The rise and fall of former North Carolina Tar Heels standout P.J. Hairston has been well documented, myself included. After spending his freshmen year playing a small role for the Tar Heels, Hairston led the team in scoring his sophomore season. Entering his junior year, we has being touted as a potential first-round NBA draft pick as well as an All-America candidate.
Of course, getting in trouble numerous times this past summer in scenarios that involved speeding, rental cars and an ex-convict, UNC had no choice but to let Hairston go. This time around, UNC went down without a fight, not even filing paperwork in hopes of gaining Hairston’s reinstatement for the remainder of the 2013-14 season.
Because they didn’t file the paperwork, Hairston is considered ineligible, not just at North Carolina, but ineligible by the entire NCAA. However, by not filing the reinstatement papers, any negative and legal information the NCAA received during its investigation into Hairston’s summer antics will remain a secret. Had the university filed the paperwork, the NCAA would have notified North Carolina, Hairston and the rest of the world the exact details of the situations, most of which would like diminish Hairston’s credibility and, potentially, ruin any chance he has at an NBA future.
Hairston is not allowed to transfer, so he had two choices: either start working out, training and entering his name in the 2014 NBA Draft; or playing in the NBA Developmental League. He chose the latter and after a few weeks, Hairston went from being ineligible in college basketball and joining the Dallas Mavericks’ D-League affiliate, the Texas Legends.
While it may not seem like it right now, this could spark a dangerous trend that not only affects the D-League, but would also have an impact on the NBA and even college basketball as a whole.
Back in October, NBA commissioner David Stern, stepping down after this season, said that he believes the D-League could be a new outlet for players to play immediately instead of going to college to play basketball. The rules state, as they stand, that you must be one year removed from high school in order to join the NBA. However, the rules also state that you only have to be 18 years of age or older in order to join a D-League team. Stern even went so far as to say that the D-League educates players better than playing in college does.
Now, the debate over whether colleges should compensate their student-athletes has been gaining some traction lately, with NCAA president Mark Emmert stating that high-major programs could potentially start paying their athletes in the near future by supplying a stipend of some kind. Playing the D-League, while having a faster track to the NBA than hoping your college career pans out, also provides these athletes with a chance to make some money while playing.
By playing for a minor league NBA team, you are being closely watched by NBA teams throughout the year. Most of the players, former college athletes that couldn’t make it in the NBA quite yet, have the option to be called up by the NBA teams that own their rights. However, in Hairston’s case, he cannot be called up to the NBA this season. Instead he will have his name automatically inserted in the 2014 NBA Draft pool, much like Glen Rice Jr., now with the Washington Wizards, did last year after his short college career at Georgia Tech ended.
High school players hoping to make some money while playing basketball before the NBA could decide that entering the D-League would be a better option than going to college, being forced to take classes they don’t want to take, and be forced to live like a typical college student that also has to play basketball full time as long as they are 18 years old when they graduate from high school.
This brings the question of what would happen if this began to become a sparking trend? There are numerous college basketball players that have had some problems and the NCAA decides that they need to suspend them and, ultimately, take away some of their eligibility as well. Case in point, Ole Miss’ Marshall Henderson. He’s been an exciting and talented scorer for the Rebels for the past two seasons now but can’t seem to get past his demons in order to be a high profile draft prospect. Instead of accepting the suspension that the NCAA and Ole Miss handed down to him, Henderson could have easily picked up his ball and gone to play in the D-League. Of course, there’s also a possibility that no team in the D-League would take him because of those same demons he’s fighting, but it’s an option he had. Luckily he decided to return to college to help turn his life around.
Except, what happens when high school students no longer enjoy the appeal of playing for a college team, making no money and hoping they don’t get hurt before they leave after one season for the NBA? High profile college basketball is still a huge draw, both in terms of fan interest and revenue. While playing for a program such as Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, North Carolina or some other established basketball program, these players are in the eye of the storm every game. Playing in the D-League does not provide that same type of publicity. While NBA teams might have a closer look at you, it’s hard for fans, sponsors and agents to look at you when you’re playing in the D-League. When’s the last time you heard of a player in the D-League that’s going to be the next big thing in the NBA?
High school players jumping straight to the D-League and then entering the NBA Draft the next year, while an intriguing scenario, doesn’t have much merit to it, especially if the NCAA is seriously considering allowing the high-major schools to pay their athletes. However, the NBA could just as easily allow D-League teams to pay their player more than they are right now, making them an instant money making conglomerate as well.
This is an issue that should be monitored in the near future, but not right now. Hairston’s situation is unique to that of a Jeremy Tyler (whom tried to bypass the NBA’s 18 year old age limit/one year removed from high school rule, was denied, went to play overseas and now, most recently, has a bench warmer role for the New York Knicks). Hairston didn’t have any other options, so he chose to make some money. Hairston isn’t allowed to play college basketball again and must now become an adult much quicker than he would had he kept his nose clean and been allowed to stay with North Carolina.
It’s hard to imagine players such as Tyus Jones or any other high profile incoming freshmen to chose to play for the Erie BayHawks instead of the Duke Blue Devils, despite the money making option. David Stern may think that the D-League teaches its players better than college can, but it can’t offer up the chance to be a national sensation and top NBA draft pick. Not yet, at least. There may be a day where this occurs, but not in the foreseeable future.