In the last couple of days, top recruits Isaiah Todd and Jalen Green both decided to skip college basketball.
It’s obviously not ideal for the NCAA but we think the reaction has been a bit too strong.
First, there’s no guarantee that either player will be a major factor in the NBA. You could spend all day naming the sure bets who, for one reason or another, didn't make it in the NBA.
Second, we think Zion Williamson made a tremendous case for the value of college basketball last season. His exposure at Duke made him tens of millions of dollars. He’s somewhat of a unique case because he became an Instagram celebrity but remember people doubted him before he got to Duke (that includes us but in our defense we figured it out after one game in Canada).
It’s true in general though. Cassius Stanley is not Zion Williamson but he proved his mettle at Duke and developed a national reputation.
Green is in a different situation.
He could totally kill it in the G-League but no one is going to choose to watch the G-League over the NBA. Until (and unless) he moves up he’s going to be in the minors. If he scores 50 points a game, it’s still in the minors. People are going to skip past it and go to the NBA highlights.
There’s another difference between college and professional basketball that shouldn't be overlooked.
Consider the Rochester Royals.
Well, there used to be an NBA team in Rochester. Then they moved to Cincinnati. Then they were the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, then the Kansas City Kings. Now they’re the Sacramento Kings.
In a few years they could be the Seattle Kings, then maybe then the Honolulu Kings and one day maybe the Yokohama Kings.
Do you think anybody in Rochester cares?
Colleges don't move very often. Places like Duke or Butler or UTEP aren't going anywhere. Between the alums and the local fan bases, in many ways college sports have much better and more loyal fan bases than NBA teams do.
And also consider this: college basketball is a spectacular sport but as Mike Krzyzewski keeps pointing out, it’s not managed very well.
In other words, there’s a lot of room for improvement, and nothing leads to that like competition.
Finally, there’s this. There are hundreds if not thousands of really good high school players who are not going to make the NBA but who fans will be happy to cheer for in college. There are only a relative handful of professional jobs.
Clearly college basketball has competition now and clearly it will have to find ways to fight back. It would be a good time to listen to Coach K’s long, lonesome call for someone to be in charge of the game.
That said, college has some advantages that professional basketball can’t compete with and an enormous pool of talent to draw on that will never be employed professionally. And while guys like Zion Williamson and LeBron James stand apart, for the most part, there is a razor thin margin between being an NBA player and being just short of that.
If - and it’s a big if - college basketball is smart, it’ll emphasize its strengths and find new ways to compete and innovate. One thing that would probably be smart would be to bring in some world-class entrepreneurs and ask them what they would do. We’re pretty sure if you got Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Cuban in a room for a few hours they’d come back with some pretty different ideas than what the NCAA is used to considering.
Some of theme would even be worth pursuing.