How Bronny James, Mikey Williams emerged as faces of basketball’s next generation
The two best-known amateur basketball players in the country are underclassmen Mikey Williams and LeBron James Jr. That’s high school underclassmen, to be specific. At 15, they’re not even old enough to drive a car, yet they’re projecting as bellwethers for a new generation of basketball marketing.
The mainstream basketball fan wouldn’t recognize Mikey Williams, as he’s just a rising sophomore at San Ysidro High School in San Diego. But any basketball-savvy teenager or pre-teen you know likely counts among his nearly 2 million Instagram followers. LeBron James Jr., obviously aided by his famous father, has more than 5 million followers and has become an influence to his Sierra Canyon teammates and beyond.
Neither Mikey Williams nor LeBron James Jr. are considered the best current player in high school basketball. (That would be generational phenom de jour Emoni Bates, the top player in the 2022 class.) But thanks to the power social media, Mikey and Bronny are poised to help forge the new amateur basketball marketplace.
The conversation about the future of the NCAA’s new Name, Image and Likeness legislation is diametrically different in college basketball than in college football. And part of that comes from the inevitability that stars like Mikey and Bronny – they’re already known by one name – have a lucrative path available to them that doesn’t include college basketball. “Mikey and Bronny will be the first two players to change amateurism the way we know it,” said Etop Udo-Ema, director of the Compton Magic grassroots program, which features Mikey.
If you think that’s hyperbole, just check out the direct messages of the inboxes of top high school players. Udo-Ema is constantly fielding requests through his own Instagram inbox for Williams.
Other players are experiencing the same, as agents, marketers and brand-builders are all getting in line. Peyton Watson, a five-star 6-foot-7 forward in the class of 2021, said it’s not uncommon for people to write him and say, “Hey, I’ll give you [fill-in-the-blank] amount of money for an interview or to post this or that on your page,” said Watson, who has more than 10,000 followers. “And I’m not even one of the biggest players on Instagram. I can’t even imagine what their DMs look like.”
The rush to cultivate relationships with the top stars in high school basketball underscores a new era. With the long-ignored veil of NCAA amateurism formally lifted, much of the activity around top high school players once dealt with in the black market is emerging into the light. And social media is the connective tissue between young stars and brands, as experts predict that’s where college stars will be able to make much of their money. (Along with memorabilia and appearances.)
How much is available? “Can you imagine if Mikey played a different sport like tennis or soccer, how much money he would have made by now?” said Terry Tucker, Mikey’s basketball coach at San Ysidro High school in San Diego. “He would be in commercials, have his own shoe deal and everything.”
The roads between what we know as amateur basketball and professional basketball are intersecting quickly. Starting this upcoming season, a handful of elite players are skipping college to play in a new G League development program.
Following that avenue in the 2020-21 season will come another intriguing option. College athletes will be able to profit off their NIL starting in the fall of 2021, although projecting the impact of that is still unclear because the NCAA has yet to release the specifics of the rules and “guardrails.”
Regardless of what it looks like, the new NCAA rules have the potential to impact the decision making of top prospects. In recent seasons, the trickle of elite players skipping out on college basketball has turned into a stream. Three lottery picks in Krysten Peek’s latest Yahoo Sports mock draft essentially avoided college, with LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton going overseas and James Wiseman bailing out of Memphis after drama emerged about his eligibility in November.
Is the ability to make money in college going to make college sexier to elite players? Signs are that college basketball still has some work to do. Mikey is already on record, telling 24/7 Sports he’s trying to get to the NBA “as fast as possible.” While Bronny isn’t yet an elite caliber prospect, the ability to perhaps play with his father in the twilight of his career and LeBron’s consistent vitriol toward the NCAA make him an longshot candidate to play college hoops. For Emoni Bates, he’s visited Michigan State and said the right things, but it’d be stunning if he doesn’t immediately capitalize on his marketing potential.
What about other top prospects? Could the NIL give college basketball an added shot of juice? The consensus was that it’s too early for a consensus.
Patrick Baldwin Jr. is the No. 3 player in the Class of 2021, according to Rivals.com. He’s a Duke lean, and says NIL doesn’t impact his recruiting as he’s “going to college to get a degree and develop as a basketball player.” If that sounds like the recruiting version of coach speak, it’s because Baldwin’s father, Pat Baldwin, is the head coach at UW-Milwaukee. “I haven’t put much thought into what kind of deals an athlete could get while in college, but it could open the gates for possible paid appearances,” said Baldwin Jr.
Kenny Clark, the father of top-20 point guard Skyy Clark, is eager to learn about the options available to his son. Skyy Clark is an elite player in the Class of 2022, and Kenny Clark said his son’s inbox is overflowing with messages from “different people wanting him to help promote things or partner with us.”
The Clarks are waiting to see what the rules look like before doing anything. And they’re also curious to see how Green and the handful of other players do in the new G League pathway.
"I'm going to take a look at everything and not rule anything out,” Skyy Clark said. “My dad went to college [at UCF] and loved it. You get that extra time to grow and mature without the pressure of being a pro yet but I have a couple years and I'm going to take every option into consideration.”
College coaches are keeping an open mind as well. Most are saying that they’re happy that the changes have been made. (They’d be foolish to say anything else publicly.) But they’re also uncertain of the reality.
“The devil is in the details,” said UNC-Greensboro coach Wes Miller. “How will this be structured? How will it be regulated? There is so much unknown at this point that it's hard to plan or prepare with any level of detail.”
One of the strongest pitches for playing college basketball is the built-in marketing arm that comes with the television and media exposure. From Carmelo Anthony’s season at Syracuse to Zion Williamson’s year at Duke, there’s a proven bottom-line difference for marketing for college stars.
Will that model begin to shift? Mikey and Bronny are exponentially more popular – at least in terms of followers – than any current or incoming college basketball stars. And as they play out their high school careers, they’ll also double as the face of what basketball stardom could look like in the next generation.
“Mikey and Bronny are the two biggest high school basketball players in the country right now and they still have three years left,” Tucker said. “The impact these two have made in the basketball world is incredible and they're only 15.”
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