skip navigation

Napa prep school’s Jalen Green shows path to untangling messy NBA, NCAA relationship

By Scott Ostler, 04/18/20, 7:00PM PDT


Napa prep school’s Jalen Green shows New path

Dear NBA: Thank you!

By signing Napa prep sensation Jalen Green to a contract making him an instant pro, you have taken a great step toward getting the NBA and college basketball out of an awkward and embarrassing — and corrupt — relationship.

Green is a 6-foot-5 small forward from Fresno who played his senior season at Prolific Prep in Napa, essentially a high school team for super players on an NBA track. Green, rated the No. 1 prospect in his class by ESPN, has been compared to Kobe Bryant at a similar stage of Bryant’s career, when he jumped directly from high school to the NBA.

Thursday, Green announced he was signing with the NBA to be part of a new pro pathway program. Instead of playing college ball for one season before moving up to the NBA, or playing a season in an overseas pro league, Green will play for a development team affiliated with the NBA’s G League.

He will be paid $500,000, and he and his pro pathway teammates will receive first-rate NBA training. The team will be based in Los Angeles and play a schedule of exhibition games against G League teams and international teams.

The pro pathway plan is a masterstroke by the NBA. In Green, the league has found someone who could be the perfect player around whom to build and promote the new program.

Last year, two high school phenoms, LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton, took their talents to Australia, lured by a level of competition and money that one year of college ball could not offer. This is a trend, and a bad one for the NBA.

High-profile players were sliding off the radar screens of American fans for a year. Wouldn’t it be better for the NBA to take the top young players into the league’s system, allowing fans to watch them grow and get excited about them now rather than letting them disappear for a year?

Good for the NBA, and good for the elite prep players, who now have an appealing alternative to spending a year in Timbuktu, or playing for free in college.

The best part of this whole plan is that it probably is the beginning of the end of the absurd one-and-done system, where star players get a Jack in the Box drive-through college experience.

Now a top prep player won’t be forced to donate a year of his life working for free to boost an NCAA program, under the guise of getting a year of college education.

As a legitimate educational tool, the one-and-done is the equivalent of renting a Lamborghini to drive to your high school reunion.

The one-and-done is a breeding ground for corruption. The players, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, unprepared to take even slight advantage of a year of college education, often emerge with a master’s degree in what’s wrong with sports.

Big-time college basketball does benefit from the star power of one-and-dones, but the college sport won’t crumble if the concept fades away.

Quick history lesson: Until 1971, the NBA wouldn’t sign a player until he was four years out of high school. There was no European option, no G League. A great high school player had no choice but to go to college for four years.

In ’71 Spencer Haywood, a superb young player and a U.S. Olympic hero, sued the NBA, and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling wiped out the four-year rule.

That killed college basketball. Or so predicted the college coaches, who had benefited from four years of indentured servitude from its top players.

College basketball will survive and continue to thrive without its one-and-done superstars. More importantly, college basketball will be spared the embarrassment of exploiting teenage basketball players for fun and profit.

The basketball world doesn’t have to revolve around pampered teenagers, but it’s not bad if there is recognition that they are vulnerable young men who could benefit from top-level coaching, mentoring and home cooking.

Green will be an interesting test case. Instead of heading to Australia or Germany and dragging his family with him, he can relocate to Los Angeles. He will be trained by NBA people and begin acclimatizing to pro ball in a way that benefits him and the league.

Green won’t get the huge NBA money right now, but $500,000 ain’t bad for six months’ work, and he can start cashing in on the fame he has earned by signing endorsement deals. Money over the table.

Meanwhile, as Major League Baseball goes in the direction of killing off its minor-league system, the NBA goes in the opposite direction, moving toward a productive and honest system of grooming young players for the big time.

Scott Ostler is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: Twitter: @scottostler