The potential benefits of the NBA academy initiative

A primer on the NBA academy initiative, which will invest in existing facilities and programs across the globe to facilitate more international players moving onto the path of becoming NBA players.

Why China?
Eventually, China could become home to three NBA-sponsored academies, a reflection of how crucial the Far Eastern market can be to the future of the NBA.

Fourteen years ago, Yao Ming was the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft, and the world – including China – expected that to be the catalyst for a steady stream of professional players coming out of China.

But it never happened. That’s been reflected in the Chinese national team’s poor results in international competitions as it has failed to reach the quarterfinals of the past two Olympics and four World Championships. Worse, China cratered to fifth place in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship and 2014 Asian Games.

China’s junior teams are struggling too, and the lack of progress has pushed Chinese basketball officials to open themselves to fresher ideas on modern coaching and strength and conditioning techniques to develop their existing talent pool.

The Chinese have a strong infrastructure, a love of the game, and a huge population of athletes. The academies will do quarterly mini-camps to check in on prospects’ progress, and also travel abroad to tour Europe and the United States to play competitive games. Helping the Chinese national team develop a deeper talent pool to achieve better results internationally will impact the popularity of the sport and could improve our chances of seeing the next Yao sooner rather than later.

The NBA Academy initiative could help develop the next Yao Ming. (Getty)
The NBA academy initiative could help develop the next Yao Ming. (Getty)

Impact on college basketball
The global academies could significantly increase the pool of eligible athletes for college basketball. The NBA will identify potential prospects early, and place them into educational structures to prepare them to meet NCAA academic guidelines.

Elite prospects could feel less compelled to sign with professional agents and enter into contracts with professional basketball teams overseas, which is a common practice now. Under the new system, amateur statuses can be preserved.

Especially in Africa, the NBA academies promise to expand options for young players turning 18 years old. This could dramatically transform the landscape of college basketball.

International infusion of talent into the D-League
As 18-year-olds, NBA academy graduates will not be able to move directly to the NBA; age limits require that they turn 19 in the calendar year of the draft. Elite players will need a next step before they’re eligible for the draft, and the NBA Development League will be targeted as the solution.

Rather than signing long-term contracts in Europe, Asia, South America, or elsewhere – deals that may include prohibitive NBA buyout clauses or inconsistent playing time – the D-League would be a natural option.

The NBA is pouring tremendous resources into its minor league, and the next Collective Bargaining Agreement is expected to include a strengthening of player salaries.

With a move to the D-League, young international players could continue to benefit from NBA-level coaching and evaluation against elite competition – all under the supervision of NBA front offices. What’s more, the D-League could be a smoother transition into North America, offering a chance to learn the language, culture and pro lifestyle outside of the glare of the NBA.

This could be a huge boon for the D-League, increasing global interest and bringing in an infusion of talent.

The backup plan for professional basketball
Of course, not every 13- or 14-year-old evaluated and enrolled in the NBA’s academies will evolve into a viable professional athlete. Some will stop growing. Some won’t improve as expected. There will be injuries. Some simply will not be good enough.

For those reasons, the NBA is creating a backup plan for academy participants. This could turn out to be one of the best selling points in approaching parents and guardians about persuading them to send their children to a foreign country. Essentially, the NBA is offering an educational endowment that the player can use at any point in their life toward academic studies. Even if an academy member ends up in an American college on a basketball scholarship and later during a pro career he decides to pursue a master’s degree, the player will be able to tap into this fund.

The academies are planning an aggressive program to tailor players’ academic tracks for future success. For players from rural areas who might not have gotten the education needed to advance into college, the NBA will create vocational programs and teach life skills.

NBA professional development
One of the NBA’s goals with the academy is not only to develop young players, but improve the ecosystem of coaches, trainers and scouts throughout multiples countries. Basketball personnel will have the chance to reach even more players beyond those recruited into the academy structure.

One of the biggest challenges basketball faces in most countries – including the United States – is a lack of high-level instructors to guide young players and teach fundamentals. The NBA’s willingness to train local coaches to better themselves should reap long-term benefits.

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