Editorial

Which men’s and women’s college basketball players can cash in on the new NIL rules?

On July 1, twins Hanna and Haley Cavinder walked up a few stairs, held hands and — with a synchronized turn — pointed to a digital billboard in New York City’s Times Square that featured their image and an announcement of the first high-profile name, image and likeness (NIL) deal in college basketball.

They posted the historic moment on TikTok. It generated more than 854,000 views.

That viral buzz — the Fresno State basketball stars boast more than 3 million followers on TikTok — is what led Boost Mobile to sign them to a major sponsorship deal. The billboard was also a visual representation of the overnight transformation within collegiate sports. The Cavinder twins, and others like them, are more than college athletes now. They’re businesspeople with a collective goal: to get what they’re worth.

“They’re underdogs,” said Boost Mobile CEO Stephen Stokols during an interview on CNBC. “They came in, they were undersized. They contributed on the court their freshman year at Fresno State. They did a helluva job building a big social media following … [And so] We want female athletes. We want athletes who have proven themselves and have the same ethos that we have.”

Given the deals that have already been signed, it’s clear that college basketball players — both men’s and women’s — will attract NIL opportunities based at least partly on their popularity.

Ryan Matha, director of football operations at Rosenhaus Sports, which now represents college athletes on NIL deals, says social media following is a key indicator for a player’s marketability. Companies often call him to inquire about working with the college athletes Rosenhaus Sports represents — specifically those with over 100,000 followers.

“Great players in local and regional markets will do well,” Matha said. “But when you’re looking at these national brands, they have to be able to monetize that.”

While an athlete’s social media following offers prospective sponsors a tangible market they can immediately use to generate cash, it’s not the only consideration when assessing marketability.

“Recognizing the numerous aspects that can impact NIL opportunities is critical,” said Luke Fedlam, founder of Anomaly Sports Group and a partner and chair of the sports law practice at Porter Wright Morris & Arthur, a group that has partnered with universities seeking education on NIL. “But it’s also important to remember that performance within the sport will be one of the most significant drivers of opportunity.”

Take Alabama QB Bryce Young, who has 87,000 followers on Instagram — a fraction of what some top college basketball players boast — and has yet to start his first college football game.

Still, he has already signed nearly $800,000 worth of NIL deals and is entertaining other deals worth nearly $1 million, per an ESPN report. Companies are banking on his status as a future star with a great team. The same traits will help college basketball players too.

And so we present “The 25 Most Marketable College Basketball Players,” a combined list of male and female athletes who have great potential in the budding NIL marketplace for college athletes.

Our criteria are simple. Players who have generated a sizable following on social media can offer companies access to an existing pool of potential customers and, as a result, hold an advantage in the pursuit of NIL opportunities. They are prominent on this list. Others possess exceptional talent that could — much like Young — make them favorable targets for companies that will invest in their abilities and future successes. Every player on this list has either an extraordinary following or extraordinary talent. Or in some cases, both.

(Social media data provided by INFLCR)

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UConn basketball player Paige Bueckers has a strong message for the support of Black female athletes after winning Women’s Collegiate Athlete of the Year.

1. Paige Bueckers

Point guard, UConn
901,000 followers on Instagram; 336,000 on TikTok; 56,800 on Twitter

Weeks before NIL rules went into effect, Six Star Pro Nutrition bought a billboard on a major highway in Connecticut that read, “America’s highest paid college athlete plays in Connecticut, we just can’t pay her yet.” It was a not-so-subtle reference to Bueckers, the first freshman in women’s college basketball history to win the Wooden Award and an all-round phenomenal athlete who led the Huskies in points (the third freshman to do so after Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Maya Moore), assists, steals and 3-point field goal percentage last season. A brand official told the Hartford Courant that Bueckers could be at the center of a campaign, based on her status as the top player at UConn, which is the strongest brand in women’s college basketball.

It helps that she’s unafraid to speak her mind. Last year, Bueckers — who has a Black sibling — said she didn’t care if she lost fans for supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. And in her acceptance speech for the ESPYS women’s collegiate athlete of the year award in July, she advocated for more media recognition and coverage of Black female athletes. That’s why it’s not surprising that the current face of women’s college basketball, who has trademarked “Paige Buckets,” is projected to make more than $1 million this season from NIL deals, per the Wall Street Journal.

2. Emoni Bates

Five-star recruit, College TBD
395,000 followers on Instagram; 25,500 on Twitter

Last week, Bates posted a photo on Instagram that got nearly 65,000 likes, and a comment from LeBron James: “Yessir Young King! Let’s Get it!” Even the biggest star in basketball is watching Bates, who has been a highly touted NBA prospect since he was a high school freshman. The 6-foot-9 forward is silky and creative, someone who can play multiple positions and do everything on the floor. After originally committing to Michigan State, he recently decided to open his recruitment and reclassify to the 2021 class, where he is now the No. 3 recruit (he was No. 1 in the 2022 class). That announcement, his first post on Instagram, netted him 385,000 followers, and 74,000 likes in 24 hours. If Bates decides to play college basketball — Oregon, Memphis and Michigan State are his finalists but he’s also considering the G League — his NIL deals could set the bar for future high-profile prospects in men’s college basketball.

3. Hanna and Haley Cavinder

Guards, Fresno State
3.4 million followers on TikTok; a combined 550,000 on Instagram

The fancy unveiling of their Boost Mobile deal is just the start for the two, who have built up a massive TikTok following since their first post on July 29, 2019. Hanna and Haley have signed other deals since then (Gopuff and Six Star Pro Nutrition, per the Fresno Bee) and their popularity continues to rise, as illustrated by the more than 140,000 Instagram followers combined they’ve added in the last three months. While the hype around them is mostly centered on their social media influence, it’s important to note how talented the twins are on the court. Haley was named Mountain West Player of the Year last season, after averaging 19.9 PPG and 7.7 RPG. Hanna, who averaged 17.0 PPG last season, joined her twin on the all-Mountain West squad. It’s safe to say the Cavinders are the trendsetters in the new NIL era.

Forward, LSU
2.7 million followers on Instagram; 1.5 million on TikTok; 334,000 on Twitter

His father, Shaquille, is reportedly worth $400 million after a Hall of Fame NBA career and a massive portfolio of sponsorships that includes Icy Hot, Gold Bond, Pepsi, Reebok and Papa John’s, among others. His mother, Shaunie, is an entrepreneur, and the executive producer of multiple VH1 shows, including “Basketball Wives.” Shareef, who now attends the same school where his father was a superstar in the early 1990s, clearly has two mentors to help him convert more than 4.5 million followers on social media into endorsements. Add in a longtime ease in front of cameras and an inspiring story — two years ago, a heart defect nearly ended his basketball career, but he underwent surgery, recovered and returned — and Shareef seems to represent, more than anyone else on this list, everything companies would want in an investment.

5. Hailey Van Lith

Guard, Louisville
711,000 followers on Instagram; 54,400 on TikTok; 21,500 on Twitter

In the days following Kobe Bryant’s death, Van Lith shared a video of her in conversation with the legend and his daughter, Gigi, at a basketball game. The video generated more than 585,000 likes on Instagram. The talented guard — who averaged 11.2 PPG as a freshman at Louisville last season — is truly connected. Among her followers are Kevin Durant and Bronny James; she frequently posts photos with the likes of Kyrie Irving; and she’s reportedly dating Orlando Magic rookie Jalen Suggs. Suggs falls about 200,000 short of Van Lith’s total social media followers, but both may well end up in the same tax bracket this year: According to Opendorse, via Axios, Van Lith could collect nearly $1 million in NIL deals per year.

6. Sedona Prince

Forward, Oregon
2.6 million followers on TikTok; 246,500 on Instagram; 43,500 on Twitter

The Oregon standout’s video highlighting the differences between the men’s and women’s weight rooms at the 2021 NCAA tournaments has more than 18 million views on Twitter. Not only did it draw comments from stars such as Steph Curry, it also triggered an investigation into the disparities between the two tournaments.

While her popularity grew during the NCAA tournament, the 6-foot-7 guard, who averaged 10.4 PPG last season, has been a voice for athletes for years. Two years ago, she nearly filed for bankruptcy after receiving a bill for $28,000 in uncovered medical expenses brought on by a series of injuries. Which led her to becoming one of two plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit that alleged the NCAA had blocked athletes from earning money. Prince is also open about her sexuality, and has advocated for more LGBTQ visibility in college athletics. If brands are searching for someone bold and courageous, Prince checks every box.

7. Chet Holmgren

Center, Gonzaga
322,000 followers on Instagram; 82,500 on TikTok; 25,600 on Twitter

A 7-foot white kid from Minnesota who runs the floor like a guard and loves to make SportsCenter highlights with his aggression in the paint isn’t something you see every day in college basketball. But that’s exactly who the projected No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA draft per ESPN. Holmgren, who also played with Jalen Suggs and rapper Master P’s sons, enters the season as a star on the No. 1 team in ESPN’s Way Too Early Top 25 rankings.

And after playing in multiple televised games and being featured on local TV for a clothing drive he organized in the Twin Cities, Holmgren is a nationally recognized name even before he has played his first college game. So it’s no surprise that he’s already considering a collection of major sponsorship deals.

Power forward, Gonzaga
73,600 followers on Instagram; 7,200 on Twitter

The Gonzaga star known for his headband — which has its own Twitter account — and signature mustache will likely enter the season as the preseason national player of the year on most reputable lists after averaging 19.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG and 2.0 BPG in 2020-21. He and Holmgren will comprise America’s top frontcourt that will vie for its first national title a year after losing to Baylor in the national championship.

Timme recently told the Spokesman-Review that he plans to become more active on social media to build his brand — even if his talent and affiliation with a top school are more than enough to catch the attention of potential sponsors, just like Alabama QB Bryce Young. He’ll also have help: Gonzaga recently created the “Next Level” NIL educational partnership with INFLCR to help its athletes understand their potential and opportunities.

Guard, Michigan and Forward, Shawnee State (NAIA)

4.7 million followers combined on TikTok; 464,000 combined on Instagram

First came downloading TikTok to pass the time during the height of the pandemic in 2020. Then came meeting each other, and building a brand together. Today, the Wolverines reserve and Shawnee State standout are true social media titans. But Roney is the most popular athlete of this viral power couple (She has 500,000 more TikTok followers than Nunez). She may play at a non-Division I school, and he may have scored just six points in 10 games last season, but their comedic skits and dance posts — they do solo content, too — regularly command more than a million views.

The couple also have an active YouTube channel, “Carson and Adrien,” that has 114,000 subscribers and frequently features other YouTube influencers while also hitting those big numbers brands want: A video of the two buying items for Nunez’s new apartment in Ann Arbor, for example, has more than 175,000 views. Nunez even sells his own merch. Clearly, they know what they’re doing.

10. Casey Ferguson

Guard, South Alabama
2.4 million followers on TikTok; 28,000 on Instagram

Yes, she’s at South Alabama, a Sun Belt Conference school that doesn’t have a large presence on the national scene. But in a sport where the rich schools have always had a significant advantage over the have-nots, Ferguson’s popularity is proof that those rules don’t necessarily apply in the NIL world. A bona fide social media foodie and personality, Ferguson has developed an audience that just wants to know what she’s eating or cooking on any given day: A breakfast smoothie tutorial generated more than 140,000 views. And on a recent road trip, she filmed herself ordering and eating a meal from fast food chain Zaxby’s. That video has more than 800,000 views on TikTok. Now, South Alabama is reportedly partnering with multiple companies to help Ferguson, and other athletes, capitalize on these expanded moneymaking possibilities.

11. Paolo Banchero

Forward, Duke
82,000 followers on Instagram; 14,500 on Twitter; 3,400 on TikTok

The unrivaled attention Duke basketball will receive in Mike Krzyzewski’s final season could also benefit the top players on the roster. There are added perks that come with being the standout on a team with the strongest brand in the sport — it’s a favorable spot to occupy in the NIL world. Banchero, the projected No. 2 pick in the 2022 NBA draft, is that player. The 6-foot-10 five-star forward averaged 22.7 PPG at O’Dea High School in Seattle, Washington, and proved he can impact the game as a shot-blocker, a perimeter shooter or a dominant player in the post.

With the Blue Devils, he’ll now be watched by millions — Duke’s 2019 matchup with Michigan State in the Elite Eight, which included Zion Williamson on the roster, was watched by more than 16 million people. He’ll also be surrounded by wealthy supporters of the school, which was ranked ninth by Forbes in 2017 in number of billionaires produced. Then there’s the international market: Last year, Banchero received his Italian citizenship through his father, and he’s been a popular topic for media outlets in that country too. The possibilities are endless.

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At just 18 years old, Azzi Fudd is considered the best women’s basketball prospect the game has seen in decades. This ESPN Cover Story captures her journey and the adversity that put those hopes and expectations in peril.

12. Azzi Fudd

Guard, UConn
160,000 followers on Instagram; 10,600 on Twitter

The talent pipeline in Storrs, Connecticut, will give Geno Auriemma the No. 1 recruit in America for the second consecutive season. Like Bueckers, Fudd could be a Wooden Award candidate as a freshman, while playing next to her friend and teammate in the country’s best backcourt. The spotlight will find Fudd, who was the first high school sophomore to be named Gatorade National Player of the Year, beating Bueckers out for the award.

“I had never really experienced people’s perspectives opening right in front of their eyes,” Steph Curry told ESPN’s Katie Barnes about Fudd’s appearance at his SC30 Select Camp (Fudd was one of the few young women in the camp). “It was like, ‘This girl’s out here doggin’ these guys.'” Being a young star at UConn — winner of 11 national titles, the most in women’s college basketball history — magnified Bueckers’ profile and visibility for sponsors. It should do the same for Fudd.

Small forward, UCLA
171,000 followers on Instagram; 17,800 on Twitter

It’s not uncommon for potential NBA prospects to return to school. But the ability to make money as a student-athlete now may influence a lot more decisions. Leading this generation is Juzang, who has now set himself up to capitalize on what the City of Angels has to offer. He returns to the Bruins an NCAA tournament hero who scored 29 points in his team’s loss to Gonzaga in the Final Four.

He’s also tied to a school that has produced nearly 2,000 graduates who are each worth at least $30 million, per Business Insider. That alumni pool alone could help lock up major deals for Juzang, who doesn’t need to look far to draw attention: Last month, he was spotted leaving a restaurant with his father in L.A. by TMZ, which asked him about the NIL deals he wants. His response: “Cars, clothing, shoes, all that stuff … should be some cool opportunities.” It could be all that, and more.

14. Haley Jones

Forward, Stanford
40,000 followers on Instagram; 3,300 on Twitter

Jones, one of the most versatile players in the country, was the star of Stanford’s run to the national championship in April. In wins over South Carolina and Arizona, she averaged 20.5 PPG, and will enter 2021-22 as a preseason All-American. Her off-court presence is nothing to sneeze at, either: She threw the first pitch at a Giants game over the summer — her posts documenting the experience generated over 25,000 likes on Instagram. And her lighthearted content mirrors her free spirit and energetic personality on the court. She’s simply a great basketball player at a school that Forbes has called “a breeding ground for startups.” Stanford also happens to produce more billionaires than every school in America except Harvard and Penn. Jones will find some lucrative opportunities.

15. Aliyah Boston

Forward, South Carolina
38,000 followers on Instagram; 7,700 on Twitter; 2,300 on TikTok

The South Carolina star’s missed putback in the Gamecocks’ loss to Stanford in the Final Four was arguably the most heartbreaking moment of the postseason. But Boston will enter November as a preseason All-American and a national player of the year candidate, with a chance to win an NCAA title and score deals just based on the trajectory of her career. The 6-foot-5 standout averaged 13.7 PPG, 11.5 RPG and 2.6 BPG last season. And she’s expected to build on those totals as a junior under Dawn Staley, who recently coached the USA women’s basketball team to a gold medal in Tokyo. Will brands take notice? They already have. Earlier this month, Boston dropped her first video spot for fast food chain Bojangles. Given the hype it has received, more deals are sure to follow.

16. Caitlin Clark

Guard, Iowa
45,000 followers on Instagram; 11,300 on Twitter

Kevin Durant follows her. Travis Scott tagged her in an Instagram story with “Gonna come back gangsta” after Iowa lost to UConn in the Sweet 16. Clark has long been recognized, and not just by celebrities; she has also been a vocal proponent of NIL rights. “As a female college athlete, valuable opportunities could come in our college career that may not be given at a professional level, especially with the support of female athletics we have here in the state of Iowa,” Clark wrote earlier this year in a letter of support for a bipartisan NIL bill in the state.

She has received significant interest from potential sponsors who have filled up her DMs with offers, according to hawkcentral.com, but Clark says she will be “picky” about who she signs with, because she wants to focus on basketball. After leading the United States Under-19 to a gold medal in the FIBA World Cup in Hungary last week — Clark was named MVP of the tournament — and averaging 26.7 PPG last year at Iowa, she’s now ranked fourth on ESPN.com’s list of the top women’s college basketball players for the 2021-22 season. Expect more offers, Clark.

17. Jaden Owens

Guard, Baylor
285,000 followers on Instagram; 99,000 on TikTok; 6,591 on Twitter

Owens averaged just 2.4 PPG last season, but she’s a savvy social media user with a solid grasp of how to use each platform to her advantage. She has found the perfect balance between sporty and fashionable on Instagram, netting tens of thousands of likes on each post. On TikTok, she frequently ropes her Baylor teammates into reenacting viral dance trends. According to Front Office Sports, Owens could make $310,000 off her social media posts alone. And as an All-American from Plano, Texas, playing at a popular Texas school — Baylor finished seventh in overall attendance during the 2019-2020 season, per the NCAA — she’s also poised to tap into the local sponsorship market. They say everything is bigger in Texas. That might be the case for Owens’ NIL deals, too.

Guard, Villanova
46,000 followers on Instagram; 8,000 on Twitter

Gillespie’s decision to return for a fifth run after last year’s season-ending knee injury has only enhanced Villanova’s shot at winning its third national title under Jay Wright. The standout guard is one of the most experienced players on this list, and hopes to build on last season’s impressive stats: 14.0 PPG, 4.6 APG. Gillespie recently signed with Barstool Athletes, which gives him access to its founder Dave Portnoy’s 2.6 million Twitter followers. Portnoy has admitted that he doesn’t know all of the intricacies of representing athletes. But he does know that he has a gigantic brand that will significantly increase the opportunities for Gillespie, and other talented student-athletes like him.

Guard, Alabama
448,000 followers on Instagram; 39,000 on Twitter

It took Quinerly some time to settle. The former McDonald’s All-American originally committed to Arizona, then decommitted when the school became entangled in the FBI’s investigation into corruption in the sport four years ago. He then picked Villanova, but couldn’t really find his rhythm. He’s finally landed at Alabama, where he averaged 12.2 PPG and connected on 43% of his 3-point attempts last season.

The association with the Crimson Tide gives him a lot of fans, but Quinerly arrived in Tuscaloosa with a significant social following already in place. In high school, he and Isaiah Washington (Long Beach State) started a basketball crew called “Jelly Fam.” Known for its fancy finger roll layups, the crew has developed a cult-like Internet following. Just Google it, and you’ll find videos that clock more than a million views. Quinerly has reportedly signed a deal with a local clothing store already, and is also offering personalized video messages through Cameo. With “Jelly Fam,” he’s a compelling pitch for the NIL era.

20. Jalen Duren

Forward, Memphis
56,000 followers on Instagram

Last month, Duren — who was the No. 2 player on ESPN.com’s list of top-100 prospects in the 2022 class — reclassified to the 2021 class and committed to Memphis. His decision is a major boost for Penny Hardaway’s Tigers, and a boost for college basketball. And if his buddy Emoni Bates also picks Memphis, the duo will likely be the biggest storyline in college basketball this season. Which will only increase the buzz around the elite 6-foot-10 forward, who’s now projected to be the No. 4 pick in the 2022 NBA draft. Memphis is also home to three Fortune 500 companies — FedEx, AutoZone and International Paper — all of which could tap him for some serious cash.

21. Kennedy Chandler

Point Guard, Tennessee
71,500 followers on Instagram; 25,000 on TikTok; 12,500 on Twitter

Tennessee found a gem in Chandler, a projected top-15 pick in the 2022 NBA draft per ESPN. He’s a flashy, elite point guard known for his explosive plays and confident demeanor on the court. Off of it, he’s clearly very serious about his brand: A two-episode documentary about his last year of high school basketball, “Beginning of a Journey,” has a combined 130,000 views on YouTube. His attention to detail and quality has already nabbed him a five-figure deal with trading card company Wild Card that will include autographs of cards and memorabilia.

And the Vols — who earned a spot in the last three NCAA tournaments — are only going to keep investing in him. The school is educating its student-athletes on NIL by partnering with an external firm, but also offering academic courses on it. If ever there’s anyone prepared to face opportunities, both NIL and beyond, it’s Chandler.

22. Zia Cooke

Guard, South Carolina
195,000 followers on Instagram; 14,000 on Twitter; 2,900 on TikTok

Cooke didn’t waste any time on July 1: She released a video that day across platforms to alert potential sponsors that she’s ready to work with them. She also trademarked “Mud Made,” a name that is a testament to the grind she endured on her way to stardom at South Carolina after averaging 15.9 PPG and helping the team make a run to the Final Four last season. Per Front Office Sports, Cooke could make nearly $200,000 this year through sponsored social media posts alone.

Like Boston, the junior has signed with Bojangles and is reportedly considering other deals, too. Earlier this month, she also returned to her hometown of Toledo, Ohio, to conduct the first-ever Zia Cooke’s Elite Basketball Camp, in which campers paid just $50 to learn from her. With an NIL portfolio that diversified, Cooke’s already ahead of the pack.

23. Hercy Miller

Point guard, Tennessee State
130,000 followers on Instagram; 21,000 on TikTok; 2,000 on Twitter

In the 1990s, Master P sold millions of records under his No Limit label and used hip-hop to amass a portfolio reportedly worth more than $200 million. His son Hercy is a 6-foot-2 three-star recruit who recently committed to Tennessee State, a Historically Black College and University. The combination of his father’s success and his choice to attend an HBCU have already gained Miller some high-profile NIL contracts: According to Master P, Miller has inked a four-year, $2 million deal with Web Apps America, a tech company that does everything from creating business strategies to designing mobile apps. With numbers like that, he hopes his deal will open doors for other student-athletes to earn similar major opportunities.

24. Meechie Johnson

Point Guard, Ohio State
114,000 followers on Instagram; 3,600 on Twitter

In November, Johnson surprised Ohio State fans when he decided to graduate high school early, enroll at the university in December and join the team — taking advantage of an NCAA rule that allowed him and every freshman to compete last season during the pandemic without losing a year of eligibility. Johnson, an Ohio native, has ties to the local market and one of the most powerful brands in collegiate sports (Ohio State’s $210 million budget is No. 3 in Division I athletics, per USA Today) which have helped him amass a six-figure following. His Instagram videos get tens of thousands of views. And he’s one of the select 358 accounts that fellow Ohioan LeBron James follows on the site.

He hasn’t even played a full season, yet he’s already one of Ohio State’s most popular athletes and biggest potential moneymakers. Johnson reportedly received offers just hours after the NIL era began. “It’s only going to get crazier,” he told News 5 Cleveland. “The fact that it’s only day one or two and people are reaching out and trying to do this and do that.”

25. Zion Harmon

Point guard, Western Kentucky
283,000 followers on Instagram; 100,000 on TikTok; 7,800 on Twitter

In a YouTube video with 1.4 million views, a young boy dishes no-look passes, throws alley-oops off the backboard to his teammates and hits tough shots in traffic. That wonder was Harmon, a seventh grader at the time, competing against high schoolers on the Nike EYBL summer circuit. Harmon has been a mixtape prodigy since he was a kid. He was largely viewed as one of the top middle-school players in America, in a post-LeBron James basketball culture that aims to identify and hype the next young superstar. His popularity at an early age helped him build a following that proves he’s ready for the big leagues. Harmon isn’t at a Power 5 school, rather one that’s rebuilding this season. But that may not matter to him — or to the brands that come calling.

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