The Next Star program was dealt a blow overnight, as major recruitment target Jalen Green spurned the NBL, as well as college offers, for an G League deal reportedly worth over $500,000.
After examining the impact of the NBL's talent development program --which has seen the likes of LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton play in Australia, among others-- the G League made drastic changes in their approach to make their offers much more appealing to top high school prospects.
"That's a real program that the NBL has," G League president, Shareef Abdur-Rahim told ESPN. "When you look around the world at the market that's been created, where we started at $125,000 wasn't enough -- certainly not in itself."
Significantly boosting the salary offer had a part to play, but many other alterations were made. Players were concerned about getting lost on teams full of older, seasoned veterans, dealing with the arduous travel of the G League lifestyle, and the potential to be dropped into one of the league's more remote locations.
To address this, the league has tailored a 'year long developmental program' which will include building a roster around the player which will include a combination of veterans and other prospects, and a special number of games against NBA Academies and foreign national teams, as well as other G League competition. They are also provided with life skills programs, run with the oversight of the G League.
It's clear the G League pulled out all the stops to usurp the success of the NBL in luring away prospects, in an age where players are showing less and less interest in playing college basketball. However, it seemed like the NBL remained a real option in spite of this new alternative, with the COVID-19 pandemic perhaps being the ultimate tipping point to keeping Green in the US.
Olgun Uluc from ESPN AU/NZ reported that "There was real confidence within NBL circles that Jalen Green would be Australia-bound in a non-coronavirus world". We also saw Green tease the possibility of deciding on the NBL as recently as the day before his announcement on Friday.
Right now, it appears that the Coronavirus has completely derailed the NBL's Next Stars plans for the 2020-2021 season. Days after Loeliger confirmed they had been in talks with Michigan de-commit Isaiah Todd, reports have surfaced that he too will be joining Green on a similar G League deal. With the NBL and now G League's initiatives, it also gives the NBA further fuel to expedite the removal of the one and done rule, which could eliminate the viability of the Next Star's program completely (with the exception of local and draft and stash candidates).
It shouldn't come as a big surprise, given speculation that the NBL season may start without imports altogether, determinant on border restrictions. However, given the league's negotiations included a new import limit of two and kept the possibility of a Next Star open, it seems clear they are operating on the possibility that it could still happen.
Therein lies a potentially hopeful viewpoint. The NBL may have lost out to the G League now, but circumstances continue to be extremely fluid.
One thing we know for sure: Australia is in a much better position to bounce back from COVID-19. Per Statistica, the US, now hitting over 30,000 deaths, is being hit hard by the virus and you would expect will continue to do so for a good while yet. Their deaths per million, as per time of writing, stands at 94.54. Australia, by comparison, has 63 confirmed deaths, with a comparatively tiny rate of 2.52 per million.
There's no telling how circumstances will unfold over the next 6-12 months, but it does appear that sentiment is more positive for sport to return, and more normally, here in Australia than across the pond. While certain compromises, such as a shortened season, has been discussed, the overwhelming hope is that by the time 'NBL21' rolls around, the season will function relatively normally.
In contrast, Dr Anthony Fuaci, leading health advisor to Donald Trump, has expressed that the potential for major sporting leagues to return by the end of the year, if they do return, would have to consider major logistical compromises -
"There's a way of [returning to play]," he said. "Nobody comes to the stadium. Put [the players] in big hotels, wherever you want to play, keep them very well surveilled. ... Have them tested every single week and make sure they don't wind up infecting each other or their family, and just let them play the season out."
It's that sort of uncertainty that begs the question - how concrete is the likelihood that the G League operates in the capacity these prospects expect it to be, if at all? At worst, the G League season might not commence. At best, they may still be quarantined from family for an entire season.
For this reason, it might be a reason for the NBL not to give up hope just yet. There's a lot of 'ifs' in play, but 'if' the G League doesn't go ahead as planned, or 'if' the needed compromises to their season make the prospect of playing there a less attractive option, the NBL might still be available as an alternative. All it would take is granted exceptions to bring players, along with select family members, over to Australia and have them sit through the mandatory quarantine period, should border restrictions still be enforced at that time.
It's a long shot, but if things can unfold in that manner, these latest developments may ultimately prove to work in the NBL's favor. While Green and Todd have already decided on the G League pathway, other players such as Greg Brown, Kai Sotto, Makur Maker and Che Evans are mulling similar offers.
If enough players forgo college, and it turns out the G League cannot feasibly run their season, the NBL might be the next port of call for those players.
Regardless, two things need to be stressed. First, the NBL and their Next Stars program was one of the prime catalysts to this movement away from college basketball.
Secondly, even if COVID-19 spells the end of the Next Stars program's success, if the G League and reformed prep to pro rules leapfrog the NBL, it has strengthened the resolve for Australians to skip college pathways and develop in Australia.
We've already seen this through the signing of Josh Giddey and Mojave King, as well as Luke Travers and others before them.
Whatever impact events have had on the future of American high school prospects coming to the NBL, the future of the program long term has always been tied predominantly in local talent and draft and stash candidates. Now that the tides are turning against the NCAA as the go-to development pathway to the NBA, we could see more junior talent join the ranks through Development Player roles or in the Next Stars program from this point on. The pioneering of top prospects like LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton undoubtedly will have had a part to play in proving the viability of turn NBL play into NBA draft stock.