With new rules in place allowing college athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness, a vast financial frontier is now available for players who were previously barred from benefitting monetarily on their talents without running afoul with the NCAA. Exactly what the impact will be for college basketball in particular remains unclear, but star college athletes are already in the process of marketing themselves in new ways.
So while we wait to see all the different directions college basketball players will go with their new rights and how the new rules will change the game, let’s take a look back and think about which players from the past might have benefited most if today’s NIL rules had been established during their playing careers. The internet era has opened up opportunities previously unfathomable to 20th century stars, but even the household names of yesteryear could have profited off endorsement deals in a meaningful way.
For this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff, our writers are picking the players who would have benefited most from NIL profits while in college and explaining their picks.
Adam Morrison, Gonzaga
The name that immediately comes to mind for me is Morrison, the Zags legend who quickly became the star of the sport after averaging 28.7 points in three nationally televised games in November 2005 against No. 23 Maryland, No. 12 Michigan State and No. 3 UConn at the Maui Invitational. But it wasn’t just the scoring. It was also the long hair, and of course, the mustache. In a time where great college basketball players often struggle to transcend the sport, Morrison undeniably did. He was one of the most recognizable athletes in this country during that All-American season, one that culminated with him leading the Zags to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. And that’s why if he would’ve been allowed to profit off of his name, image and likeness back then, it’s reasonable to assume Morrison could’ve cashed-in significantly via big traditional brands like Nike and Gatorade, sure, but also with hair and mustache brands interested in using a recognizable face to increase product recognition. — Gary Parrish
Christian Laettner, Duke
This topic came up about two weeks back when the NCAA officially opened the doors for NIL allowances and put it on the schools to determine their rules and standards. I like that we’re touching on it here with hoops because the most popular response to this question overall has been Tim Tebow. In college basketball, I think there are a couple of really good candidates. Zion Williamson is obviously the most recent example. And he would have benefited plenty, though he would have just been a one-and-done. I think our most likely candidates have to go to players who spent three or four years in college.
So I will go with a Duke player — but one from two generations pre-Zion. Laettner is, by any objective measure, one of the five most accomplished players in men’s hoops history: be the best player on two national title-winning teams; go to a Final Four every season of your career; make one of the most famous buzzer-beating shots in basketball history; and transform Duke in the process. Laettner holds five NCAA Tournament records and was the consensus National Player of the Year in 1992. If he had been able to cash in on his name while at Duke, he would have been a multi-millionaire, even in the early 1990s. The fact he became such a polarizing player would have only increased his earning opportunity. — Matt Norlander
Magic Johnson, Michigan State
We’ve yet to see which players in college hoops will garner the most money in the NIL era, but my guess is that the bigger the talent and the bigger the personality and the bigger the following are three of the main factors that will drive market value. Magic has the holy trinity. He averaged 17.0 points and 7.4 assists per game for a Michigan State team that went 25-5 in his freshman season, and he has that light-up-a-room smile that would have advertisers flocking to earn his endorsement. While he only spent two seasons in college, it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t have been among the highest-earners in the sport because of his flashy skill set on the court and magnetic personality off it. — Kyle Boone
Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon
Ionescu’s storied college career resulted in her becoming the first player in NCAA history, male or female, to record 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds in a career. Her record-setting four years at Oregon not only helped build the Ducks’ program into a serious attraction, but helped build her into an international brand as well. The multi-talented point guard served as a rare transcendent superstar for the game who could be recognized by those even with just a passing interest in basketball.
With hundreds of thousands of social media followers and a platform to reach certain fans in a way no male player could during her career, Ionescu would surely have been the college basketball player benefiting most from NIL rules during her career. It didn’t take Nike long to sign Ionescu once her college career ended, and it’s easy to envision Nike co-founder Phil Knight, a massive Oregon booster, working with Ionescu while she was still donning the Oregon green. After all, Knight has already partnered with Oregon football star Kayvon Thibodeaux, and he has just a fraction of the social media followers of Ionescu. — David Cobb