Every once in a while a franchise has a chance to be the first to do something: be the first franchise to break the color barrier, be the first to support their player’s right to be socially and politically active, be the first to employ analytics, be the first to invest heavily in development, or the first franchise to turn their ownership over to a trust. The Utah Jazz have a chance to find themselves in the annals of history with their G-League franchise, the Salt Lake City Stars, winning the tiebreaker for the 1st pick in the NBA’s G-League Draft. It’s not the pick itself that’s the big deal; it’s who the Utah Jazz could draft with it: Darius Bazley.
If you haven’t heard about Darius Bazley by now, let us get you up to speed. Darius Bazley is the #10 recruit in this year’s college recruiting class. He was a McDonald’s All-American, participated in the Nike Hoop Summit, and was a five-star recruit. He was committed to go to Syracuse University until just six days ago when he withdrew his commitment to Syracuse to blaze a different path: go pro in the United States.
There are many college athletes who have gone pro at 18 in this age of “One and done.” There was Brandon Jennings who went to Europe or Emmanuel Mudiay who went to China. They chose those options because D-League (as it was known then) wasn’t know for its high level of talent. Even now it’s seen as a powder puff league compared to Europe while now rivaling China in actual competition. It has, however, gained respect as a league that will now teach you the right way to play. Gone are the days of Morris Almond going KOBE! to score 80+ points; here to stay are the days of guys working their way back to the NBA or to the NBA for the first time by learning NBA offenses and skills by real NBA-level type coaching. The G-League has gone through a rebrand and the NBA is investing big in its future success.
With that investment, many have theorized the NBA is preparing to go for the jugular of the NCAA and start courting these 18 year old phenoms who are anxious to get paid—without having to funnel that money by an agent through a booster through a cousin three times removed through a shell company through a car wash finally to the parents of the family who have to keep a low profile until their son declares for the NBA Draft. No one thought it would happen this early. The G-League might not have been ready for its first 18 year old five-star recruit this year, but there’s no time like the present—especially when the present is a 5-star recruit. There are some downsides to going to the G-League now for Darius Bazley.
One is pay. Compared to the cash that some top college recruits have received, the G-League pay scale is small. The maximum pay over a season is $26,000 that is for six months of work that would include travel accommodations and a per diem. But players aren’t living large there. Past players who are trying to make it in the league can work for that pay and live off their prior—sometimes overpaid—contracts to make it work. First time players? Not so much. Extrapolate that pay to over a year and you have $52,000 annual salary. That’s the same money that a retail manager gets at Foot Locker. Not exactly big money. It’s easy to see why no one has decided to go this route prior to now.
Could a player make money on the side with endorsements? Yes. Is there a brand out there willing to endorse a G-League player? No one knows at this point. Part of why brands have been funneling money to these players is the NCAA system also allows for big brands like Nike, Adidas, and others to make money through the merchandising and shoe sales. The visibility of league gives them the opportunity to sell shoes, t-shirts, jerseys, etc.
In college, you got national games, March Madness, entire channels devoted to your conference. In G-League, you got YouTube and Twitch streaming it. Syracuse’s total attendance alone for the year last year was almost half a million. Last year the G-League set a record of 1.9 million attending their games. All of them. Big difference. That difference would make big brands hesitate at throwing a sponsorship deal to a G-Leaguer. What do they have to gain? With the G-League blazing a new trail, there will have to be a brand out there willing to do the same. Maybe Gatorade? Maybe Nike since they’re aligned with the NBA? Who knows.
Then there’s the incentive to develop talent. Since a G-League team is run by the parent NBA team that’s interested in developing talent for themselves, that G-League team might be more incentivized to develop players they can actually sign for that season. Rather than a guy who’ll declare for the draft and all their hard work goes out the window.
Luckily for the NBA and Adam Silver, there are two great development oriented franchises with G-League teams tied at the bottom of last year’s standings: the Salt Lake City Stars (Utah Jazz) and the Delaware 87ers (Philadelphia 76ers). The Utah Jazz won out with the 1st pick, the Greensboro Swarm taking second (they were tied for the worst as well) and the Delaware 87ers getting third. This is a dream scenario for the NBA.
Many have begun to theorize that the Utah Jazz take a swing with this pick and draft Darius Bazley.
If there are those out there that think the Utah Jazz wouldn’t draft him because they wouldn’t be able to sign him at any point in the season, you might be surprised to find out that none of Utah’s first round picks in the G-League draft have ended up with a contract with Utah. That’s only two years of data, but they’re looking at the entire G-League as a whole for talent, not just the Stars. This type of new opportunity is the type of thing Dennis Lindsey lives for. He likes new data and a new opportunity. If the G-League is going to be the place for 18 year old phenoms to go, this would be the time to build and experiment with the process of what you’re looking for.
Think about the possibilities for the future. If the G-League raises their minimum salaries to something more akin to a 2 Way Contract, more of these top players will go to the G-League. Attendance and visibility will rise in these games and they’ll go from barely being seen on YouTube to ESPN+ games or TBS. Teams that are drafting in G-League Draft will mostly likely start targeting players they could see themselves drafting in the NBA Draft who they would project to be in their range at the end of the year. Instead of one workout before the NBA Draft, teams would get an entire year’s worth of data of a player working in their system. They could begin to groom the player for the role they see them in and experiment with their ceiling.
That sounds right up Utah Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsey’s wheelhouse. When Lindsey arrived at the Utah Jazz he instantly bolstered the Jazz’s scouting corps. That additional data has allowed him to find value picks and All-Stars through unconventional methods and places in the draft, it’s allowed him to fleece Denver not once, but twice, and it has allowed him to turn value contracts like Hood into even more value contracts like Jae Crowder.
Then there’s the publicity. The Salt Lake City Stars would love to have a reason to put butts in the seats at the Lifetime Activities Center. This would allow the NBA to see how much a top prospect can increase ticket sales. It would be a small sample size, but a sample none the less.
There are some already naysaying that the Utah Jazz wouldn’t draft Darius Bazley with their pick, but this would be a trend setting move. You don’t think Adam Silver isn’t already chirping in Utah’s ear to draft this kid? Adam Silver doesn’t just hope that Bazley lands with a good franchise in the G-League, he’s going to work to guarantee it. If Bazley’s year in the G-League is a success, Silver will be able to accelerate his plans for making the G-League a viable option for high school graduates. Bazley is a case study for Adam Silver’s G-League of the future and he’ll be pulling the strings behind the scenes to make sure it’s a success.
So when the G-League draft arrives in October, don’t be surprised when the Utah Jazz call Darius Bazley’s name.