Under the Influence of Jeremy Tyler

by

Setting the Stage: Jeremy Tyler
Jeremy Tyler has decided to forgo his senior year of high school in favor of Europe. Tyler’s decision caused me to reflect on how situations similar to his might impact the Spurs/Toros in the years to come. What follows is a loose assemblage of dots that will become more easily connected in the years to come. I’m not trying to draw hard and fast lines, I’m just tracing the early contours of change.

In general, I have no problem with a player’s decision to leave school in favor of basketball–I realize this one statement puts me in opposition to a large portion of our readership, so hear me out. In this case, things are complicated by Tyler’s dropping out of high school. This, I’ll concede, is problematic. If we knew for certain that he’d still complete his high school degree or that he’d recently tested for and received a GED, this would be a less complicated conversation. But let’s set that aside for the moment and consider this in the abstract. Stand aside while I throw around some broad strokes.

Tyler wants a career and basketball, and his decision represents a more honest approach than going to a college on a sham set up. In Sunday’s New York Times Fran Fraschilla responds to the claim that this is a–gasp–money-motivated decision (I’m not sure why that would be a bad thing, despite the boos and hisses from certain pundits). Tyler is expected to make a couple hundred thousand while playing in Europe.   NYT:

Fran Fraschilla, an ESPN analyst who covers college games and analyzes foreign players in the N.B.A. draft, noted that if Tyler played in the second division in Spain, his competition would be former college stars like Wayne Simien (Kansas), Taylor Coppenrath (Vermont) and Danya Abrams (Boston College).

“He’s going to have to be mentally and physically tough,” Fraschilla said.

But Fraschilla added that he was certain Tyler was not going to Europe for the money. He said he could easily earn $200,000 in the United States.

“He could pretty much get that money illegally, either via a college or an agent, willing to funnel his family the money,” Fraschilla said. “I’m hoping this is a savvy move to really improve his game.”

Henry Abbott approaches the question of cash from a slightly different perspective. He writes,

I could write 50,000 words about the complexities of [whether or not Tyler’s decision is bad for basketball]. But my basic thought is: If you love basketball, then you will love having the free market work its magic on basketball development. We have an NCAA model with limited practice time, questionable education, faked test results, all income pushed under the table, and a certain few individuals  making all the big money from TV and sponsorship deals. That’s going to be there. But now a few players are expanding horizons, and trying different models. Trying different models is good for basketball.

(Abbott develops this thought in greater detail here.)

The D-League and the Special Case
So while I think we’d all admit that there are more ideal passages from prep to pro, my lack of confidence in the NCAA set up leads me to believe that alternative paths should be explored. In a recent exchange, D-League President Dan Reed told me that:

I firmly believe that for a number of reasons, would-be NBA players are best served by going to college. But if for some reason that doesn’t work out (a la [Mike Taylor’s] situation), we offer some pretty compelling benefits. Namely, that we are the most-heavily scouted league in the world by NBA teams, and provide an opportunity to play against NBA talent, using NBA rules, with NBA-caliber coaching, right here in the United States with teams that have formal and direct relationships with NBA teams. We also provide a plethora of continuing education options for players who want to supplement their education — for example, Randy Livingston (a former NBA D-League MVP and current assistant coach with the Idaho Stampede) got his college degree via our program with the University of Phoenix last season. We have a couple more draft-eligible players this year who are playing quite well (Trey Gilder in Colorado and Keith Clark in Tulsa) so it will be interesting to see how this plays out over time.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the D-League, while in no way targeting high school players, has made itself into a viable alternative to the NCAA for those players who have a legitimate shot at a professional basketball career (alert readers will notice that I’m not restricting their career options to the NBA–I have all professional basketball leagues in mind).  But taking Reed’s comment at face value, it should be clear that this amounts to a happy accident. The D-League did not set itself up to compete with the NCAA model–and, obviously, it really doesn’t. Remember the broad strokes. Nevertheless, its successes have put it in a position of becoming an increasingly popular alternative route for special case would-be collegiates. The D-League is still in its toddler stage, but promises to grow up big and strong. The bigger and stronger it becomes, the more attractive it will seem to those who are interested in basketball careers.

It should go without saying that he D-League is in a position to absorb special case players. It’s appeal is in the margins, not the center. For example, a talented kid who is not academically eligible could fit into its model. The same for those kids who have made dumb off-the-court decisions and therefore can’t find a home in a prominent program. In these ways, the D-League can already boast of some success. See: Taylor, Mike.

I can’t help but wonder if teams will eventually pass over the Sean Williams’ of the world, forcing them to prove themselves in the D-League before locking them into rookie contracts. In some cases, guys would pass through the vetting process, in others cases they wouldn’t. In every case NBA teams will have reduced the risk of wasted money and damaged image. Mike Taylor is one of my favorite players because of how he’s turned past mistakes into present successes. Counter-intuitively, the league only benefits from people like him.  The D-League, among its many functions, acts as a safety net. Sometimes it catches gold, other times dross.

And although the D-League is a professional basketball league, it will not expose these sort of players to the same of temptations or scrutiny of a high octane NCAA program. In many cases, it would be a less volatile environment in which the player must walk a straight line and earn his keep. The NCAA creates celebrity. Even in the community college gym the former high school standout is a star, and is tempted to believe he’s much better than he is. In the D-League gym, he has to compete against guys who really were stars for schools like Arizona, Oregon and Duke. He’s surrounded by older, more mature athletes whose basketball careers testify to the necessity of humility and hard work. The D-League does not traffic in the delusions of grandeur sometimes fostered by the NCAA.

So, I’ve circled the wagons once again. All I’ve said is to emphasize that the D-League is a viable alternative that is good for some players, the culture surrounding the sport, and the game itself. To my mind, this is an unassailable conclusion. The fact that the D-League is good for people like Mike Taylor gives me reason the believe it could be great for people like Jeremy Tyler.

The Toros and Tyler(s)
This brings me to my point. I think the Spurs should have an interest in tracking all this. I was not surprised to see R.C. Buford’s name in the NYT article. He is speaking in general terms, but his answer is telling.

“There are no limitations to the number of practices in a week,” said San Antonio Spurs General Manager R. C. Buford, who stressed that he could not speak about specific players. “There are no limitations to the time in the week, and there are no limitations, if the player is worthy, to play in their junior program team on a Friday night and play with the senior team on a Sunday.”

As the Spurs continue to develop the Toros, they could find themselves considering someone in Jeremy Tyler’s position. And while such players would still become draft eligible at some point (perhaps eliminating him as an option for the Spurs), becoming an attractive destination for high school standouts might still be an important priority for the Toros. Why?

First, it’s simply a matter of business. The Spurs want the Toros to become as entertaining and compelling a sell as possible. Peter Holt recently stated that he’s trying to “broaden the company’s footprint in the Austin area.”  The Toros not only represent an opportunity to improve the Spurs, but they also represent an opportunity to increase profit.

Cedar Park (an Austin suburb) is building a smaller facility, and we hope to maybe take the Toros up there for some games,” Holt said. “We’d like to build some teams in Austin too, more minor-league type situations. We want to expand in Central Texas in the sports business. Central Texas is expanding, so why not it be us?”

The Spurs recently hired Peter Lubell as their Chief Operating Officer. That move is consistent with, and logically prior to, the agenda Holt lays out in the quote cited above.  Dan Reed offered his assessment of the hire with these words:

I think the fact that the Spurs hired Peter shows that they view the Toros as more than just a pure basketball concern, and that there are real business opportunities to be had by owning an NBA D-League team, particularly in a neighboring market like Austin is to San Antonio.

Earlier this week, I was able to ask Peter Lubell about the Toros business agenda going forward.  He confirmed all of my suspicions–the plan is to push hard.  Peter Holt did not purchase the Toros merely for player development. Lubbell gave me a taste of what is to come for the Toros brand:

The Toros have a number of new initiatives underway to build our brand in the Austin market.  On the marketing front, we will be launching a new branding campaign around the 5th Anniversary of the Austin Toros.  We’re going to revamp our team website to make it an interactive information source for our fan base.  In addition, we will be creating deeper relationships with the growing cities around Austin to expand our reach and build our season ticket numbers.  Under our technology platform, we will be announcing a partnership with a company who owns a web-based program that will allow our season ticket holders to manage how their tickets are used throughout the season, increasing the number of seats that will be filled at each game.  We will also be increasing our use of social networking websites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter to interact with our fans and build our brand through the internet.  At the Austin Convention Center, we will be improving our overall presentation and fan experience through the addition of a floor-level VIP lounge and exciting new activities that will make everyone stop and take notice.

But we all know that this is all for naught unless fans care about the product on the floor. Assembling a talented, winning minor league team is crucial to this process. In this respect, Lubell has a good situation. The Toros always field a very competitive, compelling roster. Now, add the Jeremy Tyler wrinkle to all this.

The Beauty of Transparency
Adding a prep star on a two-year stint (NBA draft age limit)–to combine with Spurs assignees and former college stars–would only help the team’s appeal to fans. One of the great advantages of the D-League is the provision of plenty of practices and skills coaching.  In other words, high school stars whom choose the Toros are unquestionably putting themselves in an environment to improve while playing with other NBA players. And the fans are treated to this process. They get to watch lots and lots of talent. I’ve said this before, but at one point last season the Toros started DeMarcus Nelson, Marcus Williams, Malik Hairston and Dwayne Jones. All four were top level NCAA players, ranging from All-Conference to All-American. This is a good environment for a kid like Jeremy Tyler, and a kid like Jeremy Tyler would make even more fun to watch.

It seems to me that the D-League could provide a more honest pursuit a of basketball career for some players. Unlike any of the business institutions in the NCAA, it’s perfectly acceptable for the Toros (and the NBA hopefuls) to own up to the dollar signs associated with all this. The team wants a player because he is talented and will help sell seats; the player wants a career in basketball, and this one pays and offers a legitimate opportunity for advancement–in some respects, it offers the best opportunity for advancement. Rather than operating under the table, player and team can stand on top of it and dance around a bit.

Even front office scouts will welcome the relief of not having to translate skills sets into a strange tongue. The players are coming up within an NBA environment. So this too is more straight-forward than a conventional path.

The Elephant

The big problem in all this is that the D-League does not offer a competitive wage with European teams. The NBA seems to have unwittingly contributed to this issue by imposing an age limit on rookies. Thankfully for them,  the solution to this problem is to throw more support behind the D-League, perhaps in the form of subsidizing the league for a period of time, in much the same way it does the WNBA. A while back Henry Abbott ran a post on TrueHoopthat continues fascinate me down to the present. Abbott quoting Joseph Treutlein of DraftExpress:

Once again, I normally wouldn’t care that the NBA is wasting some money on the side, but what if that money was invested in a league that the NBA did actually have a vested interest in? What if it was invested in a league that could provide significant short-term and long-term benefits to the NBA? Well, it just so happens there is a league that fulfills those requirements. Why not give that money to the D-League instead?

Just a handful of posts below your post on the WNBA, you talked about the financial situation of the D-League, namely how top players in the D-League make up to 30k per season + benefits and per diem. This isn’t peanuts by any means, but comparatively to the money available overseas, it’s obvious why many top college players choose to go that route instead.

If you took the roughly $12million the NBA puts into the WNBA each season and devoted all that money solely to player salaries in the D-League, you’d see an increase in salary by 250% or more.

16 teams * 10 players = 160 players.
$12million / 160 = $75,000.

Add that to every salary in the D-League, and you now have a top salary of $105,000 per season + benefits and per diem. That, along with the ability to stay at home, will make the D-League a much more viable option for top college players that are getting offers overseas, especially with the NBA just a phone call away at all times.

From all I can gather, the D-League is healthy financially. It’s growing, and teams like the Toros are zealously pursuing greater growth.  So, NBA financial support, if that were to happen, of the D-League should not be considered a rescue line. That’s not the picture I’m trying to paint, and it’s certainly would not reflect the reality of the situation. Instead, it should be seen as the stepping back and asking how it can improve talent coming into the Association.  The D-League is a model of player development that not only works, but it’s nicely situated to address thorny issues such as the Jeremy Tyler decision.  If this is an emerging “problem”, the NBA does not have to look very far for its solution. It’s already sitting there at the table, waving its arms.

Something along those lines seems like the most sensible step forward. Why wouldn’t the NBA take the step–even if it means the death of the WNBA? I suspect the answer lies in its relationship with the NCAA. If the D-League were capable of offering all of its current benefits–which are legion–and a six figure salary, then the NCAA talent pool would eventually go from lake, to pond, to puddle. The European talent pool might decrease, as well. Some college basketball die hards would despise the change, and resent the D-League because of it.  But they’ll have missed the point. This signals a problem with the NCAA, not the D-League. For the Toros, who are the D-League’s flagship of affiliation, it could represent another important opportunity to create the model.

  • TDzilla

    …the death of the WNBA? The NBA might face some stiff opposition from women’s rights groups.

  • John Carr

    This is a fantastic read.

    “Rather than operating under the table, player and team can stand on top of it and dance around a bit.”

    Well said.

  • ThatBigGuy

    I’d support a merciful end to the WNBA’s life in favor of the D-League.

  • http://www.dailythunder.com Royce

    That was an excellent read Tim. Well done.

  • jk

    Fran Fraschilla’s comments are why I think he is the best color commentator in all of college hoops. That takes some guts to say that kind of stuff–especially coming from a guy that could eventually get back into coaching.

    Thanks for putting this post together, really interesting.

  • http://nerditry.com nerditry

    Fantastic article and I appreciate how much thought you put into each one of the main headers.

    @TDzilla: There’s no way to oppose it. The WNBA runs subsidized by the NBA and if they as a company decide that paying for a league that cannot support itself is not sound practice, there’s no argument to be made.

  • Rumble

    I feel like this was on ridiculous upside a week ago. this went into more depth, but they had same concept.

  • Bushka

    Yeah har dto oppose the WNBA being ploughed under if it’s not financially viable as a stand alone league.

    That said I also don’t see the NBA doing this, simply because of the enormous backlash there would be from the NCAA. They have so many “connections” to the league and so many brokers who are in positions of power I just don’t see them loosing the gravy train that easily.

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