FRANK CUSHMAN | SPORTS CORRESPONDENT
Darius Bazley is 17 years old. He was born in June of 2000. In 247sports.com’s scouting report he’s listed at 6’8”, 200 lbs (Other reports tell me 6’9”). He plays basketball. He’s the number 1 ranked senior from Ohio. He has recently decided to turn down a full athletic scholarship to Syracuse and legendary coach Jim Boeheim.
Darius, like so many other gifted high school basketball players, was taking the necessary steps to get to the dream of one day playing in the NBA. He had been noticed in high school as a freshman and it was suggested he try out for some AAU teams. After exploding onto the AAU scene he started to shoot up ranking boards, get invited to various all star games and attend prestigious camps. This eventually led to the big boys in college basketball to come calling. He committed to Boeheim in the fall 2017.
Playing competitive basketball since only 8th grade, the lanky teen went from unknown prospect to top ten nationwide within a span of two years. His frame and playing style is the picture of the modern NBA. Long, springy and smooth, Bazley is a handful for the other top recruits his age and he doesn’t need to try against your average AAU player. I wish this was online right now so I could link to some of his more impressive highlights. He can shoot, pass, and dribble… all in a 6’9” frame. But he’s got that special athleticism, the effortless two footed bounce up to look at the rim and throw the ball down, athleticism. There is a video from his junior year of an AAU game, where he literally isn’t trying and he probably scores 30 points. He’s draining threes, going to the cup, throwing no look passes… The kids he’s playing are not good, some D3 players in the future (maybe) but nothing compared to him. That said, believe me, he is utterly not trying, almost like he feels bad. About halfway through the video he takes on a kid from the top of the key, one hard dribble left into a spin back to his right hand and he’s off the ground throwing down an effortless tomahawk dunk. It’s quite nearly art.
Next season, instead of moving into Jim Boeheim’s place he’ll be playing in the Developmental League, now called the G-League because marketing sucks. (Gatorade League, really… We’re supposed to call it the Gatorade League…) This has shocked people all over the basketball landscape. There are more players opting to play the obligatory gap year between high school and the NBA elsewhere for big bucks. Europe and China have been some common destinations. But, the overwhelming majority of players still go to college. Even though college doesn’t pay its laborers… yeah, I said it… the system is set up so that the best option is usually a year in the NCAA. The publicity, the crowds, the coaching, the national exposure… they’re all hugely important things that are much harder to get if a youngster opts for a league overseas. But, in this era of one-and-done, many of the prospects that will go in the lottery will have been identified as NBA talent before college. Guys like Bazley are seen when they’re 16 and 17, people (nerds) like me see these mixtapes that start to pop up when some of these kids are freshmen in highschool. People know who they are and they see the guys with clear athletic potential for The Association. Publicity and exposure are, in an age of social media, less and less of an issue.
But, the D-League (yeah, the D-League) is an unusual choice even for a guy that seems to have first round, in my opinion, lottery level talent. Salaries are low. Far lower than that of leagues in Europe. With seasonal income of 25,000 dollars, it’s not lucrative like the 6 figure salaries commanded overseas. The D-league is also a rough and tumble world. Everyone is playing for themselves, everybody is competing (with their teammates first and foremost) to get into the NBA. How good this type of environment will be for an 18 year old kid is up for debate.
In a piece for the Players Tribune, Bazley explains his thought process. He’s rather straightforward when he tells us his dream, his one dream, first and foremost was to be an NBA player. The high profile AAU teams were cool, the prospect ranking boards were fun, the scholarship letters were a sign that everything was moving in the right direction but the only dream was the Association.
“No top recruit had ever attempted to spend a year playing in the NBA’s development league before trying to make the jump. It wasn’t that it couldn’t be done, it just hadn’t been attempted. To do it, I’d have to pass on the opportunity to play at my dream school. But in a lot of ways it seemed like a cool opportunity to progress as a player in ways I probably couldn’t in a college setting. Instead of taking intro classes and going to parties, I’d spend every day battling for minutes against seasoned professionals. I had to pick between being a freshman or spending a year in an organization full of people all sharing one focus: Finding a way to get to the NBA.”
– Darius Bazley, “Why I’m Jumping to the G-League”. The Players Tribune
Well said. In fact I think that maybe all the people talking about the mistake this is and the lack of quality coaching attention he’ll receive compared to Syracuse should sit back and read this paragraph again. We don’t know if he’s going to pan out. We don’t know if he’s going to get drafted to the NBA, let alone sign a second contract. But we don’t know any of that if he goes to college either… The fact that he’ll be playing in open space on a NBA size court, with professionals, over a third of whom have been in the big leagues before, is an advantage over those playing in college. Another year of a crowded court, another year of running highly systematic offenses, another year of playing against amateurs… College is a different game than the pros. It’s slower, hectic and often unproductive for guys with athleticism clearly projected beyond the NCAA. If his head is screwed on straight, which no one can say it is, this move could be the launch pad for highly motivated and highly talented kids to take. Remember, there is one goal: make it to the NBA.
15 years ago there were guys getting drafted every year out of highschool to play professionally. Some of these players weren’t ready and didn’t make it but some of these players succeeded: Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O’Neal, Tracy McGrady, Rashard Lewis, Amar’e Stoudemire, Lebron James, Dwight Howard, Al Jefferson, Josh Smith, J.R. Smith, Gerald Green, Monta Ellis, Lou Williams and Amir Johnson… This list goes from top 3 of all time to journeymen, but each one played many years in the league and all of them made millions of dollars. For some reason the stigma against the D-League being a good place for this kid is perpetuated. Bazley asks it himself, is it just because no one else has done it yet?
Who knows what this young man’s career will be like but the implications if it goes well are interesting. A whole wave of high school athletes could have found a new way to forgo college and get ready for the real goal: The NBA. The NCAA is a horrendous organization; as I said earlier, they don’t even pay their laborers. The coaches make millions, the colleges get priceless marketing/branding but the players don’t see a penny. The education that they don’t receive because they put 50+ hours a week into basketball or only spend a year at the university is no reconciliation for playing glorified AAU ball.
I’m rooting for this kid. One, because he’s one of the most exciting players I’ve seen in a long while (just a devastating combination of silky and bouncy), two, because he’s flipping off the NCAA and three, because if his route ends in success it could mean a whole new way to compensate these kids we expect to put on a show for us. I believe the road to the dream of the NBA shouldn’t be one of free labor. These kids deserve something more than mixtapes and ESPN prospect rankings for their work. Good luck Darius Bazley, I hope to see you in an arena near me sometime soon.