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?
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
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.
NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups
With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.
The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.
Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.
Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…
We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.
The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.
Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.
Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.
Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.
While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.
Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.
This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.
Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.
Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…
Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.
It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.
Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.
With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.
Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.
But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.
Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.
The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.
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