(originally published in December 2016 on Deep(ish) Thoughts, written by yours truly)
Over the last 50 years, as basketball’s domestic and international popularity has soared, the NBA has generated enormous amounts of revenue. Basketball as a sport, and the market for it, extend fairly far beyond the league’s revenue-generating network. However, the NBA’s inherent business model has long presented an interesting dilemma when it comes to its player pipeline. The NCAA identifies with fans based on tradition. International leagues around the world mostly cater to fans in their own localities, just as the NBA started doing before a global marketplace emerged. AAU basketball allows fans to catch glimpses of who’s next on the NCAA scene and eventually the NBA. It’s the NBA, however, that plays the biggest role. First and foremost, the NBA serves up a high level of play, the primary ingredient of which is highly skilled, naturally gifted athletes. Because of the complexity of developing someone into an NBA player, the question becomes: what role should the league hold in nurturing the development of coming generations of NBA players?
Under David Stern, the league often appeared to phrase that question as, “Why should we pay to develop players when someone else will do it for us?” However, Adam Silver has taken a different tact. After launching the Jr. NBA, a program in which teams engage their youth basketball communities, the league has announced its plans to open four NBA Global Academies for 14 to 18-year-olds, three in China and one in Australia. Finally, the league and players’ association plan to increase the minimum D-League salary rates and introduce two-way contracts to the upcoming CBA. In implementing these three changes, the NBA seems to have shifted its view of its involvement in pre-professional basketball and how it develops potential NBA players. Each program targets a different part of the pipeline, from improving the minor league system, to fostering the development of talented foreign teens, starting with creating more positive experiences at the youth level.
An understanding of how the NBA’s Global Academies could help the league, and how its player development programs could expand, starts with examining what factors went into their founding. Some may wonder why the NBA started this program overseas rather than domestically. Setting up an academy in the United States would interfere with, and likely agitate, upstream stakeholders like the NCAA or AAU, who profit handsomely off of shepherding talented young players to the NBA. However, with the basketball governing bodies of China and Australia, the NBA’s priorities are completely aligned. Neither country has a league which competes for the same talent as the NBA, and each has a permanent interest in maximizing its local youth talent. These shared interests allow the NBA to form partnerships with national basketball organizations.
While founding academies in the United States would create some friction with the NCAA or AAU, problems with the country’s youth sports infrastructure could still motivate the NBA to do so eventually. Investment in the Jr. NBA demonstrates the league’s acknowledgment of these shortcomings, though not it’s yet an ideal response. Where the possibility of opening further NBA academics is concerned, the league’s relationship with Basketball Australia is key. The Australian Institute of Sport ranks as one of the best development centers of young athletes in the world. With this partnership, AIS plans to “share [its] knowledge and experience with the NBA.” Perhaps more valuable than any crop of players the NBA may induct from its Australian academy is the expertise that AIS plans to impart.
Remember, AIS produced the like of Ben Simmons, Dante Exum, and Patty Mills before the NBA got involved, and would have continued to do so for the sake of Australian Olympic glory. While the cooperation of Basketball Australia was not absolutely necessary for the success of NBA Global Academies, AIS will certainly aid its ability to develop young athletes. The NBA’s relationship with Australia isn’t a one-way street, however, as the academy can grant some Australians a more direct path to the eyes of NBA scouts and teams, rather than subject them to the somewhat wild world that is NCAA recruiting. It should be noted that the NBA Global Academies are open to prospects of any nationality, an American prospect could conceivably end up in its Australian academy. The extent to which that will happen is unknown, and hinges on the existence of nationality quotas at the academies. China, for instance, has one of the most protectionist professional leagues in terms of number of foreign players allowed. It’s possible that the NBA Global Academies will have similar restrictions.
That direct path would run through the D-League, where a reportedly higher salary scale should entice more prospects to sign with its teams. Augmenting D-League appeal is the ever-increasing number of NBA players with D-League experience, which currently stands at 132. As NBA teams become smarter about how they use their D-League affiliates (and they all actually get affiliates), the D-League can become a true minor league. While these improvements make the league more appealing to prospects, it raises the question of how the league will handle unaffiliated players too young to join the NBA. While NBA Draft-eligible players currently can play for any team that signs them, like P.J. Hairston, that arrangement creates an unfair advantage of familiarity for parent clubs come draft day. Should the Global Academies succeed, and upper echelon prospects enter the D-League, this advantage granted to certain parent clubs would likely become more of an issue, creating the need for one or more ‘prospect teams.’ In this scenario, the hope is that increased D-League salaries lure more domestic and international talent, maintaining (and hopefully elevating) the level of competition.
Some outlets have speculated that NBA Academy prospects will play college basketball rather than enter the D-League. Since these academies will realistically produce players of different levels of talent and skill, not a homogeneous crop of super-prospects, we’ll likely see at least a few academy graduates play college basketball. For those less-heralded players, continuing to compete and develop in college or another professional league still represents a success. For highly-touted recruits, the decision to becomes about how each path will impact their draft stock in the near-term. It’s up to the NBA to prove to athletes that going to the D-League provides them the best chance to be drafted highly. The decision of where to spend the gap year in between an academy and the NBA evokes a current draft conundrum: are prospects better off with more or less exposure leading up to draft day? Highly rated players notoriously skip pre-draft combines and workouts, giving them less face time with scouts, but less material for scouts to pick apart. In the case of international players, too little exposure could mean being drafted too late or too soon. The NBA’s Global Academies would do well to advise players individually on their next steps, something that will also reduce a player’s need to consult with agents before they’re officially professionals.
While it’s a given that the quality of prospects at NBA academies will vary a bit, how coaches measure that variance has yet to be revealed. Many top academies around the world use a yearly assessment system to periodically reevaluate a player’s place in its organization. Underpinning these decisions are usually biannual evaluations and progress reports which operate as communication and improvement tools, letting players know areas of strength and weakness as they continue to hone their craft. Conversely, Florida-based IMG Academy admits youth athletes for terms longer than a year, depending on the availability of financial aid. In order to help settle issues like this, the league may want to consider conferring with a company like Double Pass. The Belgian firm has aided the successful establishment of youth academies throughout the soccer world, most notably in the German Bundesliga. With its experience optimizing both professional and national team academies, Double Pass might offer something beyond what AIS provides the NBA. However, the league may be better off working with AIS to find these solutions, keeping the list of involved parties small and uncomplicated.
An additional issue that may need some sorting involves the interplay between the NBA and the NBPA in relation to academy athletes and graduates. This will be of particular importance during the draft process, as teams look to gather intel on prospects’ personalities and work ethics. The most pressing question here involves the amount of privacy protection prospects will have when NBA teams come calling. This ties into the earlier concern about gauging the ideal level of exposure to help a player’s draft stock. While players may prefer to keep certain elements of their academy careers hidden from professional or college teams, they may not have a choice, since they won’t have official representation from the players’ union. At the end of the day, the more information that’s shared between a team and a player, the better a team can assess whether or not that player fits well within the organization. That should be the end goal for any youth academy, to prepare players for their professional and non-professional lives, then find a franchise which suits them.
If the NBA, with guidance from AIS, can find solutions to these potential problems, its Global Academy initiative figures to succeed in that regard. While everyone hopes that these academies yield NBA players, that doesn’t seem to be the ruler by which commissioner Silver will measure their immediate success. Instead, the league’s main goals seem to be producing professional players, acquiring knowledge about player development, and building on its strong momentum overseas. As the sport of basketball continues to grow, NBA Global Academies represent an opportunity to harness and sustain that growth to produce the league’s most precious resource: players.