Should I stay or should I go? How NIL is making this The Year of the Big Man in college basketball

Shortly before the deadline to withdraw from last June’s NBA draft, Drew Timme began to feel overwhelmed by the choice he faced. He was torn between pursuing his NBA dreams as a potential second-round pick or returning to Gonzaga to spearhead another run at the program’s first national title.

With only two days left to decide his path, Timme retreated to his parents’ Texas home to relax and disconnect. He switched on his Xbox, shut off his phone and begged his family to talk to him about anything besides his basketball future.

“Everyone on God’s Earth was hitting me up about what I was going to do,” Timme told Yahoo Sports. “I was just like, ‘Gollllly, I need a goddamn break.’”

Clearing his mind helped Timme finally figure out what he wanted. He weighed his options and concluded that enjoying the college experience for another year would make him happiest — and that he might not have to sacrifice any income to do it.

Between his throw-back game, his signature mustache and effortless charisma, Timme was one of college basketball’s most recognizable and marketable players. He estimated that he had a chance to make more endorsement money as the face of Gonzaga basketball than he’d bank in salary as a first-year pro.

Pausing the game of FIFA that he was playing against his younger brother, Timme walked out to the living room and casually informed his parents that he’d made a decision. Then he broke the news to his coaches and his agent. Finally, at 11:14 p.m., less than an hour before the NBA’s midnight deadline, Timme altered the 2022-23 national title picture and sent Gonzaga fans into a frenzy by typing “I’m back” into a new Twitter post.

“Sending that tweet was like a nice, cold sip of water,” Timme said. “It was so refreshing. After that, I chucked my phone away and went back to the game.”

Timme’s return to Gonzaga helped solidify this as the year of the big man in college basketball. Many of the sport’s top returning players are centers, from a Congolese native who dominates the glass like no other, to an ex-McDonald’s All-American who nearly carried North Carolina to a championship on one leg, to the son of a 16-year NBA veteran who is on the cusp of bringing Indiana back to prominence.

It’s no accident that four of this year’s five AP preseason All-Americans are returning big men. Nor is it a fluke that upperclassmen big men occupy six of the top eight spots on CBS’ annual preseason list of college basketball’s best players. College basketball teeming with elite centers is the logical byproduct of student-athletes gaining the right to profit off their name, image and likeness at the same time as the NBA has soured on traditional big men who don’t shoot from the perimeter or are limited defensively.

Oscar Tshiebwe averaged more rebounds per game than any college player in decades, yet he might have gone undrafted had he turned pro last spring. College basketball’s reigning national player of the year instead returned to Kentucky, where he’s already made “about $2.75 million” in NIL earnings, the Athletic reported in August.

Armando Bacot wasn’t healthy enough to work out for NBA teams after suffering an ankle injury late in North Carolina’s Final Four upset of Duke and limping through a national title game loss to Kansas two nights later. The opportunity to cash in on NIL opportunities contributed to Bacot’s decision to return to North Carolina for his senior season rather than risk entering the draft and not hearing his name called.

Since last March, Bacot’s phone has hardly stopped buzzing. He has sold T-shirts and Cameo videos. He has created a signature burger for a North Carolina burger and beer chain. He has partnered with a lawn mower manufacturer and a seafood restaurant. He’s even taken a paid acting role on the Netflix show “Outer Banks.”

“That was pretty cool,” Bacot told Yahoo Sports with a laugh. “I never would have thought I’d be part of a show.”

Asked how his NIL earnings so far compare to the maximum $508,891 he might have made on an NBA two-way contract this season, Bacot says by staying at North Carolina, he’s making more.

“There’s not that big of a market in the NBA for a certain type of big man,” Bacot said, “so being able to come back to college and make money is a really good option.”

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Squeezing big men out of the NBA

Bacot might have been more than a fringe NBA prospect had he come of age in a previous era. In those days, the NBA’s most unstoppable low-post scorers anchored title-contending teams, dominated MVP voting and became known by colorful nicknames.

The decline of the back-to-the-basket big man began when NBA teams started mining analytics in search of a shot selection advantage. The revelation that post-ups were particularly inefficient compared to 3s or layups led to a drastic league-wide shift in offensive philosophy.

In 2005, 22 NBA teams finished at least 10% of their possessions with a post-up. Last season, 23 teams had a post-up rate of less than 5%. Only the Joel Embiid-led Philadelphia 76ers and the Nicola Jokic-led Denver Nuggets posted up more than 8% of the time.

As a result of the NBA de-emphasizing low-post scoring and prioritizing 3-point shooting and attacking in transition, the center position has evolved. In the pace-and-space era, teams who lack an elite center often utilize smaller, shooting-heavy lineups that compensate for size deficits on defense by denying post entry passes, switching and gang rebounding. When teams do play a true center, the league values mobility, 3-point shooting and defensive versatility.

Those changes have gradually squeezed plodding back-to-the-basket scorers out of the NBA game.

Three-time first-team all-Big Ten center Ethan Happ started 139 games at Wisconsin and led the Badgers in scoring, rebounding, assists, blocks and steals as a senior. The low-post specialist went undrafted in 2019 and has spent the past three-plus seasons in Europe.

Luka Garza followed up an All-American junior season at Iowa by averaging 24.1 points as a senior and sweeping the major national player of the year awards. The skilled 6-foot-11 big man still slipped to 52nd overall in the 2021 NBA Draft amid concerns about his lack of defensive mobility.

Kofi Cockburn was a hulking, unguardable force around the rim in three seasons at Illinois, the type of center who was once an automatic first-round pick. An inability to shoot 3s or defend in space caused the first-team All-American to go undrafted in June and to sign with a Japanese club last month.

FILE - From left are Armando Bacot, North Carolina; Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana; Marcus Sasser, Houston; Drew Timme, Gonzaga and Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky. Reigning national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe of Kentucky and Gonzaga's Drew Timme named unanimous selections to The Associated Press preseason All-America team, Monday, Oct. 24, 2022. They were joined by North Carolina forward Armando Bacot, Houston guard Marcus Sasser and Indiana forward Trayce Jackson-Davis. (AP Photo/File)
Four of the five AP preseason All-Americans are big men who opted to skip the NBA draft and return to college. (AP Photo)

NIL more lucrative than the NBA

While Cockburn chose to turn pro after his junior season last spring, other standout centers with remaining college eligibility did the opposite. They were in no rush to leave school early if they weren’t certain to be drafted and they could make significant NIL money in college.

Trayce Jackson-Davis told Yahoo Sports he was “80 percent sure” he had played his last game at Indiana after Saint Mary’s overwhelmed the Hoosiers in the NCAA tournament last March. Then the 6-foot-9 big man tested positive for COVID-19 in Brooklyn on the eve of his first NBA workout.

Even though Jackson-Davis was asymptomatic, doctors urged him to rest and to avoid contact with others for a couple weeks. As a result, Jackson-Davis had to skip the NBA draft combine and cancel five previously scheduled workouts for NBA teams.

“I had four more workouts planned but I didn’t want to totally botch them because it had been two or three weeks of basically doing nothing,” Jackson-Davis said. “I wasn’t out of shape but I wasn’t where I wanted to be to impress NBA execs.”

Unable to showcase his improvement as an outside shooter since the end of the college season, Jackson-Davis huddled with his family, his agents and his coaches and withdrew from the NBA draft. Feedback from NBA teams suggested Jackson-Davis might have been taken in the second round, but he decided returning to preseason top 15 Indiana was the more prudent choice.

“Coming back to the team that we have this year obviously made my decision easier,” Jackson-Davis said. “Then the NIL part helps a lot, too. Just being able to make money in college, I think, is really cool.”

Jackson-Davis is a brand ambassador for Pennzoil and Merchants Bank of Indiana. The Hoosiers for Good collective also pays him to use his name, image and likeness to promote certain charitable causes.

Similar NIL opportunities also played a role in Michigan 7-footer Hunter Dickinson’s decision to withdraw from the 2022 draft and return for his junior season. Dickinson has a saucy line of signature merchandise with The Players Trunk and partnerships with Outback Steakhouse and University Fancards, among others.

“Without NIL, [coming back to school] would have definitely been a harder decision to make,” Dickinson told reporters at Big Ten Media Day last month. “Now with the opportunity to make money while you’re still in college, I think that helps my decision and other guys like me.”

Few college athletes have better taken advantage of NIL more than Timme over the past 18 months. He has parlayed his signature mustache into becoming a “Chinfluencer” for Dollar Shave Club. He has showcased his deadpan sense of humor in a series of funny commercials for a Spokane casino. His website hawks anything from stickers, to T-shirts, to pint glasses. He has appeared in ads for a Washington-based furniture chain.

This week, less than six months removed from his 11th-hour return to Gonzaga, Timme plans to launch the aptly named “Gimme Timme” podcast on the iHeart Radio Network.

“The NIL is a great opportunity to try new things and see what I like and don’t like for the future,” Timme said “If this podcast works out and people enjoy it and I enjoy it, then I’ll know it’s something I might want to keep doing after college. If not, I’ll know it’s something I don’t want to keep doing.”

Timme’s NIL experience exemplifies why college basketball’s year of the big man could easily evolve into a multiyear trend. If throw-back big men remain unwanted at the NBA level, the best of them can bank as much NIL money in college as they could toiling in anonymity in the G-League or overseas.

“The NIL matters a lot,” Timme said. “It allows me to get my degree and to set myself up to be in a better position financially later in life. Without the NIL, I definitely would say there’s a chance I might have made a different decision.”