Late last month, when Oscar Tshiebwe announced he would return to Kentucky for his senior year, his decision was not surprising, even if it was rare. It had been 14 years since the last time a consensus player of the year came back to college after piling up so many awards, and Tshiebwe is just the second Naismith Award winner in the last 40 years to return to defend his trophy.
While Tshiebwe’s decision was nearly unprecedented, he was just the first in a flood of bigs to say they will stay for at least one more year of school. Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson and North Carolina’s Armando Bacot also agreed to come back for another season of college basketball. While the sport has grown apart at the NBA and college levels over the last decade, April’s slew of returns was just the latest signifier of how widely it has diverged.
The NBA has moved away from the traditional back-to-the-basket big man as its embraced spacing and quick-twitch centers who can provide horizontal and vertical spacing. Yet, as the newly flush Name, Image, and Likeness era has hit college basketball, the divergence may grow even larger, with college now not only a safe haven for the classic big but also a place for them to get paid without having to leave the comforts of a sport that appreciates them but can also pay them.
“It comes down to value,” one college assistant coach said. “It comes down to what your NBA value is. The thing with the bigs is there’s more value to having a big like Oscar Tshiebwe on your roster in college than the NBA because of the space and point and because of how much they value the three-point shot. It just becomes (about) whether you’re a really good player that’s a draftable player or not. There are guys that are very good college players that don’t get drafted in the NBA. I think it gives them more value and gives them more ability to make some money in the age of Name, Image, and Likeness. If you’re a really good big it makes sense to be acknowledged.”
Tshiebwe, Dickinson, and Bacot were all likely to be second-round picks or go undrafted had they entered the NBA draft; only Tshiebwe was ranked in the top 75 of The Athletic’s 2022 big board before their decisions.
Returning to college was always a palatable path to players of that sort, but the new ability to also profit while still in school could create a new chasm in how big men are perceived. While the NBA could continue to throw the cold shoulder, they will have more reason to stay in school rather than leaving early to find the grind of the G League or Europe to build a professional career.
“The old-school back-to-the-basket undersized center who can score a lot of points… they have a potentially really profitable future in college,” one NBA front office person said. “Right now it’s not really something that’s really coveted. It’s a very good thing for them. They’re making a lot of money and probably getting their degree… It’s really a best-case scenario for where the league is.”
Tshiebwe will make upwards of $2 million this upcoming season. Dickinson and Bacot will do well too. The financial upside is only trending up — until and unless the NCAA figures out a way to make its own rules.
That salary would far exceed what Tshiebwe could make in the NBA next season. This season, the 30th pick in the draft made $1.99 million. Second-round picks do not get guaranteed contracts and teams can squeeze them for player-unfriendly deals. They might also land a two-way deal, which paid $462,629 this season but is also not guaranteed.
“As they see more guys have more success in NIL they’ll realize the risk isn’t worth the reward,” the front office person said. “The money is only increasing.”
While the NBA draft has not become less hospitable for bigs over the last few years, it has been that way for less mobile ones or those without a diverse skill set. The college assistant noted that NBA teams also place less of an emphasis on offensive rebounding, a skill which allows bigs like Tshiebwe to dominate at Kentucky.
The second round has become their domain. In 2021, six centers were taken from picks 50-60.
This year, just three centers are ranked in the top 30 of The Athletic’s top 100 prospects; seven land in the next 40 spots. Even Drew Timme, the Gonzaga star, might not get selected.
The trend is unlikely to change any time soon. For bigs like Tshiebwe, Bacot and Dickerson, staying in school is just following the money.
“Especially looking at the playoffs,” one scout said, “it’s so tough being a dinosaur these days.”
The San Antonio Spurs received a small win Tuesday that will help them play a few more games away from home. The Bexar County Commissioners Court voted 3-2 to approve a one-year license for the Spurs to play four games outside of San Antonio and the AT&T Center — their home arena — during the 2022-23 season. The commissioners court granted the franchise a limited approval after it had asked for permission to do so for four games in each of the next two seasons. Their agreement with the county only allows a maximum of two games each season.
The Spurs have been in San Antonio since 1973, when they were still in the ABA, and began playing at the AT&T Center in 2002, when it opened up. They are contractually bound as a tenant to their current arena until 2032.
The commissioners court asked the Spurs to come back in for its next court meeting on May 17 to discuss playing at the AT&T Center in more detail and what else is behind the franchise’s request, according to details provided by a person with the court, including metrics and the rationale for receiving dispensation to play four games outside of San Antonio in a second season. The court has also asked the Spurs to come back in front of it to discuss the franchise’s long-term commitment to Bexar County.
“From day one, we’ve received amazing support from Spurs fans in San Antonio and across South and Central Texas,” Spurs Sports & Entertainment CEO RC Buford said in a statement. “We are committed to finding new, creative ways to purposefully engage and celebrate our fans from Mexico to Austin, continuing to expand our regional fanbase. We believe San Antonio is uniquely positioned from a cultural, geographic and economic standpoint to serve as the anchor for this region. San Antonio has been home for five decades and the organization will continue to innovate, positioning the Spurs to thrive in San Antonio for the next 50 years.”
Spurs chief legal counsel Bobby Perez told commissioners that the franchise wanted an amendment to their agreement with the county so that it could play as a home team in Mexico City and as a home team in the Alamodome during the 2022-23 season, as well two games as in Austin, which would be within 100 miles of its home. The Spurs will celebrate their 50th anniversary next season and want to play games at the Alamodome to mark the title they won there in 1999.
The NBA is targeting a game in Mexico City involving the Spurs to be played in Dec. 2022. The Spurs have previously played in Mexico City but as the away team.
The Spurs want to play two games internationally during the 2023-24 season and two games in Austin. Perez said it has conducted discussions with the Moody Center in Austin about playing there but there is no agreement. The specter of Austin, especially, seemed to raise concerns with commissioners.
Perez said the Spurs went in front of the commissioners court to avoid triggering the non-relocation term in their agreement with the county, which would lead to a roughly $130 million penalty if it is imposed. He said the games would be intended to “further our regional market,” and to expand the franchise’s business.
The Spurs are a bottom-10 media market in the NBA and want to expand the size of their reach from just its home city to a radius spanning Austin and Monterrey in Mexico. They have already made moves in that attempt. They signed a partnership with Viva Aerobus, a Mexican airline, and have had staff deployed in Austin for more than a year to figure out how to engage Spurs fans in that market. The Spurs’ naming rights partnership has also ended and it is searching for a new naming rights partnership for its home arena.
Perez also told the commissioners that the Spurs’ recent equity sales in the franchise — which brought in Michael Dell, Sixth Street and Joe Gebbia as minority owners — actually increased the size of the Holt family’s ownership stake and its control of the franchise.
Perez faced a persistent line of questioning from commissioners about the Spurs’ desire to stay in San Antonio. When asked by commissioner Rebeca Clay-Fores about the Spurs’ commitment to San Antonio, Perez responded: “Our commitment is we are staying in San Antonio” and reiterated Buford’s statement.
County Judge Nelson W. Wolff was dismayed by the 3-2 vote splitting the court and still seemed dubious of what the Spurs’ long-term plans may be.
“That’s not a good sign,” Wolff said. “It shows you that there’s a divided opinion in this community as to the intention of the Spurs and there’s a lot of concern about just what the heck you’re doing.”
Wolff said he believed team owner Peter J. Holt that the Spurs are staying in San Antonio. Still, he expressed reservations and asked the franchise’s ownership to arrive at the next meeting.
“It’d be nice,” County Judge Nelson W. Wolff said, “to get a statement from him.”
Holt took over as managing partner last June. The Holt family has run the team for more than 20 years and first bought into the franchise in 1996. They are also building a $510 million mixed-use performance campus in San Antonio.
(Photo of Oscar Tshiebwe: Dylan Buell/Getty Images)