LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The talk of the college basketball recruiting circuit this summer centered around a prospect who wasn't headed to college.
Emmanuel Mudiay, a top-five guard in the class of 2014 out of Dallas, was once signed for SMU and hall of fame coach Larry Brown. Instead he opted to turn pro, some say because of finances, many others say because of eligibility concerns.
The reason didn't matter. What did were the terms of the deal he signed and who he signed it with: a $1.275 million contract to play a single 30-35 game season for the Guangdong Southern Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association.
That's $1.275 million, mostly tax-free, for five months of work. Moreover, the season ends in March, allowing him plenty of time to prep for next June's NBA draft. It's a lot more than tuition, room and board offered by SMU and more than enough to spin heads all over the recruiting trail.
"I think the new snack money will convince kids to go to school," joked Louisville coach Rick Pitino as he watched the AAU Nationals here earlier this month, referencing the NCAA initiative to provide unlimited food to players.
"We've got free Power Bars," he continued.
If future high school players make plans based solely on the bottom line, then Mudiay would turn out to be a trailblazer, because in terms of dollars this is a mismatch.
No one expects that, however.
The vast majority of American players will continue to choose to go to college for at least one year until they are eligible for the NBA draft. College athletics, for all the attacks it is enduring, still offers myriad benefits, including national television exposure, an opportunity at an education, competition in the famed NCAA tournament, tremendous camaraderie and the comforts of home.
Playing in China does none of those things.
That said, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) offers its own unique benefits beyond a potentially vast payday. It's what makes the Mudiay-Guangdong deal the most intriguing signing in basketball outside of LeBron James' return to Cleveland.
In the United States, much of the focus is on whether Mudiay has a positive experience and returns as a lottery pick, with a lot of money already earned.
"I think a lot of people will take inventory on this," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "How does it go for Mudiay? If it goes well and he has success over there and he's a top-10 pick, some other people may look at it. I think it will cause a ripple effect if he has a lot of success."
What's even more important, however, is whether the investment works for the Southern Tigers, namely if the franchise, already one of the strongest in the CBA, effectively markets the opportunity to watch a young talent and future NBA star (much the way U.S. colleges do). Profit isn't the sole determination either, as only a few CBA clubs make money. Excitement plays a role.
If this is a win for the team, then it won't be the last of the CBA's 18 franchises waving million-dollar plus contracts around high school gyms and AAU tournaments in an effort to draw a next generation star away from the college ranks.
With that kind of money on the table, some of the best players are going to take it. Maybe it's only a couple of players a year, but that's a change from the current situation.
"China is about new things," said Giovanni Funiciello, president of Los Angeles-based GCF Sports Management and a prominent agent and sports marketer in Chinese basketball since 1999. "You have a potential star in the making. I'm not going to put Mudiay in the category of LeBron James, but if [a team marketed] the possibility of a LeBron prior to going to the NBA …
"Is that going to mean more money out of it?" he continued. "I don't know yet. The jury is out on that. But it's possible. It's definitely possible."
Currently, Chinese teams are limited to just two foreign players and until now they have chosen veteran Americans. If a young up-and-comer is deemed more enticing, then that could shift.
The unique nature of Chinese basketball, opposed to the far more mature, competitive and cutthroat European leagues, is why this is different than previous players who chose to play professionally overseas directly out of high school. The most notable of those is current Detroit Pistons guard Brandon Jennings, who went to Italy in 2008-09 and struggled to find playing time or get paid what was once believed to be a seven-figure deal.
Jennings returned as a lottery pick but it didn't result in a flood of players making the leap, mainly because there was little reason for the Euro teams to want them.
In China, there could be both demand and some varied benefits for American players.
It's significant and will be mostly tax-free, with a Texas resident such as Mudiay needing only to contribute to social security. And it's quick cash: the season is just five months long. He'll be home by spring.
With a favorable exchange rate and a cost of living that is paltry by American standards, Mudiay can bring a vast support system with him to ease the transition and live like a king, all while saving money and supporting people back home. This isn't just scraping by.
"For a high school kid to bank $800,000 going into his first year in the NBA is going to send a message to other kids," Pitino said. "And for that kind of money, a lot of parents would probably go with them. It's only [five] months, and there's no school, which a lot of them don't want to do anyway."
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has stated he wants to extend the current age limit to two years, a move most in basketball expect to happen eventually. If so, then the potential earnings in China double, while the NCAA expects the best young talent in the world to remain uncompensated amateurs.
"If it's two years, then you could be talking three or four million dollars," Funiciello notes. "That's an awful lot to pass up."
Euroleague is grown man's basketball, with ultra competitive rivalries, coaches focused on winning – not developing teenagers destined to leave at season's end – and opponents who can overwhelm even the most impressive prospect. It has a lengthy schedule, running from October to mid-May. The fans are sophisticated and demand strong play.
Even obvious talents such as Jennings and Ricky Rubio, both instant starters in the NBA, struggled to get off the bench as 18 year olds. Besides the obvious risk to draft stock, it takes a headstrong player to survive that kind of humbling.
In China, the level of play is far more casual. There is rudimentary coaching according to American players and observers of the league, and defense is often lax. It's not unheard of for American players on opposing teams to engage in wink-and-nod defensive deals to help increase scoring and preserve jobs.
Culturally, American players are expected to score the most points in each game and average between 20 and 30 a contest. It is actually considered wrong for an American to pass up a shot.
This sometimes leads to absurd stat lines, such as former Rutgers player Quincy Douby once pouring in 75 points in a game, journeyman NBA player Bobby Brown going for 74 points and 10 rebounds once this season (he went 26-for-52 from the floor) or onetime Atlanta Hawk Ivan Johnson having a 54-point, 19-rebound effort.
"They aren't bringing Emmanuel in to average less than 20 points a game," Funiciello said. "If he averages less than that, then there's a problem."
The basketball may be bastardized, but the risk of being exposed is minimal. And how many young players aren't interested in having a complete green light against weak defenses, all while never having to crack a textbook?
There may not be great skill development (there often isn't in college hoops either) but this is a soft landing spot, nothing like Europe.
"To many people, college is everything," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "But to some people, maybe it's not the right fit … for some people [playing professionally in China] may be a better fit."
American sports fans know Kentucky and Kansas. Guangdong, they do not. The province is home to 104 million people though, and the Southern Tigers are routinely a contender for the title and feature a number of beloved national team players.
Playing college basketball is a tremendous marketing opportunity for a young player, but playing in the Chinese Basketball Association as a hyped, up-and-comer could be a game-changer for the right person.
"The potential could be big," Funiciello said. "The Chinese would see the player as one of their own and follow him when he gets to the NBA. The inroads in China would be incredible if he becomes a perennial NBA All-Star."
It's not a foreign concept, as fans of major college powers often follow former players' NBA careers, even if they are on campus just six months. In this case the numbers multiple. The University of Kentucky likes to call its vast array of fans as the Big Blue Nation. China is an actual nation, and one with 1.35 billion residents where basketball is quickly becoming the most popular sport.
Meanwhile, the trend with U.S. companies is to tie more and more of their budgets up in fewer and fewer players, mostly LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and a couple others. So looking overseas for outside income makes sense.
"There's not a lot of advertising dollars left in the United States," Funiciello said. "It's not like the early 1990s when everyone was getting money. A couple guys have monopolized the endorsements."
This isn't new, but it continues to grow as the Chinese economy and its interest in basketball develop. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant have made tens of millions hawking everything from shoes to cereal in China – Shaq remains the most popular pitchman despite retiring in 2011. It extends beyond the biggest stars though.
Retired NBA veteran Shane Battier has his own lucrative deal with Peak shoes and apparel. Stephon Marbury became wildly popular in China after coming to the CBA. Tracy McGrady found a second life. And dozens of American players head over during the summer for promotional opportunities. The opportunity, and cash, is there.
Adam Silver has stated he hopes to bridge the gap between pro fans and college fans, only a small number of which overlap. He simply wants "basketball fans." The two-year age limit could be part of that, helping the college game maintain continuity and star power.
While the league office is not focused on the potential of Mudiay, the possibility remains. If this were beneficial to all, why wouldn't the NBA want a handful of its young players connecting with Chinese fans and helping continue to open up a market that has long intrigued league executives.
In terms of sheer numbers, China is bigger than the NCAA could ever dream. If the Mudiay experiment works, why wouldn't the NBA and the Chinese Basketball Association consider direct cooperation of future stars and not just be a landing spot for aging ones?
None of this is to say it's easy or sure to work.
Mudiay still must thrive in a new basketball structure. The coaching may not be great. There are forever concerns about the state of medical care. And he has to do it while living in Mainland China, a completely different culture. There is a major language barrier, the food is different and the familiarities of home are far away. It's a daily grind even for experienced travelers.
So this could also be a disaster.
And even if he can do well on perhaps the most solidly run team in the league, ensuing players would find that each franchise is different, ranging from reasonable fits to complete shocks that might forestall recruitment.
The Xinjiang Flying Tigers, for instance, are capable of doling out almost unlimited salaries because like much of the league, it isn't run like a business trying to be profitable, but as an entertainment point. In the past it has paid big to bring in prominent former NBA players such as Kenyon Martin.
It's also located in the remote city of Urumqi, which is tucked between Kazakhstan, Siberia and Mongolia. It would be the hardest of sells for an American teenager.
Still, the possibilities here are considerable, especially if this works for the Chinese. This isn't Brandon Jennings trying Europe. The Chinese generally favor American big men, but if a smooth, open court player such as Mudiay becomes a fan favorite, then options open up for all sorts of kids who may be willing to take a well-compensated leap away from the NCAA.
No one thinks every top American prospect will suddenly pack up for the Far East. College basketball isn't going to crumble because of this.
That doesn't mean the Emmanuel Mudiay Experiment isn't capable of moving past the talk of the summer recruiting circuit and into a pioneering move that could change the game in its wake.