Last April, 175 college basketball players filed as early entry candidates for the 2019 NBA Draft and 45 of those underclassmen who stayed in the draft went undrafted, according to RealGM. Players like Third-Team All-American Dedric Lawson of Kansas, Boston College’s Second-Team All-ACC guard Ky Bowman and 60 percent of the All-Big Ten Third-Team — Iowa’s Tyler Cook, Michigan State’s Nick Ward and Minnesota’s Amir Coffey.
In other words, really good college players who may or may not be able to have a sustainable professional career on the hardwood — at least maybe not the one they imagined in the NBA.
On Oct. 29, the NCAA announced in a press release — one that had a lot more bark than bite — that its Board of Governors unanimously voted to “permit students participating in athletics the opportunity to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness.” It was ultimately window dressing.
The announcement comes in light of the signing of California Senate Bill 206, otherwise known as the Fair Pay to Play Act, the authors of which wrote, “SB 206 also relieves the pressures to turn pro before graduating by allowing students to provide for themselves financially without facing loss of their athletic scholarship.”
One of the biggest tangible differences in a future version of college athletics, one that likely allows name, image and likeness compensation for college athletes in the next few years, could be this alleviated financial pressure, which would benefit players like those 45 underclassmen who had college eligibility remaining but elected to stay in the NBA Draft, despite a likely uncertain future about their professional prospects in the NBA.
Conservatively, let’s say 15 of those 45 undrafted players had returned to school this season if they had been able to be compensated by third parties. Maybe an extra $5,000, $10,000 or $25,000 makes a world of a difference for a college athlete and his family’s financial well-being, and who knows, maybe they’d be able to earn much more than that.
If we select players at random, hypothetically, and imagine a 2019-20 college basketball season where Charles Matthews plays for Michigan, Lindell Wigginton returned to Iowa State in hopes of building off of his Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year campaign and Shamorie Ponds is putting up 40 points for St. John’s inside Madison Square Garden this winter, there’s suddenly a little more anticipation for the season, right?
At Big Ten Media Day in October, I had the chance to talk to two current players who would stand to benefit from a world in which the Fair Pay to Play Act, or some similar version, applies nationally.
Michigan State senior point guard Cassius Winston, who was named a First-Team All-American by the AP and Sporting News, has accomplished everything there is to accomplish in college basketball, other than a national championship, which he and the preseason No. 1 Spartans could achieve next April.
He’s been to a Final Four. He and his Michigan State teammates swept the Big Ten regular season and tournament championship titles last season. He was named one of the five best players in the sport.
But many observers have said that the 6-1 point guard has an “old man game,” a phrase which is meant as a compliment but one that you won’t see on many NBA Draft scouting reports.
There’s a good chance Winston’s theoretical earning potential, or at least popularity, peaks during the 2019-20 season.
It’d be nice if he could cash in on the opportunity to profit off of his name, image and likeness.
“I’m with it,” Winston said at Big Ten Media Day about the passing of California Senate Bill 206. “You know what I’m saying. It’s building your brand, it’s building your image, building your likeness — that’s the name of the game.
“You got to do it regardless of if you’re getting paid or not so why not get an extra benefit from it?”
Winston wears a recognizable headband, which is certainly part of his brand.
“I build my image, my name and things like that in a positive way that could benefit me financially in some ways,” he said. “But that wasn’t one of my concerns, one of my problems, but like I said, if I could, why not?”
If Winston felt financial pressure last April, he could’ve chosen to start his professional career, whether that would’ve been towards the end of an NBA bench, in the G League or overseas.
He’s seen many of his peers in college basketball get a head start on their basketball careers, like classmate Nick Ward, and he’s played with NBA lottery picks like Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson.
“There’s a lot of guys who just jump out there,” Winston said. “Whatever it is, you never know somebody’s background, you never know somebody’s story, but if you could come back and still make some money…money doesn’t become a problem that you have to be concerned with.”
Winston said he spends his monthly stipend checks on food, rent, gas and whatever other expenses pop up in the life of a college student. But if he was earning money — real money — its impact could stretch far beyond what he gives to his landlord or what he orders at the drive-thru window.
“If you’re getting money like that, (I) could help my parents out, help my brothers out,” he said. “All types of stuff you can do if you’re actually making some real money.”
Illinois sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu’s situation is a bit different than Winston’s because unlike the Michigan State point guard, Dosunmu could be a top-10 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. But even then, he too could benefit from the ability to earn compensation.
He doesn’t see a downside from the earning potential.
“Why not? I mean, why not? I don’t feel like it hurts anyone,” Dosunmu told Stadium. “I feel like being able to make money off your name, (there’s) nothing wrong with that.”
College basketball benefits from marketable stars who are household names, and legislation that allows players to earn compensation from their name, image and likeness carries the potential to increase the number of marketable stars.
Everyone stands to benefit — players are able to earn compensation, coaches don’t unexpectedly lose as many borderline second-round draft picks, fanbases get to watch some of their teams’ best players compete collegiately for longer and networks can sell more enticing matchups.
“You gotta think about also this. Think about the guys, so many — guys that were great collegiate players — get to the NBA and don’t make no money,” Dosunmu said, “so I feel like passing that law, it would also not rush people to go one-and-done, but it would be so many players that are great in college, make money and it’ll also make the college game better.
“Now all those guys are coming back because they can make money off their name. They’re not needing money, see what I’m saying?
“Now you look at players, they’re not rushing to the NBA no more. That’s rising the college number, the viewers. Think about all the great college players like Frank Kaminsky, Tyler Zeller, Jalen Brunson — you know, great college players, the best of the best college players. They’re average pro players, but them in college, making that (money) just makes it much better.”
When a reporter throws out a hypothetical about how much money Duke’s Zion Williamson could’ve earned in his freshman season at Duke, Dosunmu responded, “Imagine that.”
Six figures, a reporter says. Maybe seven.
Dosunmu is fortunate in that he didn’t feel the financial pressure to go to the NBA after one year at Illinois.
He could have declared, and he almost certainly would’ve been drafted. NBA mock drafts in January and February projected him as a late-first or second-round pick.
“I mean like me, I’m financially good,” Dosunmu said, “my parents, they’re financially good, but you gotta think about the people who are not. Think about the kids who come from a single-parent (home) who have three or four or five siblings who need the money. It can go back to the mom paying the rent.
“Think about a guy like Giorgi (Bezhanishvili) with his parents back in Georgia. His mom and his brother looking for a better life. That money can go back to them, that money can help them, can feed his family.
“You gotta think about the guys like that.”
As uncertainty swirls around the name, image and likeness conversation — questions like, how much money could players theoretically make? How would the NCAA regulate compensation? When would NCAA rules be liberalized to allow compensation? Will it take a national legal policy for the NCAA to back down from its current stance? — it’s not a stretch to identify the tangible benefits that name, image and likeness compensation would have on players’ and their families’ financials, roster continuity in college basketball and improved fan engagement in a sport with more well-known stars.
Just ask Winston, Dosunmu and the rest of the players who’d stand to benefit.