The JBA, or Junior Basketball Association, is a men’s basketball league founded by LaVar Ball. It’s composed of young players who, for whatever reason, forego college basketball. It is unique in that it pays players. This is noteworthy because once athletes are paid for playing basketball, these players lose their “amateur” status and become ineligible for NCAA athletics (and their clearest path to the NBA).
I see two obvious opportunities for the Junior Basketball Association dreamed up by LaVar Ball.
Opportunity 1: The Social Media Friendly Route
The first opportunity is to continue the LaVar Ball style of social media marketing where showmanship and personality are more important than being factually correct. (I’m keenly aware this is very “Trumpian” in nature.) He could encourage players to cultivate large social media personalities. If LaVar Ball can build Big Baller Brand through sheer media trolling, what could a small army of trolls accomplish for a league?
Related to this, we live in an era where there are YouTube channels dedicated to showing hyped-up edits of high schoolers, and sometimes middle school children, playing basketball. What gets views is the flash of their game, youthfulness, athleticism, speed, trash talking, and the THIS-IS-THE-NEXT-JORDAN excitement. Some players gain a lot of hype, even if they have little realistic opportunity of entering the NBA (see 5’5” Yuuki Okubo and 5’6” Aquille Carr). These YouTube channels are in some ways the spiritual successor to the And1 Mixtape Tour, combining the wow of streetball with the flashes of potential we see in youth AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) basketball.
As of July 3rd, 2018, Yuuki Okubo’s top three most viewed videos have 3 million, 2.7 million, and 1.6 million views. Zion Williamson’s top three most viewed videos have view counts of 4.7 million, 4.1 million, and 3.7 million. LaMelo Ball, youngest son of LaVar Ball, has view counts of 9.9 million, 9.7 million, and 8.6 million (the last video is dedicated to criticizing LaMelo’s game, but hey, no such thing as bad publicity right?). There are plenty of similarly electrifying players who are doing numbers on YouTube like Mac McClung, Kyree Walker, Shareef O’Neal, Cassius Stanley, Jalen Green.
LaMelo has already been signed to the JBA. What would happen if more of these types of players were signed? People have shown they are already invested in youthful, flashy talent. Could a league composed of these hyped-up high school and college-aged players exist and even thrive?
Option 2: Basketball’s Most Complete “Finishing School”
The current basketball system of high school hoops, to NCAA (usually Division 1) college hoops, to the NBA is a broken system. So broken in fact, that LeBron James is going to co-produce a documentary on the exploitation in college basketball. The NCAA earns colleges millions in television revenue, while relying on the unpaid labor and services of young “student athletes”. These “student athletes” are forbidden from earning any money off basketball, or they risk losing their “amateur” status. These “student athletes” agree to this mainly because the NCAA is an unofficial farm team system for the NBA.
Supposedly getting into college opens doors for players. But at established basketball programs, these athletes “student athletes,” are so valuable that there is tremendous incentive to commit a variety of academic frauds to keep their players academically eligible for athletics. Some athletes are encouraged to take easier classes, or even “paper courses” that do not actually exist. There have even been instances of adult staff writing papers for student athletes.
To state the situation as bluntly as possible, these kids generate so much revenue that these centers of higher education (that exist to educate) are coming up with ways to NOT EDUCATE.
Athletes are also not guaranteed a scholarship for their four years. Some colleges will provide yearly scholarships that must be renewed. Being lucky enough to earn a scholarship is no guarantee the student will actually receive an education.
That being said, the NCAA college basketball system operates as a sort of “finishing school” for these young athletes. It’s also (at least) one more year to observe them playing against top tier talent (if they were not already playing against top talent). However, because these students have to spend time on “academics” and college is not officially a finishing school, there are certain areas these kids are not coached in.
When analysts say “NBA ready” they usually mean the players have bodies that are big and fast enough for the NBA and/or they have skills that are polished enough to be useful in the NBA. But what about all the other skills and knowledge these kids need to grow and thrive in the league?
All the areas NCAA college ball is not preparing kids could be areas the JBA goes out of its way to coach top basketball prospects in. Here are some areas the JBA could potentially lead the charge in:
- Financial literacy: helping players understand contracts and the “business” side of basketball
- Financial management (i.e. what to do when you go from being a broke teenager to earning hundreds of thousands of dollars overnight)
- Professional development / conduct
- (specifically dress and interviews)
- Personal branding / social media
- Proper nutrition and physical development
- Sound running and landing biomechanics that reduce injury
- Studying NBA game tape and team / player tendencies
To be really radical:
- Psychological counseling to help players manage anxiety, stress, and personal issues
- Coaching on healthy team dynamics, relationships (both basketball and personal life), and organizations
- An actual education—how radical would it be if the JBA provided a more useful education for its players than D1 schools?
- To hustle like a true “start up,” the players could contribute to the event planning and “back end” work that goes into running a league. They could potentially walk out with directly transferable work experience.
If Lavar Ball could “graduate” one or two players who transition into the NBA faster than a player from the NCAA, that would be a huge boost in JBA’s reputation as a “finishing school.” The JBA could expand into a more robust youth recruiting and training facility in the vein of European “youth academies” for soccer. In fact, before the announcement of the JBA, The Ringer wrote a piece titled “The Future of NBA Player Development Is Soccer’s Youth Academy Model“. LaMelo Ball also happens to be in the header photo. Could this be a sign of the future for the JBA?
Besides ticket and merchandise sales, JBA could potentially charge NBA teams and other professional leagues access to these players. The JBA could also negotiate for rights to be the player’s agent when they negotiate their first adult professional basketball league. Just saying, Lavar Ball already has a sports agency…
To survive, the JBA needs to fit in with the current basketball ecosystem. The best opportunity can be debated, but it needs to commit to a direction and aggressively carve out it’s place.