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  • Ethan Heyman

From the playground to the pros: Road to the NBA is tough

Updated: May 5, 2021

Many argue that the National Basketball Association is the most competitive and talented sports league in the world. If you really want to understand just how challenging it is to make it into the NBA, take a look at recent NBA champion Fred VanVleet.

When the Wichita State guard finished his all-star career for the Shockers in 2016, he had high hopes of getting drafted into the NBA.

After all, he had been a major contributor to Wichita State's return to basketball prominence, that included a Final Four run during the 2012-13 season and an undefeated regular season for the 2013–14 team.

Despite that success, he was passed over in the two-round 2016 NBA Draft and had to try his luck in the Summer League.

After an impressive summer league debut, VanVleet signed with the Toronto Raptors' G League team (a minor league system in the NBA) and ultimately earned a spot on the Raptor’s 2017 roster.

VanVleet developed into a major key player for the Raptor’s success that season, and ultimately helped the team win an NBA championship.

The road to the NBA is never easy. Even after a successful and reputable collegiate career, VanVleet had to bounce around in different leagues before playing in an NBA game.

While the NBA has several different entry points, most go through the G-League. VanVleet’s journey into the league was not easy, but he was far more fortunate than thousands who get turned away much earlier.

Brett Greenberg, assistant general manager for data and analytics for the Washington Wizards, crunched a few numbers to point out just how hard it is to be a pro basketball player in America.

“This is the best basketball league in the world… 15 players on a team, 30 teams, only 450 roster spots,” he said. “And millions of players play ball.”

The road to the NBA

Founded in 1946, the NBA comprises the best and most talented basketball players from all over the world.

The league has 30 teams, and 29 teams have a G-League affiliate team, which is the NBA’s official minor league. It provides the opportunity for players, coaches, officials, trainers, and front office staff to develop.

“The best part of the G-league as a professional is that you don't have as much distraction. I mean, of course, you have other things to worry about.”

Those “other things” to worry about that Greenberg is talking about are a variety of things.

When you’re on an NBA roster, you’re under constant pressure of performing well, in the fear of losing playing time or even a spot on the roster.

But when you’re playing in the G-League, there is far less pressure to perform well.

The players are essentially playing solely to improve their individual skills, not necessarily for team wins or for losses.

“You're not distracted. So players can really come in and just get better and better and better,” Greenberg stated.

Players come from the international pro level as well as the college ranks, either drafted or undrafted.

The NBA draft is a complex concept that deserves some explanation.

The 10 worst teams in the league are entered into a lottery that takes place in June, several weeks before the actual NBA Draft Day at the end of July.. This allows the teams with the worst records a greater chance of getting a higher pick and the best players available.

In the NBA Draft, there are two rounds, and roughly 60 prospects will be selected, usually two for each team.

If college players are fortunate to be among the 4% drafted by an NBA team, they are either sent to the G-League to gain more NBA-level experience, or given a two-way contract, which grants them a chance to play for the NBA team’s G-League affiliate as well as get called up to play in the major league when necessary.

But even making a minor league level team is nearly impossible for athletes, mainly because the talent for the NBA can be globally acquired.

According to a study conducted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association in April 2020, only roughly 1.2% of all college basketball players end up playing in the NBA.

From that same study, researchers concluded that only 4.2% of NBA draft eligible, Division 1 college basketball players were selected in the 2019 NBA draft.

That 4.2% translates into about only 150 out of the 3,500 players who are eligible for the NBA Draft.

Increasing number of international prospects

Since talent can be acquired from all over the world, and international players are oftentimes sought after by NBA team front offices, players have to play their best ball to stay relevant.

“You don't just take an international player, to take an international player. You're taking them because you believe in them, that you believe in everything that they're gonna bring quality material to the organization and that they could develop,” Greenberg stated.

With the NBA rapidly growing into a more globally renowned sport, more international players are gaining attention from NBA scouts.

The superb global talent only makes the road to the NBA even more narrow.

“When you win a championship, you are called world champions for a reason. So the idea is to have the world's best players,” Greenberg said.

Before the 2017 season began, international players covered 25% of the league’s population.

While that number has slightly declined, the NBA is still trending toward a more internationally-diverse league.

G-League v. College

While about 4,500 players compete at the Division 1 level in the NCAA, there is a recent trend of athletes trying to enter the G-League directly from high school in an attempt to not only get paid to play, but also receive more recognition from NBA scouts.

A few big high school prospects such as Jalen Green, Isaiah Todd, and Jonathan Kuminga have all decided to compete in the G-League, instead of playing at the collegiate level.

On the other hand, players from other countries and undrafted players all can compete in the G-League to receive NBA recognition as well.

Earl Grant, former head coach of the College of Charleston men’s basketball team before taking a new job at Boston College this spring, pointed out that some high school prospects are now choosing to play in the G-League instead of at the collegiate level because of the chance to make money.

“A lot of times, most kids get looked over. I think what's happening now. That the NCAA is losing some power because the development league, the NBA Development League is starting to take these players and telling them instead of going to college, you can come straight to us now and we'll pay [you],” Grant said.

With a growing international presence in the NBA, it can be an easier decision for high school prospects to join the G-League and receive immediate NBA attention, instead of playing at the collegiate level.

Although as a college coach Grant may be biased, he doesn’t think this is the best route for young players.

“I think the NCAA prepares you for the NBA better [than the G-League] because of just personal development and giving you a sense of discipline,” Grant said.

As long as the NBA is around, the road to stardom will never get easier for basketball players.

Only the best of the best survive, and that's why it is widely considered the best and most competitive sports league in the world.

College as a developmental league

Joe Chealey, Grant Riller, and Jarrell Brantley are three notable and recent CofC basketball alumni, who were all drafted by NBA teams.

Chealey played for the Charleston Cougars from 2013-2018, and played a major role in the team's first March Madness Tournament berth in nearly 20 years.

Chealey went undrafted in the 2018 NBA Draft, but signed a two-way contract with the Charlotte Hornets G-League affiliate, allowing him to play for both the team’s G-League team as well as on its NBA roster.

Brantley, another exceptional CofC basketball player, was the first player to be drafted from College of Charleston since 2011.

Drafted in the second round of the 2019 NBA Draft to the Utah Jazz, Brantley also signed a two-way contract.

Riller, CofC’s all-time leading scorer, was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in the second round of the 2020 Draft and has spent most of his time playing for the Hornet’s G-League affiliate, the Greensboro Swarm.

While their talent is impeccable, all three players are still trying to find their footing at the pro level, bouncing between the G-League and the active NBA roster.

Trent Robinson, currently a high school basketball coach in Columbia and former CofC teammates with Chealey, Brantley and Riller, has remained friends with them while also following their NBA careers.

“[Riller, Chealey, and Brantley] are really fortunate just because any opportunity to play basketball as your career is a blessing. Whether you get to play in the G-League, or come from overseas, just the idea of you being picked in the draft is a blessing. Just them three getting their foot in the door with the G-League is awesome,” Robinson said.

Chealey, who is currently rehabbing an Achilles injury and is an NBA free agent, still called his situation “blessed.”

“It’s a blessing to play,” he said. “You can’t take any day for granted.”

by Ethan Heyman

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