From Paige Bueckers to Emoni Bates, a look at the men’s and women’s players with the biggest potential to grow their brands over the next few months
With the 2021-22 college basketball season already underway, we finally have our first opportunity to see athletes hit the hardwood to play in support of their various name, image, and likeness deals. Hundreds of such deals have been signed already, with breakout performances in the coming months sure to lead to more.
With that in mind, let’s identify a starting five of players that have already cultivated impressive brands, but have a chance to grow them far, far bigger in the months and years to come — even before they start cashing checks in the pros.
Social media following: 100K+ (82k on IG, 14k on Twitter, 3.5k on TikTok)
Paolo Banchero might not be the No. 1 rated recruit in the country, but he is the player coming in with the most hype surrounding his name. By most measures, Banchero is projected as a top-three pick in the 2022 NBA Draft and could go No. 1. His trading card deal with Panini — its first NIL signing — is one of what will be several for Banchero during what is expected to be a short stay in Durham.
The CAA client also made history as the first college athlete to organically appear in a video game: NBA 2K22. Banchero will definitely increase his value while being the stud player in Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final season.
Social media following: 1.3 million+ (930k Instagram, 336k TikTok, 56k Twitter)
Paige Bueckers is the most recognizable college basketball player in the country. With the departure of so many of last season’s superstar freshmen on the men’s side like Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley who courted similar hype, the 20-year-old Bueckers continues to expand her stardom in her sophomore season. Bueckers is a preseason All-American and will be a mainstay in college basketball up until she reaches the WNBA’s age minimum of 22.
She already has over a million total followers across social media, a reach that has an estimated market value of almost $400,000. She’s a Wasserman client, and though she decided to start things relatively slow as it relates to NIL deals, she made a major announcement on Wednesday in revealing that she has signed a deal with online marketplace StockX. She has put in a trademark for “Paige Buckets,” a nickname she’s had since high school.
Social media following: 421K+ (395k on Instagram, 26k on Twitter)
“Yessir young King! Let’s get it!”
That’s what LeBron James commented under an Instagram post (later referenced by Sports Illustrated) from Emoni Bates. When basketball’s biggest star is keeping an eye out for a player, that player is set to have a lot of influence. Committing to Memphis and being coached by former NBA player Penny Hardaway and former NBA head coach Larry Brown will add to a profile that Bates and his team have been building since he was a freshman in high school.
Versatility is the name of his hoop game and will also be the theme behind his NIL deals. He has signed with Raymond Brothers and Roc Nation, with potential seven-figure earnings on the horizon. As the college basketball season moves along and his pro career approaches, Bates’ value will surely increase.
Social following: 102K+ (79k Instagram, 23k Twitter)
Upperclassmen have star power, too and the Illini have themselves a big star in junior Kofi Cockburn. The seven-footer will miss the first three games of this season thanks to a suspension for selling memorabilia before NIL rules permitting the practice went into effect, but that will not lessen his value or influence. Cockburn signed a deal with T/CCI Manufacturing along with about 20 other athletes for use of his name, image, and likeness rights, and the company is already are using the hashtag #CoolLikeKofi.
“I’m just excited to work within the community,” Cockburn said in a team release. “The opportunity to use my basketball platform to help everyone grow and succeed makes me appreciate where I am and everything we can do here. This is going to be really special. So much is changing today in our environment, our workplace, and our mental wellness and to be part of the message of growth and advancement is an opportunity of a lifetime.”
Social following: 174K+ (163k Instagram, 11k Twitter)
Bueckers’ new teammate and longtime friend may not have quite as much name recognition by comparison (yet), but Azzi Fudd was as heralded a high school basketball player as there has been in recent memory. Even after suffering a knee injury her high school sophomore season in FIBA 3×3 play, Fudd remained the nation’s No. 1 recruit in her class for the full remainder of her high school career. That sophomore year, she even beat Bueckers out for Gatorade Player of the Year — the first sophomore girl to win the award.
The spotlight will find Fudd, and her brand will surely grow at UConn; the Fairfax, Virginia native has already signed an NIL deal with Chipotle and has appeared in a commercial for TikTok alongside fellow Virginia product Allen Iverson.