“If you go to a pro league, you’re going to have to become an adult,” Lively said. “You’re going to have to pay bills, buy houses, buy apartments and all that. If you go to college, you have most of that taken care of. It’s going to be a hard decision to make: Do you want to stay in college for a year or go to a pro league for a year and play against grown men and work it out?”
For years after the N.B.A. prohibited its teams from drafting players directly out of high school, starting in 2006, there were few places to go besides college as a way station between high school and the N.B.A.
In recent years, though, other options have surfaced: Darius Bazley, now with the Oklahoma City Thunder, spent 2018-19 as a New Balance “intern,” part of an endorsement contract that assured him at least $1 million (and as much as $14 million). LaMelo Ball, this season’s top rookie with the Charlotte Hornets, and R.J. Hampton, now with the Orlando Magic, spent the 2019-20 season playing in Australia’s professional league. And four players last year — including Jalen Green, a top prospect in next month’s draft — jumped from high school to the G League. Overtime Elite, an upstart league, will also pay six-figure salaries to players still in high school, while another new venture, the Professional Collegiate League, plans to pay players $50,000 to $150,000 in addition to stipends for college tuition.
Rod Strickland, who recruits talent for the G League, was in Las Vegas this month, along with N.B.A. scouts from nearly every team, at the Pangos All-American Camp, which has over the years attracted future stars like James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis and Trae Young. (College coaches were not permitted to attend live events during that period, though they could watch via livestream.)
Many eyes at the camp were on Duren, a muscular 6-10 forward whose perimeter shooting has developed enough for one N.B.A. scout to draw comparisons to Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo. Duren, who has planned recruiting visits to Miami, Memphis and Kentucky this summer, said that college coaches had spoken with him broadly about making money off his name, mentioning jersey signings or working basketball camps, but that he had not given much thought to the possibilities.
“It’s never been and never will be about the money,” said Duren, who by the end of the summer plans to decide whether to attend college or take a professional route and whether to finish high school early. “This next step, I’m just looking at how to get better, how to develop. I don’t know where that’s going to be. I’m still figuring that out. Some people think if you offer a kid some money, he’s going to go that route, but I’m not one of those kids. I just want to get better, and I love the game too much to cheat it that way.”
Still, with a robust social media following, an incandescent smile — “His smile is gorgeous; it melts your heart,” Drysdale said — and the attention that comes with being considered the top high school player in the country by some people, there will very soon be some value in that.
Duren’s 10 NFTs from the Pangos Camp, priced the highest at $299 apiece, quickly sold out.