Brandon Jennings’ gamble is a success, he will return to the United States next year—but it may not be his last time playing on the other side of the Atlantic.

Now it’s your turn: What do you think would happen if Europe replaced college basketball as the destination for top-flight American talent? Would the NCAA and NBA be ruined, or would the high-school pioneers come back home as failures?

Post your ideas, considered or far-fetched, to the Sports Nut “Fray.” I’ll wade into “The Fray” myself to discuss the ideas, and the best posts may be compiled in a future column.