On Friday, a massive scandal erupted as Yahoo! Sports published court documents obtained in a federal investigation of NCAA men’s basketball. The documents implicate at least 20 programs and 25 players in potential rules violations regarding improper payments and benefits. Prior to Sunday’s Detroit Pistons game in Charlotte, coach Stan Van Gundy lit into the NCAA when asked about the scandal.
“The NCAA’s one of the worst organizations, maybe the worst organization in sports,” said Van Gundy. “And they certainly don’t care about the athletes.”
Van Gundy gave an in-depth critique of the “one-and-done” rule, whereby the NBA only allows players to become draft-eligible one year after their high school class graduates. The rule forces players with clear NBA talent to either play a single season of college basketball domestically or play a professional season overseas as Knicks point guard Emmanuel Mudiay did in China.
“I don’t understand why, as an industry, basketball or any other professional sport, that we’re able to artificially limit somebody’s ability to make money,” said Van Gundy. “I don’t get it. An 18-year-old, if he’s talented enough, can come into your profession and get a job. We’ve got the stories of some of these great tech guys that have dropped out of college and gone and made big money. They’re allowed to do that but athletes aren’t?”
Van Gundy went on to describe the rationale of certain people in favor of one-and-done as racist.
“The people that were against [high school players] coming out made a lot of excuses but I think a lot of it was racist, quite honestly,” said Van Gundy. “And the reason I’m going to say that is I’ve never heard anybody go up in arms about, oh my God, they’re letting these kids come out and go play minor league baseball, or they’re letting these kids come out and go play minor league hockey.
“They’re not making big money, and they’re white kids primarily, and nobody has a problem. But all of a sudden now, you’ve got a black kid that wants to come out of high school and make millions. That’s a bad decision? But bypassing college to go play for $800 a month in minor league baseball, that’s a fine decision? What the hell is going on?”
Oklahoma City Thunder forward Carmelo Anthony spent much of today’s media availability addressing questions about the NCAA’s latest issues and how it could impact the NBA’s stance on one-and-done.
“Amateur sports has been corrupt for so long,” said Anthony. “It’s going to force the NBA to step up and kind of take that age limit rule out.”
There is a sense in NBA circles that, while all sides agree that change is needed, it could be slow in coming. The G-League is envisioned as a resource to help young players develop and reach the NBA, but some feel it isn’t ready for an influx of players straight out of high school.
“We’re conflicted, to be honest,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver during his All-Star media availability when asked about a potential change to the one-and-done rule. “We’re outside of our cycle of collective bargaining right now, which is when we generally address an issue like that. But [Players Association Director] Michelle Roberts and I also agree that there’s no reason we shouldn’t also be discussing it right now. So we’ve had meetings with the Players Association where we’ve shared data [on] success rates of young players coming into the league.
“I think the question for the league is, in terms of their ultimate success, are we better off intersecting with them a little bit younger. Are we better off bringing them into the league when they’re 18, using our G-League, as it was designed to be, as a development league, and getting them minutes on the court there.”
Although the G-League may not be fully prepared to accommodate an influx of teenage players, Anthony suggested that it could eventually see players even younger than 18.
“You’re going to see a lot more players looking at the opportunity to go play overseas,” said Anthony of what he sees as the reaction to the NCAA’s ongoing problems. “You’re going to start to see guys … maybe before going to their senior year in high school, start trying to get to the G-League. You’re going to start seeing a lot of these different leagues, not just here in the U.S., but throughout the world start becoming more powerful because of what the NCAA is doing.”
Van Gundy’s damning assessment of the racial implications of one-and-done should prompt teams and players to re-assess how the rule impacts young players destined for the league. And it’s players just as much as the NBA itself that need to re-evaluate the situation. Through acceptance of the one-and-done rule, NBA players have helped normalize the transfer of millions of dollars in wealth from 18-year-olds — who would otherwise receive multi-year, guaranteed contracts as first round picks in the NBA Draft — to other NBA players.
Take LeBron James as an example. When James was a senior in high school, almost nobody doubted he could make an immediate impact in the NBA. Because the one-and-done rule wasn’t in effect, James was drafted without waiting a year and immediately proved he belonged. Had the rule been in force, James’ rookie salary of $4 million would have gone to another player while he waited to reach the NBA and the means to provide for his mother, who struggled to raise him alone.
Preventing 18-year-olds from reaching the NBA is a practice that NBA teams and players will have to reconsider as the latest NCAA drama unfolds. But there’s another compelling argument for ending one-and-done. Within 30 days of turning 18, almost all males in the United States are required to register with Selective Service. In the event of war and the institution of a military draft, these 18-year-olds could be conscripted into service and sent overseas to fight and potentially be killed. So, at 18, you’re old enough to fight and die for your country, but you’re not old enough to become a professional athlete and provide for your family?
While Van Gundy pointed out the inconsistency of those who favor one-and-done, the NCAA’s legal battle to avoid paying its players brings race even further into the discussion. On multiple occasions, the NCAA has cited Vanskike v. Peters — a case in which the judge ruled that a prison inmate could not be considered an employee of the prison — in arguing why it shouldn’t have to pay student-athletes. A recent citation has come in Livers v. NCAA, a case in which former Villanova multi-sport athlete Lawrence “Poppy” Livers argues that college athletes are employees and should be paid.
In its motion to dismiss the case, NCAA attorneys cite this passage from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Field Operations Handbook:
“As part of their overall educational program, public or private schools and institutions of higher learning may permit or require students to engage in activities in connection with dramatics, student publications, glee clubs, bands, choirs, debating teams, radio stations, intramural and interscholastic athletics and other similar endeavors. Activities of students in such programs, conducted primarily for the benefit of the participants as part of the educational opportunities provided to the students by the school or institution, are not work of the kind contemplated by [the Fair Labor Standards Act] and do not result in an employer-employee relationship between the student and the school or institution.”
The NCAA’s counsel asserts that “these provisions leave no doubt about the Department’s view that participants in ‘interscholastic athletics’ are not ’employees’ within the meaning of the FLSA.” But the cited passage leaves quite a bit of doubt, actually.
The key phrase is activities “conducted primarily for the benefit of the participants as part of the educational opportunities” provided by the school. The NCAA is equating for-profit athletics with student-run intramural athletics and claiming that college football and basketball national championships are conducted for the educational benefit of student-athletes, not for billions of dollars in revenue.
Livers’ counsel addressed these questions in the original complaint, stating that:
“Student performance outside the classroom is: (i) non-academic in nature; (ii) unrelated/irrelevant to an academic degree program; (iii) not for academic credit; and (iv) supposed to be restricted to 20 hours per week, recorded on timesheets maintained by the supervising staff of the NCAA member school, to limit interference with academic studies.”
The complaint further asserts that “student performance primarily benefits NCAA member schools, and provides no comparable academic or learning benefit to the student.” Rather than have these questions subjected to the rigors of trial, the NCAA instead continues to cite Vanskike v. Peters. In that decision, the judge stated, “the dispute, in this case, is a more fundamental one: Can this prisoner plausibly be said to be ’employed’ in the relevant sense at all?”
You read that correctly. The NCAA cited a case in which the court refused to hear arguments about employment status because the plaintiff was a prisoner, and thus subject to forced labor as “punishment for a crime,” the sole exception to the abolition of slavery under the 13th Amendment. Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins summed up the court’s findings in Berger v. NCAA, another case in which the NCAA used the same precedent:
“The Seventh Circuit’s contorted reasoning bears repeating. College athletes are similar to prisoners economically because the ‘revered tradition of amateurism’ in college spanning more than 100 years ‘defines the economic reality of the relationship between student-athletes and their schools,’ the court wrote. As with inmates, asking any questions about who benefits from their work would ‘fail to capture the true nature of their relationship.’ In other words, amateurism is as confining and defining as jail.”
For the NCAA, the scope of the latest scandal will undoubtedly raise questions about amateur status and compensation for student-athletes. For NBA teams and players, the time has come for some serious soul-searching. Will the NBA and its players continue to deny 18-year-olds, who can be drafted into the military and shipped off to war, the ability to provide for their families? Will they continue to prop up the NCAA through the one-and-done rule while it continues to make dubious legal arguments, such as comparing student-athletes to convicted criminals?
Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective
The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.
The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?
While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.
Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.
The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.
As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.
Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.
And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.
But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.
Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.
High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.
On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?
Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.
Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.
But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
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