For college centers unwanted by the NBA, NIL opens a path for staying in school

Armando Bacot, last seen limping off the floor for North Carolina after yet another heroic performance in the national championship game, has had the most eventful spring and early summer of his life. He’s traveled. He’s taken business meetings, lots of them. He went to the Kentucky Derby. He threw out the first pitch for a Baltimore Orioles game, delivering a highly creditable (if not high-velo) toss straight into catcher Anthony Bemboom’s glove.

Most notably, he has landed a not-insignificant role on Season 3 of the enjoyably outlandish and very popular Netflix teen adventure series “Outer Banks.” Bacot will appear in at least a couple of episodes playing a character named, appropriately enough, “Mando.” In early May, he posted photos of himself alongside the show’s stars from the Columbia, S.C., set.

Bacot was invited to guest star by Josh Pate, one of the show’s creators, a North Carolina alum and devoted men’s hoops fan. The answer was an immediate yes. “It’s a show I love and always watch,” Bacot says, “so of course I said yeah.

“It’s been kind of crazy, honestly. The offseason has been all over the place.”

What Bacot’s offseason hasn’t been is remotely devoted to the NBA Draft, a fact that is also representative of a defining sea change in men’s college basketball, one whose effects are just beginning to be felt. A few years ago, let alone a decade or two, a player like Armando Bacot, coming off the season Armando Bacot just had, would be all but legally required to formally pursue an NBA career. He was a first-team All-ACC performer, a hulking 6-foot-10, 240-pound center who averaged 16.3 points and 13.1 rebounds per game. He played his best, most dominant basketball when it mattered most, and when, traditionally, players can make disproportionate changes to their draft stock: in the NCAA Tournament. There, Bacot wasn’t merely good, he was great, the first player to record a double-double in all six of his NCAA Tournament games; he grabbed at least 15 rebounds in five of those six totemic performances.

He was, in other words, the kind of player who leaves for the NBA Draft, no matter what the mock drafts tell him. Relative to baseline, a player’s stock simply doesn’t get much hotter than Bacot’s would have been this spring. It should have been time for Bacot to thank his teammates, coaches and the Carolina family for a wonderful few years, and to say farewell and good luck as he chased his NBA dream. That should have been that.

Except, well, Bacot didn’t really give the draft all that much thought.

Part of that was the ankle injury, and Bacot not being able to impress scouts and general managers in the actual draft process. “I didn’t want to put myself in a situation where I’m not all the way healthy and I’m kind of rolling the dice,” Bacot says. But he also didn’t have to leave campus to make money — and wasn’t projected to be picked in the first round even if he were fully healthy. One NBA scout told The Athletic that Bacot might not have been drafted at all.

So instead, Bacot joins a rich crop of star big men coming back to college basketball this fall. They include Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, who is only the second Naismith National Player of the Year to return to school in the last 39 seasons; Gonzaga’s Drew Timme, a two-time All-American and one of the (mustachioed) faces of the sport; Michigan’s former All-American Hunter Dickinson; and Indiana’s All-Big Ten big man Trayce Jackson-Davis. It’s the first time in nine years that at least one first-team All-American and one second-team All-American will be back in school. Add in Bacot, and you could reasonably build a preseason All-America first team with those five post players. And that’s without mentioning Purdue’s 7-foot-4 force of nature Zach Edey, who’s back for his junior season, and UConn’s Adama Sanogo, who was first-team All-Big East as a sophomore.

A decade or so ago, all of them would have been no-brainer first-rounders, if not high lottery picks. But thanks to the NBA’s lack of interest in their particular set of skills, and the newfound ability for them to make NIL money on campus, the old-school, back-to-the-basket big men are suddenly staying in school for multiple seasons.

“It used to be, if you were big and had a pulse you left,” Baylor coach Scott Drew says. “And now you’re big and dominant and can’t go. Your best position to recruit is a center. You can keep them.”

These two factors — the modern NBA and NIL — have combined to help change roster management in the college game. And it means the future of the men’s collegiate game, for almost accidental reasons, looks as strong as it has in decades.


Bacot, in particular, is an example of a player who can be extremely effective in college but struggle to convince NBA front offices of his efficacy in translation. He is big and strong and an innately well-positioned rebounder and interior finisher against collegiate defenders — but he doesn’t do any of the things the game-changing NBA bigs and wings now do. He isn’t bouncy and doesn’t play above the rim. He doesn’t make or even really attempt jump shots. His playmaking ability is nonexistent. His success in defensive switches and aggressive ball-screen coverages is limited at best. Unlike Duke center Mark Williams, who could go in the lottery in next Thursday’s draft, Bacot isn’t an elite shot-blocker.

“There are offenses where a non-shooting center just f**s up the spacing,” one NBA front office member says. “And then there are teams that get by with non-shooting centers, but they’re usually offsetting that with something special — vertical spacing or being a facilitating hub on offense, or being a big-time rim protector or super-switchy guy on D. A lot of these college bigs we’re talking about aren’t offsetting the lack of shooting. They have more than one liability, and that makes them a hard sell.”

In a world where the best NBA teams are often happy to play killer outside-in small-ball lineups and the last few surviving centers in the league have to swerve to get by — where even an all-time interior defender like Rudy Gobert gets constantly cooked on Twitter — Bacot was hearing second-round feedback at best, with zero assurances about his ability to land a guaranteed contract.

For Tshiebwe, whose historical outlier rebounding ability would have likely caused at least one team to take a chance on him, the money available via Kentucky made the idea of being a second-round draft pick less attractive. For potentially fringe guys like Timme and Jackson-Davis, or even longer shots like Bacot or Dickinson, the calculation is even simpler.

“I don’t know if the NIL stuff was truly outbidding some bag that was waiting for them from the NBA,” a scout says. “I don’t know if that bag actually exists.”

If not for the NIL earning opportunity, Bacot says he would have entered the draft despite the uncertainties. “One hundred percent,” he says. “I know I’m good enough to play at that level, and I know a lot of the guys that are coming out I feel like I’m better than.”

The same calculus would almost certainly have applied to Jackson-Davis, arguably the best, and almost certainly the most productive, big man Indiana has fielded since Alan Henderson. After being invited to the Combine, Jackson-Davis was thrilled to start the draft process this summer. His plan, he says, was simple: “Show out, take it from there.”

The key ingredients scouts want to see from Jackson-Davis are not mysteries to anyone — they want him to blend his dominant left-handed low-post play with more perimeter skill and range away from the rim. It has rarely made sense for Indiana to ask Jackson-Davis to do too much of the latter, but he is convinced he improved in those areas enough to boost the “anywhere in the second round” draft feedback he was hearing at the beginning of the process. General managers assured him he would be drafted. Jackson-Davis was convinced that if he played well enough at the Combine, he could get into the first round, at which point he would almost certainly be heading to the NBA. Then, just as he was raring to go, he got COVID-19.

In another era, this would have been a devastating, potentially career-altering blow, the kind of thing that might send an ambitious young person spiraling. Instead, for Jackson-Davis, the COVID disaster was little more than an affirmation of his suspicions that he should probably just come back to Bloomington for another year. “It just felt like a sign that I should return,” he says. “Announcing it was a huge relief.” He could develop, finish his degree, and undoubtedly begin earning his own basketball money, albeit in a way that was never available when his father was a collegian. “I wouldn’t consider NIL to be a big decision as to why I stayed at Indiana, even though I know there’s going to be money there and opportunity there, and I’m blessed to be in that situation,” he says. “Obviously I’m using that to my advantage, but I’m here to play basketball and finish my degree.” (The common assumption around Indiana basketball is that Jackson-Davis will have no shortage of NIL earnings arriving in his bank account in the next calendar year.)


Michigan center Hunter Dickinson, right, and Indiana big man Trayce Jackson-Davis will resume their Big Ten battle on the blocks this season. (Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today)

Timme, for all of his brilliance for Gonzaga, has drawn hesitant reviews from NBA scouts. One described him as a “savant” in the paint; there are few NBA players with anything like Timme’s footwork and post countermoves. Another said Timme should have played “in the 1950s,” which, if harsh, shows you how far away from dump-it-to-the-post-and-watch-this-guy-pivot style the NBA has drifted. In any case, no one could figure out how Timme could possibly stay on the floor defensively. It’s a big issue, and maybe the key reason why he didn’t stay in the draft on the entry deadline earlier this month.

“You’ll play a drop coverage to protect a really good player, but that’s hard to do with a guy that’s a role player,” a scout says. “You’re not tweaking the way you play defense to protect a guy that’s not a key ingredient to what you do. We might do that for (our star center). We’re not going to do it for his backup because it hurts your defense.”

For most longtime, devoted college basketball fans, particularly those who don’t also watch much NBA, this can induce whiplash. It seems unthinkable a player as good as Jackson-Davis — let alone Timme, or Tshiebwe — would be back in school. But this is simply where the NBA now is. The financial and performance-oriented incentives are no longer clear — and, beyond muddled, may even work to nudge some stars in the opposite direction.

It is one thing to get drafted in the second round; it is another to stick in the league, particularly as a classic big man competing not just with players in your own class, but NBA veteran bigs who float from roster to roster and in and out of the G League every year. And there are always more players coming up behind you.

“Guys like (Luka) Garza,” a front-office staffer says, pointing to the 2021 consensus national player of the year from Iowa, “even when they get better every year in college, dominate, make themselves a little more NBA-friendly by adding a 3, they still have defensive problems that are so hard to overcome. He got drafted, but he’s not a factor for Detroit yet, and is he even in their long-term plans? I don’t know. I just know there isn’t gonna be a push anytime soon for guys like that to come out earlier. They’ll keep staying in college, and the money is probably better. The third-string big market in the NBA is cheap and it’s crowded, and the next Garza-like guy might find himself fighting for some team’s last spot against Garza and a few other former All-Americans.”

Bacot was able to come back to school, rehab his ankle, and make a goofy Netflix show about treasure hunting and teenage drama. Rather than shoot wayward jump shots over an empty folding chair for a group of disapproving polo shirts, he could sign a sponsor deal with Bad Boy Mowers, get paid to play Fortnite (seriously), and enjoy his newfound success without gritting his teeth and grinding it out injured on the draft circuit, yielding himself to circumstances outside of his control.

“Obviously you can imagine the different offers,” Bacot says. “It’s all types of brands and companies, but I’m really just trying to manage it because I already have a lot going on. NIL definitely played a factor. Having these opportunities allows me now to be in school, allows me more time to get better.”

Tshiebwe, as our Kyle Tucker has reported, is expected to bring in “potentially millions” in NIL dollars. “It’s gonna make more financial sense for these kinds of guys to stay,” a scout says. “It also just makes the reality of the NBA game moving away from you a little more palatable. It softens the blow a little bit.”

It is a simple calculation. And it’s one that could meaningfully change the way coaches recruit — and even the way college basketball is played.


The differences in the NBA and college are stark when you simply look at post-ups. Only two teams in the NBA finished a possession in a post-up more than 7 percent of the time this past season, led by Philadelphia (featuring star center Joel Embiid) at 8.4 percent, per Synergy’s play-by-play data. College basketball had 207 teams above that threshold, led by Wyoming, which finished 28.6 percent of its possessions in a post-up.

“As long as we play by different rules,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood says, “the big man’s always going to have a place in college and can be a dominant piece.”

The rules have flushed many of the lumbering bigs out of the league. The NBA has a wider lane, meaning post-ups often happen further from the basket, and are a less efficient action. The NBA also has a defensive three-second limit, which makes it more difficult to guard pick-and-roll plays because you cannot simply plant a help defender in the paint. The NBA’s better shooters help with spacing as well, but the rules influence strategy and team-building. This is why skill and shooting is so valuable and why NBA teams stylistically are mostly similar. They’ve all figured out the math, and NBA players are freakishly good enough to pull it off.

“Unless you’re Joel Embiid, you’re not running sh*t through the post anymore,” one scout says.

Collegiate styles, meanwhile, are less antiseptic and sometimes wildly diverse — on both ends of the floor.

Of course, analytics have had a great impact on the college game as well. Both levels, for instance, have seen the percentage of shots from beyond the 3-point line rise. That’s made players who can excel on the perimeter on both ends of the floor more valuable in college, too, but it’s harder to keep those guys in school. Guards, wings and the occasional big man who thrive on the perimeter are not going to spend much time on campus, and since the desire of most college coaches is to get old, then it makes sense to design offense around which you can do just that.

Purdue’s Edey shot 65 percent from the field and averaged 30.3 points per 40 minutes during his sophomore season, yet he wasn’t appearing on any mock drafts. He’s only going to get better next season — an All-America campaign is within reason — and Boilermakers coach Matt Painter will have a good chance of keeping him again.

Edey ranked 440th in his high school class, according to the 247Sports Composite, so he wasn’t exactly a player other high-majors were clamoring to land. But those are the hidden gems college coaches should target.

A simple thought exercise illustrates why: Cade Cunningham was the No. 1 player in that class. By the time Edey’s career is finished, which player would you have preferred for your school? Would you want one year of Cunningham or four years of Edey?

Coaches spend tons of time recruiting players who move the needle for their program far less than Cunningham. Meanwhile, star centers without obvious NBA paths can become cornerstones, win triple-digit games and earn coaches contract extensions (and the breathing room to build their program long-term). And each new NBA draftee who leaves requires replacing; Armando Bacot doesn’t. The delta between the value of a good college wing versus a good college center is only growing.


Kofi Cockburn, left, stayed three years at Illinois, while Purdue’s 7-foot-4 Zach Edey, right, is entering his junior season for the Boilermakers. (Marc Lebryk / USA Today)

The smartest recruiting tactic might just be hunting dinosaurs. Coaches are hesitant to say so. Bill Self, for instance, just won his second national championship with the help of David McCormack, the should-have-been Final Four MOP who played four seasons at Kansas and isn’t likely to be drafted. Self also had the national championship favorite in 2020 before the NCAA Tournament was canceled, mainly because then-senior Udoka Azubuike was the most dominant big man in college. (Azubuike has played a total of 252 NBA minutes the past two seasons).

When Self is asked if he’d sign up for four years of Azubuike or a landing a one-and-done recruit like Chet Holmgren or a Paolo Banchero, he answers politically.

“I think you always try to get the best players you possibly can,” he says, knowing he may find himself recruiting the next Holmgren or Banchero. “But I think it’s been proven over time that experience does help you win at the very highest level.”

The game always evolves. Shaquille O’Neal, one of the most dominant players in the history of basketball, somehow stayed at LSU for three years. Not long after, players began jumping to the NBA as soon as possible. Now it has flipped back the other way for big men.

Painter believes the NBA might embrace these players one day again when another O’Neal comes along and they need someone to guard him. “That’s gonna be the resurgence of the big guy more than anything,” he says. But isn’t it possible that the way the game is played now might ruin the next O’Neal by incentivizing him into working on his 3-ball rather than his drop step? Might we never see another O’Neal again?

College coaches are constantly copying each other and trying to figure out the game’s next trend. The previous eight national champs prior to Kansas started two point guards, for instance. If we’re looking ahead, the next trend might be that every champ has a true low-post player who leads them in scoring.

Underwood just had one of those guys in Kofi Cockburn, the 7-footer whose sophomore season in another era would have sent him to the NBA after the 2020-21 campaign. Cockburn returned to Champaign for his junior year, during which Underwood built a post-up heavy attack around his star big man.

The Illini won their first Big Ten title since 2005, and Cockburn was a first-team All-American, having maxed out his potential in college. Yet The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie projects that Cockburn will go undrafted next week. It’s possible that he could have made more money by coming back to Illinois as a senior than he will in his first professional contract.

“Kofi is so popular and was so popular on our campus, in our community and in our state, that’s what NlL is about,” Underwood says. “His brand at the University of Illinois was incredible. And for those guys that you mentioned earlier, their brand is tied to that university and tied to that program.”

“I think it’s great for the game,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson says. “All those programs where those kids are staying, college basketball needs those teams to be really good. Our game is better when North Carolina’s good. Our game is better when Michigan is good. Those are tradition-rich programs that were great before any guys on the staff or players were there. All of them are standing on the shoulders of giants. When these schools are keeping their best players longer, it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Gonzaga fans get to watch Timme rim-run again. Indiana fans get to watch Jackson-Davis dunk on people again. Kentucky fans, still smarting from a first-round loss to Saint Peter’s, can console themselves with another year of one of the best rebounders of the past 40 seasons. North Carolina fans could be devastated after narrowly losing a national title game; they’re more excited for what their experienced returners, Bacot chief among them, can pull off in Hubert Davis’s second year. College basketball fans, casual and diehard alike, get to enjoy all of these players for longer than they ever would have even a few years ago. And those kids can make money in the process.

After a couple of decades of navel-gazing and self-doubt, of one-and-done departures and pace-of-play debates, of nervously scanning ratings and wondering why fewer people were tuning in, college basketball — coming off an NCAA Tournament that spiked to higher viewership than the first two 2022 NBA Finals games — has a chance to consolidate its strongest position in the sports landscape in a good long while.

“You’ll see guys that could have gone stay another year, another two years,” Bacot says. “Look at Oscar. There are going to be big-time players that stay, and it’s definitely good for college basketball.”

For most of this millennium, fans have lamented that the brightest stars didn’t stay at the biggest programs. Now, thanks to the NBA’s evolution and NIL’s sudden existence — thanks to the accidental confluence of forces and incentives outside college administrators’ control — they are. Coaches are already embracing it; players too. Long live the big man on campus.

(Illustration of, from left, Oscar Tshiebwe, Drew Timme and Armando Bacot:  John Bradford / The Athletic; Photos: Wesley Hitt, Jamie Squire and Jamie Schwaberow / Getty Images)

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