April 27, 2010
What Good is an NLI, Anyway?

Two weeks ago the top-ranked point guard in the 2010 recruiting class announced his decision to attend the University of Kentucky and play for John Calipari. That news, on its face, probably should have been met with a collective yawn, and not simply because Brandon Knight was long-rumored to be a Kentucky lean. No, the reason for the underwhelming reaction would be that Calipari has convinced the best (or second-best, depending upon whom you trust with your evaluations of 18-year old hoopsters) point guard in the country in each of the past four recruiting classes to play for him. If you’re an NBA GM with an upcoming need for a new floor general, it’s probably a good idea to get to know the Kentucky coach. It would seem that playing for Calipari for one season before heading to the NBA draft is a rite of passage akin to blogging about Big Ten hoops before writing for Prospectus.

What made Knight’s decision a bit different is how he chose to seal it. For one thing he's graduating from high school in a matter of weeks, so this decision comes a bit late in the game. But beyond timing Knight was unique in that he didn’t sign a National Letter of Intent (“NLI”), choosing instead to autograph a simple financial aid document. Don't be surprised if other recruits follow Knight's example.

In fact from my perspective the question isn't why Knight didn't sign an NLI, but rather why would he? Frankly an NLI doesn't offer anything to a player like Knight that the financial aid documents do not. You can read all about NLI's if you want, but here are the high notes:

--It's voluntary, not compulsory.
--Upon signing an NLI a student-athlete can no longer be recruited by other institutions.
--The NLI is binding on the student-athlete for one year. If the student-athlete decides to attend another institution, s/he must not only sit out one full season but also lose one year of eligibility. The institution may relieve the student-athlete of this penalty by releasing him/her from the NLI at the institution’s discretion.
--The NLI is binding on the school for one year. Specifically, the institution is obligated to provide an athletic scholarship for one full academic year.

With those provisions in mind, it’s not difficult to see why Knight chose to do without an NLI entirely. Sitting out one full season is a harsh penalty, and it’s not like Knight had to worry about finding a college willing to give him one year’s worth of free education in exchange for playing basketball. When asked why he didn't sign a NLI, Knight simply responded that “my parents advised me to do it,” and “I’m not sure why.”

If that’s truly the case, Knight’s parents should be commended. As the number one-rated overall player by at least one recruiting service, Knight’s time in college figures to be short. To ensure that he’s adequately showcased on the collegiate level, Knight has to make sure that he will actually, you know, play. Normally that’s not much of an issue for a player with his talents, except that his chosen school also happens to be where John Wall was recently playing basketball. And although there are very few scenarios in which one could see Wall returning to school, the man has yet to hire an agent. Then there’s the matter of Eric Bledsoe, a natural point guard who moved over to make room for Wall. Bledsoe has also yet to select representation. While I expect both players to be wearing expensive suits on June 24, you never know what might happen.

Of course playing time's not the only consideration. Players tend to select coaches, not schools, and a coaching change is often the reason given when a recruit seeks a release from his NLI. Just look at DeMarcus Cousins and his preemptive strike. Had he followed through on his original commitment to UAB and Mike Davis, Cousins would have been easily the biggest (figuratively and perhaps literally as well) recruit in the school’s history. Cousins, however, had one demand before he would sign his NLI. He wanted UAB to put it in writing that they'd grant his release if Davis were no longer coaching the Blazers. In a true head-scratcher of a decision, UAB refused. Given that Davis was coming off just his second season and had led the team to 23 wins, you’d figure a guy would get a little more slack than that, particularly for a recruit of Cousins’ stature. In any event Cousins ended up playing for Calipari, where he helped send UTEP to the dance.

Nor does the Calipari connection to NLI creativity end there. Before leaving Memphis in the spring of 2009, the coach inked a class that included Cousins, Wall, and Xavier Henry. The NLI's they signed included the amendment that Cousins had asked of UAB, that they be released if Calipari left town. (What precognition!) When Calipari relocated to Kentucky, the recruits all took advantage of that amendment. An NCAA rule prohibiting the practice has since been issued.

Expect to see more NLI brush-offs by top talent in the future. For one thing the one-and-done rule adds uncertainties related to playing time. Second, the coaching carousel just keeps getting faster and faster, which results in more volatile coaching situations. So in a sense this is primarily an issue for the most elite recruits. After all, the NLI offers security for the school. It’s one thing to take a soft commitment from the nation’s top point guard, but it’s quite another to sweat over the 30th best. For that reason I can’t envision a lot of schools outside the bluebloods entertaining this practice. If Kentucky misses out on Knight, oh well, they’re still plenty good. But it would be a far more damaging thing for a school like, say, Seton Hall, which does't have the same talent base to fall back on.

Still, even players who aren't invited to play in All-Star games funded by hamburger sales should think twice before signing a letter of intent. Take the curious case of Ben Brust, a high school standout from Mundelein, Illinois. Although Brust was recruited by several power-conference schools, he doesn't appear on a lot of top 100 lists. NBA GMs haven't exactly been in a hurry to dissect his game, and if they do it won't be for another four years. Nonetheless, Brust’s commitment to Iowa was a nice grab for then-coach Todd Lickliter. In the wake of Lickliter's dismissal, however, Iowa granted Brust a release from his NLI, whereupon the young man was promptly recruited by other Big Ten schools like Wisconsin.

This would normally be where we'd get our happy ending, with Brust playing alongside Jordan Taylor in the Badgers' backcourt. But that's not going to happen because the Big Ten won't allow it. Turns out conferences have their own NLI rules, some of which forbid a player from backing out of a commitment in order to attend another conference school. The rule has its useful aspects (for one thing it's an incentive to make conference coaches play nice and stay away from signed players), but in a case where Iowa explicitly agreed to waive the conference's prohibition, the Big Ten's stance doesn't make much sense. Situations like Brust’s could make recruiting even more difficult for coaches on the hot seat, who, as you might expect, tend to be coaches of mediocre teams. Thus not only do the rich get richer, but the poor actually get poorer.

How to fix this? Well, at least one part seems obvious to me: Listen to DeMarcus Cousins. Allow NLI's to be voided if the coach is no longer at the school. The NCAA’s intent--that NLI's focus on the recruit's education, rather than the coach or team--is idealistic but not very pragmatic. Given that head coaches rely on assistant coaches rather than heads of English departments to recruit players, I think it’s safe to say that the players are by and large choosing schools based on how the basketball team is managed. Furthermore conference rules forbidding other teams from snagging newly-released players aren't doing much good. The most likely outcome is simply that these players are driven against their own preference to play in another conference.

And as for addressing the one-and-done element, well, I can think of a lot of ways to “fix” that problem. (For instance, require all athletic papers be filed well in advance of the deadline to pull out of the NBA draft.) Still, the best fix there will probably have to come from the next NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, which is a topic for another column.

Josh Reed is co-author of the Big Ten Geeks blog.