Could the NBA’s G League be a viable alternative to college basketball?

Former UNC star Marcus Paige signed with Charlotte as a “two-way” player, a higher-paying new category that allows up to 45 days with the parent club while still assigned to the minors.
Former UNC star Marcus Paige signed with Charlotte as a “two-way” player, a higher-paying new category that allows up to 45 days with the parent club while still assigned to the minors.

Here’s one way station that may actually lay along the path to the future.

Outposts like the free-standing Greensboro Coliseum Fieldhouse are where talented recent college attendees now can get paid to serve basketball apprenticeships. The spiffy building, seating capacity 2,100, opened barely a year ago beside the larger arena to accommodate Charlotte’s G League affiliate, the Greensboro Swarm. Most NBA teams now have a similar shadow collection of G-whizzes to support their efforts.

Interchangeability is stressed. On court the nomenclature, the offensive and defensive systems, mirror what the parent Hornets run. Even the team colors mimic the NBA franchise, just one big, happy assembly line. Most players, after all, are destined to be useful journeymen, filling in around stars.

There’s no mistaking the distance between playing in the big time and being relegated to waiting in the wings. Still, the ease and frequency with which the NBA club dispatches players back and forth on I-85 (does anyone take the train?), and the growing numbers of former G Leaguers on NBA rosters, makes it far easier for unproven talents or old hands to swallow brief stops at Greensboro for extended fine-tuning.

Ease of movement has its own head-turning complications. Over Christmas Charlotte reserve guard Dwayne Bacon – a second-round pick who left Florida State in 2017 after two seasons – did his imitation of a basketball boomerang as he was “assigned” to the Swarm, but then “recalled” without ever playing. Two days later he was again dispatched to Greensboro as rosters were tweaked and rebalanced and scored 45 points in a losing effort.

There’s some thought the G League – renamed this season after corporate sponsor Gatorade after previously being called the Development, or D League – presages a possible collective future for men’s basketball. Players not wishing to endure university classwork to access quality competition, coaching and training might just be freed to go pro out of high school. Collegians who declare early for the draft and aren’t selected would have a desirable landing spot, too. There’s certainly something to be said for giving aspiring professionals a chance to hone their skills in an immersive athletic setting rather than require them to multitask as unwilling scholars.

By definition development comes before winning in the G League, a formulation infrequently articulated in college. “We understand the big picture – this is what the team is here for,” says Greensboro coach Noel Gillespie, who doesn’t contest a description of his job, with its constantly shifting personnel, as akin to balancing on an ice floe.

The other day Charlotte sent 2017 first-rounder Malik Monk, a one-and-done guard from Kentucky, to get in some work at Greensboro. Monk led the club to a matinee victory over the Wisconsin Herd with 25 points, took nearly twice as many shots as any temporary teammate, then returned to the Hornets. Another interim Swarm member, point guard Julyan Stone, was assigned to start alongside Monk, recording team highs in rebounds and assists.

During N.C. State’s 2017 coaching transition Terry Henderson lost his NCAA appeal for a sixth year of eligibility within a month of the 2017 NBA draft. He now plays for the Swarm. David T. Foster III

Their arrival cost second-year pro Marcus Paige a starting spot for the first time this season. “I’m not blind to what’s going on,” concedes the North Carolina product, a late second-round pick in 2016. “They’re roster players on assignment. In almost every G League situation, assignment guys take priority. I think everyone on our team is cool with that.”

Gillespie praised Paige’s uncomplaining, unflinching attitude. “Keeps everyone stable, doesn’t let them get too high or too low. I love him because he’s an extension of the coaches.”

Paige, a slight 164-pounder, signed with Charlotte as a “two-way” player, a higher-paying new category that allows up to 45 days with the parent club while still assigned to the minors. He appeared for nearly 19 minutes against Wisconsin, similar to the floor time for shooting guard Terry Henderson. The former Wolfpack wing had 17 points and hit four 3-pointers in seven tries, more than the Herd sank in 30 attempts.

In fact, Gillespie likened Henderson to Paige in his professionalism and understanding of his role, and praised not just his shooting but his team defense, an attribute unsung in Raleigh. “He kind of changes the complexion for us defensively,” Gillespie says.

During N.C. State’s 2017 coaching transition Henderson was penalized by a slow-acting and unsympathetic NCAA. His appeal for a sixth year of eligibility due to injury in 2015-16 was refused within a month of the 2017 NBA draft.

“That kind of hurt because it came so late in the process,” Henderson says mildly. The timing of the verdict prevented Henderson from arranging workouts with pro teams. Undrafted, his only invitation to a training camp came from Charlotte/Greensboro, a fact the Raleigh product now regards as “a blessing.”

Hornets Basketball
Cat Barber is in the G League after was not selected in the NBA draft. He left N.C. State after his junior season. Chuck Burton AP

He appreciates teaming with Anthony “Cat” Barber, the blink-quick 6-2 N.C. State guard who led the ACC in scoring in 2016 while Henderson was sidelined. Barber, also undrafted, played in the D League last season, starting 18 games for the Swarm. After a brief fling with an Italian team he’s back in Greensboro minus his once-striking cornrows. In two games against Wisconsin last week Barber was bumped to inactive status, relegated to sweat clothes and a baseline seat next to fans near the Swarm bench. He had started earlier in December beside the 6-foot Paige.

Gillespie, the second-year Greensboro head coach and a 14-year NBA staffer, says Barber and Paige are being groomed as backup point guards. “For both those guys, that’s going to be the ticket to get to the NBA, being the decision maker and playing the pick and roll,” he explains. “To play in the NBA, from the Hornets’ perspective, run the second unit, get guys in the right position, be that kind of quarterback on the floor.”

The 24-year-old Paige remains an object of warm admiration in Chapel Hill, cheered when his image appears on video boards at Smith Center games. But the former All-ACC performer and Academic All-American is intent on moving forward, pursuing a basketball journey ultimately his own.

“I love and appreciate our fans, but I don’t play for Carolina any more,” notes the model athlete exhibited for UNC’s Board of Trustees in 2014 at the height of the NCAA’s investigation into the school’s academics.

“It’s nice to just come here and be a Swarm and Hornets player, just be comfortable with that atmosphere rather than dealing with how it was for three years at Carolina when I was kind of like the face of everything going on and stuff.”