NBL Next Stars program faces competition from new NCAA laws

In September 2019, the Governor of California signed a bill allowing college athletes to hire agents and make money from endorsements. The measure, the first of its kind, was followed a month later by a unanimous vote by the NCAA to allow student athletes to be compensated. These are the first steps in what could be an overhaul of college basketball and by extension, the elite athlete development pathway in basketball.

The NBL Next Stars program made huge waves earlier this year, with the signings of LaMelo Ball (Illawarra Hawks) and RJ Hampton (New Zealand Breakers). Both players were projected to be drafted in the lottery of the 2020 NBA draft, and that hasn’t changed. Like Hampton, Ball's stock has only risen given his impressive, although erratic play. Legitimate lottery players coming to the NBL and performing has further established the NBL both as a legitimate league and as a pathway for aspiring NBA players.

This is exactly the sort of impact the NBL had hoped for when launching the program, expertly identifying a gap in the market for young players who wished to progress their development, get paid and remain a legitimate NBA draft candidate.

There is no doubt the US college system remains the premier breeding ground for NBA talent, however the NBL's Next Stars program offered players an alternative offering, beyond simply getting paid. Players could come and develop in a professional environment, learning what it takes both on and off the court to make it as a pro, which might be the most appealing element of the program.

Oklahoma City Thunder wing, Terrance Ferguson, spent the 2016/17 season in the NBL with the Adelaide 36ers. Whilst not formally part of the Next Stars program, as it had yet to be launched then, Ferguson was the first notable college eligible player to skip college in favour of NBL, and turn it into draft success, being selected 21st overall in the 2017 draft. Ferguson only averaged modest stats in 15 minutes per game with the 36ers, however scouts were likely more interested in learning about how well he trained, took direction, handled being a professional and how well he fit into the organisation.

The Next Stars program was launched shortly after Ferguson's success, seeking to capitalise on the unique offering of the NBL. The first Next Star, Brian Bowen II, spent the 2018/19 season with the Sydney Kings following the loss of his college eligibility, being embroiled in the FBI investigation into college basketball corruption. Despite early projections as a sure fire selection in the second round, Bowen II fell out of the draft altogether. However, only days after the draft Bowen II secured a two way contract with the Indiana Pacers, adding credibility to the NBL as a viable platform for launching NBA careers.

“I think [playing in Australia] helped me a lot,” Bowen shared with Forbes in October. “Just dealing with the physicality and playing against older guys. I think it helped mature me.”

NBL CEO, now commissioner, Jeremy Loeliger was explicit in an earlier interview with The Pick and Roll, in saying that developing the Next Stars program remains a key strategic objective for the league.

“We also see things like Next Stars being a value add to the NBA," he shared in July. "We really want to play a role in terms of helping guys transition from amateur basketball to professional basketball so that they’re ready for what we all acknowledge as the biggest stage in the world in the NBA, and along the way developing a fanbase and a following for each one of those players here in Australia. And in doing so, continuing to drive Australian interest in the NBA. It’s a very multifaceted relationship, one that we greatly respect and are grateful for, and one we’ll continue to foster.”

What do these new developments mean for the Next Stars program? First of all, these changes will not be coming into effect immediately. The bill signed in California won’t allow players to benefit from their likeness until 2023. The NCAA stipulated no timeline at all.

Moreover, exactly how players will be compensated in the NCAA remains entirely unclear. Some experts, such as Ramogi Huma, the National College Players Association's executive director, who spoke with Fortune.com, suggests the recent changes are nothing but smoke and mirrors. That the restrictions and regulations will be structured so that there is not practical way to earn as a college athlete and maintain eligibility.

Right now, the Next Stars program will be fine and will continue to operate as a viable path for aspiring players. If LaMelo Ball does get selected number 1 overall, it won’t be hard to imagine some of the games top prospects considering a move down under.

Long term, it is a little harder to predict. The specifics governing how the NCAA will manage this situation are incredibly complicated, such as managing the disparity in revenue across sports and genders, how to manage recruitment issues now that bigger schools can indirectly offer bigger endorsement deals simply by virtue of having a larger share of the market. As Huma explained, it may never come to pass, and it means the NBL will continue to offer a unique opportunity to draft prospects.

Should the NCAA genuinely allow players to be compensated for their likeness, it's hard to imagine it being anything but a fair system. The NCAA has stipulated that student athletes are not to be treated as employees of their universities and not to be treated differently to other students, and that a clear distinction between college and professional opportunities is to be maintained. In all likelihood, compensation will come in the form of endorsements alone.

A very small percentage of players and programs dominate the college basketball marketplace. And even then, the players riding the end of the bench at Duke or North Carolina are unlikely to demand much if any compensation at all. Players in the mould of Zion Williamson are likely to benefit greatly, as will most players projected to be selected in the lottery. There are always a few college basketball darlings who have exceptional college careers but limited pro upside, usually upperclassman, like Jalen Brunson or Jordan Poole, who will also benefit. For the vast majority of college basketball players, it will is yet to be seen if their experience will change at all.

The NBL will remain as a viable pathway for players looking to get paid whilst they prepare for the draft. It is unlikely we will see a player like RJ Hampton selecting the NBL over college if he can earn a genuine endorsement deal, however players projected in the second round and beyond may still find the NBL attractive, both financially and from a developmental perspective.

As it was for LaMelo Ball, players with eligibility issues will always be looking for alternative options. Additionally, the NBL has pivoted to become a draft and stash option for Didi Louzada of the Sydney Kings, who was drafted 35th overall by the Atlanta Hawks, on behalf of the New Orleans Pelicans in this year's draft. The NBL will always welcome these players and has the flexibility to adapt as necessary.

It is entirely possible the NCAA system becomes unfair, to the point where players become disillusioned and look for better opportunities elsewhere. All the NBL can do is continue to offer a stable, reliable and viable path to the NBA, and wait and see how it all plays out. It is well within the realm of possibility these changes actually work in favour of the Next Stars program, rather than against it.