Brian Bowen, whose allegedly greased recruitment to Louisville cost Rick Pitino his job and essentially cost Bowen two years of eligibility, has decided to join the Sydney Kings of Australia’s National Basketball League.
This is noteworthy for a couple reasons. First, it brings to a close Bowen’s quest to play this next chapter of his basketball career stateside. Bowen was a top high school recruit in 2017, a McDonald’s All-American and a finalist for the Naismith national player of the year award, and federal prosecutors say Adidas paid his family $100,000 for Brian to play at Louisville. That revelation—that a world-class basketball player would make a fraction of his worth to play basketball for a major basketball powerhouse—led to Louisville permanently shutting him out of their basketball program altogether, fearing NCAA punishment. Bowen transferred to South Carolina, but when the NCAA ruled him ineligible for the 2018-2019 season, Bowen hired an agent, declared for the NBA draft, and punted on the remainder of his college eligibility. Bowen later withdrew from the 2018 NBA Draft, following the May scouting combine.
But here’s why this career move is actually very cool: Bowen is joining the NBL as part of its new Next Stars program, which is specifically designed to provide a professional, paid alternative for top American basketball players to the NCAA’s rigid and exploitative amateurism. Per the league’s website:
“The system affords players who do not wish to go to college or cut their college careers short, the opportunity to demonstrate to international scouts they have what it takes to play professional basketball against fully grown men in one of the best professional leagues in the world where there is a long history of developing young, up and coming stars destined for the NBA,” [NBL Chief Executive Jeremy Loeliger] said.
Lest you think this is some crummy backwater league, Terrance Ferguson of the Oklahoma City Thunder was drafted 21st overall in 2017, after forgoing his college eligibility and playing one season of quality basketball in the NBL.
It’s a groovy setup: the NBL identifies players of a particular pedigree and assigns them eligibility for the program; if the player elects to join, the league contracts with the player directly, and fits him onto whichever of its teams most aggressively wants him. The player is paid not by the team, but by the league, and the special designation that comes with the Next Stars program means the player will not count against the team’s maximum quota of international players. The benefits go in almost every direction: the NBL gets the exposure that comes from having a top young international player balling on one of its teams; the player gets, you know, paid money for their enormously valuable skills; and the team gets a terrific, high profile young player who doesn’t count against their payroll—compensation for the fact that many of these guys would presumably be one-and-done or two-and-done rentals.
But the benefits don’t go in every direction. No, deliciously, the NCAA is frozen out, and potentially screwed—if the Next Stars program winds up offering a truly viable alternative path to the NBA, it will absolutely eat into the NCAA’s function as the NBA’s primary minor league, and other international leagues will surely follow suit. If Bowen recovers his value and winds up an NBA lottery pick, there will be some NCAA crooks tugging on their shirt collars.
The Next Stars program was announced in March of 2018, and Bowen becomes the first player to use it as a path to the NBL. Here’s hoping many more prep superstars follow in his footsteps.