NIL money a magnet for college basketball players

The NCAA’s name, likeness and image policy has opened the doors for college basketball players to earn a little — and sometimes a lot — of money while they are still in school.

There are players who have NIL deals with Gatorade, Buffalo Wild Wings, Dollar Shave Club, even Kool-Aid. Players at smaller Division I schools have been able to get in on the action, too, by making appearances at local car dealerships to teaming up with a local restaurant.

This has kept players like Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, the AP player of the year, and Gonzaga’s Drew Timme in school when they otherwise might have bolted for the NBA. It’s also given top-tier recruits an appealing reason to take the college route, making the sport better as a whole.

“It is definitely going to bring a lot more talent into college basketball, but it’s also going to keep a lot of talent in college basketball,” said Travis Branham, national basketball analyst for 247Sports.

Elite recruits once had two options out of high school: college or take their chances on playing professionally. The professional route became more limited when the NBA in 2006 required players to be 19 or at least a year out of high school to enter the draft.

Now recruits have choices galore.

College obviously is still on the table and the plethora of overseas leagues keeps professional options open for players who want to be tested that way. Two other options have opened in recent years: The NBA’s G League Ignite and Overtime Elite.

Overtime Elite originally was designed as a professional league to accelerate development for players 16 to 19. The league has an accredited educational component, along with branding, health and performance and nutrition.

Players received $100,000 contracts and were thus ineligible to play collegiately.

Now Overtime Elite has a scholarship option, allowing players to retain college eligibility and receive $100,000 toward college if they decide against going pro.

Overtime Elite had already been talking to the NCAA on offering scholarships so its players could retain their college eligibility before the NIL policy was announced in July 2021.

The six-team league that plays in Atlanta currently has 20 players on pro contracts, 10 on scholarships. Overtime Elite’s crop of players include Naasir Cunningham, one of the top recruits in the class of 2024, along with twins Ausar and Amen Thompson, who could end up being NBA lottery picks next year.

Overtime Elite signed a deal this week with Amazon to show 20 of its games live over the next three years.

“The NIL has changed the whole landscape of all of this,” Overtime Elite general manager and head of basketball Damien Wilkins said. “It allows the players to legally get paid for their name, image and likeness. In turn, what that has done is give us a scholarship option, so now we can go out and recruit guys more broadly.”

NBA G League Ignite was created as an avenue for high school prospects to develop at the professional level and compete against pro players in the G League. Ignite has a much smaller recruiting pool; the program looks for players with the potential to be drafted in the first round of the NBA draft. Alumni include Jalen Green of the Houston Rockets and Golden State’s Jonathan Kuminga.

“NIL has not affected our recruiting,” Ignite head coach Jason Hart said. “If a kid wants to go to college, he’s going to go there, NIL or not. We’re not trying to entice kids with the money. If you come here and you’re a lottery pick, whatever NIL money you get or first-year salary here, it’s not the generational wealth you can create by getting drafted really high.”

The goal for every elite player is to reach the NBA. NIL offers players a way to stay in school, still make money and perhaps develop their games even more.

“I think you’re going to be seeing a lot better decisions out of kids in terms of testing the waters and staying in the NBA draft,” Branham said. “Year after year, we see mind-boggling decisions by the kids who declare for the NBA draft, stay in the NBA draft and have zero stock in the NBA draft. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with being a second-round draft pick, but there’s no guaranteed money, so it’s better to stay in college at that point.”

Or try one of the other options now available.

— John Marshall, Associated Press Basketball Writer

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