NEW YORK — Before Darius Bazley made history, he just wanted to ball. On his official recruiting visit to Syracuse in September, he was out on Marshall Street late at night getting food when he met a team manager with facility access. The two soon wound up at the Carmelo K. Anthony Center, shooting at 3 a.m.
The next day, other recruits went to the Syracuse football game, but Bazley returned to the gym. Later, at Coach Jim Boeheim’s place for a team dinner, Bazley ate after almost everyone else because he appeared anchored to the house’s half court. After dinner finished, Bazley was at the gym once more.
He didn’t know it then, but that was his last time on campus, even though he signed with Syracuse in November. After finishing with 11 points and seven rebounds in the McDonald’s all-American Game on March 28, he made public the decision he had discussed with his mother and high school coach for about two months.
The 17-year-old wing from Cincinnati — the eighth-best player in the 2018 class, according to 247sports.com’s composite rankings — decommitted from Syracuse and became the first top prospect to forfeit his college eligibility by declaring his intent to play in the G League, the official minor league organization of the NBA.
“I was just doing what was best for me,” Bazley said.
His decision has the power to reshape how top prospects attempt to reach the NBA, and he said that was one of the reasons he did it. Bazley would “open the floodgates,” some observers predicted, because the lure of a salary (the maximum contract for G League-only players is $26,000 per year), the ability to receive payments from agents and sponsors, and full-time development assistance would steer players away from college basketball, which is dealing with an FBI probe into extra benefits provided to players.
If more top prospects make the same choice, it could transform the G League into the new yearly stopover en route to every top prospect’s goal: the NBA, which requires its players to be one year removed from high school before entering its draft. The NBA declined to comment for this story.
Many of Bazley’s fellow top recruits, and some of their parents and coaches, said they are skeptical that going straight from high school to the G League will become a trend, citing factors like money, familiarity and fear. If their predictions are correct, Bazley, regardless of what NBA success he goes on to have, could end up as more of an outlier than a pioneer.
Bazley is unfazed. On Sunday at the Jordan Brand Classic in Brooklyn, he wore a Syracuse hat while asserting that he still loves the Orange and its coaches, but he said he believes he made the right choice.
“When I was younger, there were times where I questioned everything,” he said. “I’d have bad games when I knew I needed to have good games. I was just like: ‘Am I really even good at this? Can I compete with these guys?’ I know I’m tall and stuff, and I’m talented, but it’s not showing. I had to overcome things like that to trust the process. There’s going to be adversity and, if I want to be successful, I have to take it straight on.
“It’s not going to be easy, but I think I’ll get through it.”
There are several reasons a highly ranked high school senior would choose to forego college for a season in the G League. He might not be able to get academically eligible for college, making the G League his only shot beyond playing overseas for a year. Or he might just not like school. Or he or his family might need money and could accept it from an agent or in an endorsement deal, which isn’t allowed under NCAA rules. Or he might believe G League coaching and competition offers the best on-court development.
For Bazley, the decision seemed not driven by green or grades; he stressed repeatedly that this was not about money, and he made the Princeton High honor roll last quarter. Bazley seemed more propelled by the same internal motor that pushed him from that party to the Syracuse gym back in September.
While the G League has bounded forward in the past decade with its culture and infrastructure — increasing investment, expanding, relocating affiliates closer to their parent clubs and creating “two-way” contracts so players can be paid more and frequently move between the leagues — it still lacks the NBA’s glamour. There are long bus rides and mediocre facilities and shoestring salaries. Crowds are a fraction of those at major college programs, television exposure is limited, and pro scouts come around slightly less often.
The G League offers basketball, though. For Bazley, that is good enough.
His disinterest in other facets of stardom, including the “big man on campus” label, exasperates his 21-year-old sister, Tyanna. At the Jordan Brand Classic, she excitedly told her brother about seeing his face on a Times Square billboard in an ad for the game. His response: “Oh, cool.”
Because he will be a professional, no classes will distract Bazley, no team responsibilities will keep him from honing his craft, and no rules will limit his time on the court. Rex Walters, a Detroit Pistons assistant and former G League head coach, acknowledged that the league does not offer a well-rounded approach. He said he believes college is “the right thing to do,” but this season he also saw former Duke star and Detroit rookie Luke Kennard hit “a wall” because the professional schedule taxed him.
“It’s going to be really interesting to see what the narrative after a year is,” Walters said. “If he’s a first-round pick [in the NBA draft], then more kids will do it. If he struggles, if he gets hurt, if 15 years from now he’s broke . . . they’re going to point back to this.”
Shortly after Bazley made his announcement, Trendon Watford, the ninth-ranked prospect in the 2019 class, got a text from his brother, Christian. It echoed the sentiments of their father, Ernest, who called Bazley’s decision “absolutely absurd” if he didn’t do it for financial or academic reasons. Watford knew Bazley, had bunked with him at the NBPA Top 100 Camp last summer and had seen how he loved staying after games to keep working. Still, he didn’t expect this move from his soft-spoken roommate.
“I was surprised,” Watford said. “He’s definitely good enough to do it, but I was just surprised he would be the first one.”
The Watfords symbolize Bazley’s past and possible future. Trendon is a highly sought prospect with high-major scholarship offers. Christian is out of professional basketball after bouncing around four G League teams over two seasons.
As they talked, Christian reminded his younger brother of his struggles in the G League as a grown man, of the difference between a college locker room pulling together and a G League locker room pulling separate ways, of the fact that life as a kid is more stable for a season at a top-tier college program, when the NBA and its millions could be just nine months away anyway.
Others were more optimistic. This year’s ninth-ranked recruit, Tre Jones, a Duke signee and the younger brother of former Blue Devil Tyus Jones, said: “It definitely could be a start to something. Especially if it works out for [Bazley], other kids will definitely head down that route and get money a year earlier.”
But for a dozen other recruits, in this year’s class and the next, apprehension prevailed. They wished Bazley the best but remained wary of how a G League team would use him. For them, uncertainty undermines the option when they instead could develop with top-shelf coaching in their one chance to experience college, or play for a team they’ve watched their whole lives, or try making a run in the NCAA tournament.
Everyone needs to give himself the best shot at the next level, they said, but generally they said they believe that means spending at least one year on campus.
“In college, you can develop more and live out more on your own, away from your parents,” said Quentin Grimes, this year’s 11th-ranked prospect and a Kansas signee. “The G League, you jump right into the NBA lifestyle. You start messing with grown men out there who have families. I wouldn’t do it at all.”
Ernest and Trendon Watford said they value education, but they know Trendon would leave school after one season if the draft boards look right. Ernest said he sees the G League jump and going one-and-done as incomparable because of the pay gap; for coaches and other recruits and their parents, money also was the main hang-up. Trendon would be guaranteed seven figures if selected in the NBA draft’s first round; the G League offers high schoolers less than half a year’s tuition to many colleges.
Beyond finances, Ernest Watford remained unconvinced that the G League is a superior developmental option. Whenever Christian Watford seemed to find a groove in the G League, the parent club sent down an NBA player whose minutes plan superseded Watford’s hot hand. Bazley, despite his highly rated status, could face a similar situation.
“[The G League] is un-treaded waters, and I wouldn’t want to be the pioneer in treading them,” Ernest Watford said. “College is safer.”
Sliding down a team’s list of priorities doesn’t worry Bazley. He prepared for it.
“Development-wise, yeah, I’ll be working out with the team and stuff like that,” he said. “But I’m almost pretty sure that I’ll have my own trainer that knows what they’re doing, that knows what’s best for me. I’m not really worried about [a G League team] developing guys ahead of me. I’ll have someone who’s fully in for me.”
Complicating matters for Bazley are his age and frame. Christian Watford looked at a 6-foot-9, 200-pound wing playing in a league of grown men and reached a grim conclusion.
“I know an 18-year-old kid is going to suck,” he said. “That’s just the way life in the G League is.”
G League executives understand the circumstances and adjusted expectations, saying they don’t see Bazley’s play meriting his draft slot. Multiple league officials said they would be “surprised” if Bazley wasn’t taken first in October’s G League draft, based on his talent and the scouting opportunity for a franchise to evaluate a potential NBA lottery pick for a full season.
Bazley said he realizes that, at his age, he won’t dominate the G League. He expects to “show flashes here and there,” but the biggest goal is to develop while displaying his maturity, professionalism and work ethic.
“I don’t know what the situation will be when I get [to a G League team], or how things are going to work,” he said. “I’m so new to this. But development, that’s the biggest thing for me.”
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