Brandon Jennings, a 6-2 point guard from Los Angeles, has decided to forgo college and spend a season playing in Europe because of academic inelegibility based on his SAT scores. Some have questioned the move. I think there's good and bad things to it. The good is that he'll earn a good salary and play against good competition. The bad is that he's undersized for a European guard and that he may not play. He may also face resentment from opponents and teammates. To me, it's still worth the risk.
The real issue, as Mark Cuban pointed out two years ago, is that the Euroleague is attempting to compete directly with the NBA as the world's pre-eminant basketball league. Cuban argued that the NBA was subsidizing the competition in the arrogant belief that it would never be able to seriously compete with them. In effect, the NBA wants the Euroleague to become a bigger, better version of the D-League. The Euroleague, though, sees itself as legitimate competition for the NBA. I, for one, support the Euroleague in this regard.
Having another top-flight league is a good thing for basketball world-wide. If the Euroleague is able to navigate the treacherous waters of European labor laws and create a viable, multi-nation entity, the NBA will surely benefit. Why? Because unlike Cuban's concern about foreign players immediately picking up and going home, I think players will go wherever they (a) can earn the most money and (b) will get the most playing time. At the same time, this will create more elite-level jobs and better players, enhancing international competitions and domestic leagues. With a viable Euroleague, which means more television revenue and increased exposure in the US because surely ESPN will pick up Euroleague games, the NBA could be persuaded to shorten its season and have a Champions League-style tournament with the top European teams. I think that would bring boffo ratings for whoever broadcasts it.
A viable Euroleague would also challenge the US (and Canada) to change the basketball infrastructure. Right now, high school players like Jennings go through the charade of high school to go through the charade of caring about college for one year. Academies like the IMG Basketball Academy would probably flourish (though they'd have to be forced to provide high school curriculum) while the NCAA would cry foul. But not too loudly because the exodus of one-and-done players would allow the NCAA to lend credence to the idea that it's about the academics and not really a huge business exploiting teenagers.
Slate.com sees a similar trajectory. The article, though, sees this as a bad thing. I see it as a good thing because it will allow responsible elements (i.e. the government - please don't read too much into this example) to clean up the way basketball is played in the US. To me, there are two concerns: developing skills and education. The vast majority of elite high school basketball players over-estimate their own ability. If they have the talent to get into, say, the IMG Basketball Academy or something similar, they need to get an adequate high-school education. The reason is simple: when most of them can't move on professionally, they'll need a foundation to get into college so they can get a real job.
The NBA needs to take the lead on this. They've invested a ton of money in overseas expansion. And David Stern wants to expand into Europe. Why bother? Let the Euroleague do that. Instead, Stern should, with the NCAA, USA Basketball and Basketball Canada, reform the North American pre-college basketball system. Throw some money at it and make it better. At the same time, the D-League will benefit (Stern should pay D-League players more and give them education at local colleges).
None of this will stop players like Brandon Jennings. I wish him nothing but the best in Europe. He's a decent test case as he's talented and appears to be a sure lottery pick. I'm sure his experience will be studied by everyone involved. But the NBA and the NCAA need to learn the right lessons from this. A knee-jerk rule change by the NBA or the NCAA will not prevent the next Brandon Jennings. Only comprehensive reform will.