College basketball coaches always have their hands full in the recruiting realm. Between juggling visits, jetting to and from events to scout prospects, and nurturing the relationships of recruits (plus those tied to them). Now they're facing another challenge in addition to trying to stave off the college coaches they constantly battle with: the G League.
Already we've seen five-star recruits Jalen Green and Isaiah Todd skip college for the NBA's developmental league this month alone, but Tuesday's news of five-star point guard could be a sea-change moment for the sport. After all, Green had never committed to a college before making his decision, and Todd had committed to Michigan but never signed his letter of intent. Nix's decision was an outright breakup. He committed last summer and signed with the Bruins last fall. It wasn't until nearly a half-year removed from his November signing that he jumped at the chance to join the popular Pathway Program, the G League's upstart developmental initiative for elite high school players now gaining steam in basketball circles.
For the G League to accept players who haven't signed a letter of intent and still have their options open is one thing, but to pursue prospects who have already signed with a college is quite another.
Imagine you're UCLA coach Mick Cronin right now. You finish your first season winning seven of your last eight games, come close to winning the Pac-12 and have some wind at your sails knowing Nix -- the No. 1-ranked point guard prospect in America -- is set to enroll.
Then your prized recruit bolts for the G League.
April is never the time to deploy a backup plan in recruiting, much less amid a global health crisis.
It leaves UCLA without a key roster piece at the worst possible time. Not only is in-person recruiting of any kind right now nearly impossible because of the NCAA extending recruiting dead period due to the COVID-19 pandemic to May 31, but even if it were possible to coordinate visits, the timing is equally as brutal as the transaction, given every top-100 point guard in the 2020 cycle has made their commitment already.
When a coach wants to fast-track growth in a program, we've seen in years past where they take gambles on big-name recruits to gain recruiting traction and, in turn, try and win big -- immediately. Nix was that for Cronin: the pawn to piece together a basketball renaissance in Westwood. Last year it was Memphis' James Wiseman for Penny Hardaway. Next season it's Cade Cunningham for Mike Boynton at Oklahoma State and Evan Mobley for USC's Andy Enfield. But is that path one coaches will continue to explore? Is it worth it?
What Cronin is dealing with may creep into the minds of other college coaches moving forward and ultimately foil a popular blueprint often used to jump-start a program. It's one thing to try and fend off pitches from other college coaches who can offer more playing time, better facilities, a more lauded staff. It's quite another to try and fend off the G League's Pathway Program that can offer hundreds of thousands of dollars to recruits as an alternative to college, with the goal of the program focused on preparing like a pro, being coached by pros, and oh: not going to school. For some that may be as enticing as the financial windfall. Getting paid to not go to school? Yeah, that's not so bad an alternative.
The safety of securing commitments from lesser-known recruits for college coaches may suddenly outweigh the risk/reward proposition of getting a top-10 caliber player who could commit, sign and ultimately flip to the G League. Sure, the top-10 player could be a game-changer. But he could also be a last-minute flip like Nix, who leaves a coach holding flowers at the altar. Those big-name recruits that college coaches are pursuing -- the surefire one-and-done talents and potential one-and-done talents -- are the same prospects the G League's Pathway Program will be targeting as it builds into a reputable offering that offers what college legally cannot: cold hard cash.
It wasn't supposed to be college versus the G League. Years ago, there was a concise mission to avoid recruiting against college-committed players. But in getting the program off the ground, there's an overlap with Nix. Whether the G League lured him away from UCLA or Nix himself sought out the G League, it seems unavoidable that committed college players may follow in the same path with more regularity.
Not every elite high school talent will weigh their options between the G League and college and side with the former, though. This is a new program that has plenty of skeptics, including about the level of competition, the amount of competition, the coaching and the training. Kentucky coach John Calipari is among those who have expressed some skepticism not in the program itself, but the portrayal of the program and how people will view it. In his weekly "Coffee With Cal," he accurately got to the heart of the problem: the Pathway Program is an option for elite talent, and many will not have this avenue as an alternative to consider.
"My issue with the G League trying to entice players by giving them more money, is not the kids that you're getting," Calipari said this week via the Courier-Journal. "It's the thousands of ninth and 10th graders that think that's how they're going to make it, when you and I know it's going to be 2%. We're not talking 50. It will be thousands and thousands and thousands."
Truth is, we've never seen the program in action and this upcoming year will be the trial run. It may be a hit that keeps pro prospects stateside. It may be a flop that pushes players of their ilk toward the NBL, like LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton. But the success of Green, Nix and Todd right away could buy some believers and help fast-track the program much the same way they could if they'd chosen to represent a college.
Just don't expect college coaches to be thrilled about the prospects of facing another adversary on the recruiting trail, with deeper pockets than any booster they've ever recruited against.