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 …….