Basketball is a big business. And now that business has made its way to high school. Several states are allowing high school student athletes to monetize their name, image and likeness (NIL). This is a huge game changer for many of these gifted athletes, their families and community. 

California, New Jersey, New York, Nebraska and Alaska are currently the states where it’s all clear for all high school athletes to profit from their NIL activities. In other states, high school students who attend private schools are allowed if they aren’t subject to the state high school association. A few states, however, have laws that prohibit NIL across the board for high school athletes.

The transformation of the student athlete experience has been nothing short of revolutionary over the past year. Just last June, a Supreme Court judgment determined that most amateur athletes could profit from their respective NIL (name, image and likeness), a decision that was well-received by the sports world. Fundamentally speaking, NIL will enable athletes at all levels (with the aforementioned exceptions for those at the high school level) the opportunity to command off-court endorsements and sponsorship opportunities. While long term implications of NIL are unclear, student athletes will undoubtedly experience a learning curve as they navigate their way through learning the ropes. Sponsors are often looking for athletes who possess personal  empowerment, determination and the desire to positively impact their communities and the world around them. It will be critical that these young athletes understand the rules of engagement and have qualified people in their corner to guide and direct them. 

The outreach of social media has helped launch athletes from local talents to global icons who attract massive followings. One region where this expansion is evident is New Jersey, a state where several of the top high school basketball prospects call home.  Last  month, EBONY traveled to Toms River, NJ to explore this phenomenon at the Metro Classic Basketball showcase, where dozens of the top basketball players were on hand. The media company hosted an NIL-focused panel at the Metro Classic, with the prime intent of educating athletes on this new dynamic of change and the implications that come with it. To understand the dynamic from the athlete’s perspective, EBONY consulted with three young leaders in the space, specifically, Simeon Wilcher, Dariq Whitehead and Dajuan "DJ" Wagner, natives of New Jersey who are using basketball to springboard their dreams while uplifting their communities. These young men understand that every opportunity in front of them will be defined by their character, work ethic and perseverance on and off-the-court.

Roselle Catholic junior guard Simeon Wilcher is one of the nation’s standout student athletes. Last summer he turned-downed a high six-figure offer to turn pro from the fledgling Overtime Elite League based in Atlanta. There’s something about him that makes people pay attention; he has that “it" factor. And though he walks with a confidence that says I know I’m going places, off-the-court he’s a shy kid from humble beginnings.  Sweat equity has been a cornerstone of his success, athletically and personally, which has taught him valuable life lessons about sacrifice and the true meaning of it all. 

“Getting to my goals academically and athletically won’t be easy,” says the 6-foot 4 University of North Carolina commit. “Playing basketball, it has helped me to understand that nothing in life that you truly want comes easy.  It’s no different than maintaining high academic standards. If I want to maintain my 3.8 GPA,  I have to study, build relationships with my teachers and complete my assignments on time.  It’s the same with basketball; working hard at it has taught me that.”

Roselle Catholic's Simeon Wilcher. Image: courtesy of subject.

Another bright young star is 6-foot 6 Newark, NJ native Dariq Whitehead, who competes on a national level for Montverde Academy in Florida, a school which boasts current top NBA players Ben Simmons, RJ Barrett and Cade Cunningham as alumni. The Duke University No. 1 recruit was recently named Naismith Boys’ High School Player of the Year and  Florida’s Gatorade Player of the Year. Like Wilcher, he commands attention with his natural swag but gives homage to his inner-city roots for giving him a sense of clarity and  purpose as well as keeping him grounded. “Newark helped a lot with my mentality, the way I go about things, approaching certain things on and off the court. It’s taught me a lot about my surroundings; knowing what to do and what not to do. It’s a different mentality when you live in Newark and are from Newark. I approach games with a similar mindset as well as everyday life,” says Whitehead. 

Monteverde Academy's Dariq Whitehead. Image: courtesy of subject.

Basketball runs throughout the genes of DJ Wagner. The five-point star guard is the son of Dajuan Marquett Wagner Sr, a former pro basketball player, and the grandson of NBA baller Milt Wagner. He is the consensus No. 1 prospect in the 2023 recruiting cycle and plays for Camden High School in NJ, one of the most decorated public school basketball programs in both the state and the country. He also was recently named Gatorade NJ Player of the Year. “Camden supports no matter what. Regardless of where we’re at, on- or off-the-court, the community has always supported us by having our back regardless.Seeing the crowd into the games, it gives you a different type of heart and motor,” says Wagner of the meaningful support he gets from the city that he calls home.

Wagner also notes that his coach also told him that “the magic is in the work.” And he tries to apply that philosophy to all that he does. ”I feel like when you work hard it’s going to pay off regardless of how things are going—even off the court. The more work you put in, the more it will pay off. Hard work is very important to me. It’s one of the main things I try to focus on.”

Camden High's School DJ Wagner. Image: courtesy of subject.

Last month EBONY was fortunate to host an NIL-focused panel at the Metro Classic, with the prime intent of educating athletes on this new dynamic of change and the implications that come with it. 

“How you show up, matters…You have to make a decision that you’re going to show up in a certain way that will distinguish you. You will reach a point in your field where you will find that everyone is talented. If your story is only that you’re a basketball player; what you do and not who you are, the real world will not be impressed,” emphasized EBONY CEO Michele Ghee during the Metro Classic NIL panel to the talent on-hand about the significance of perceived presence.  “Focus on how you are making your community better and your family proud. Have a mission statement. Stand up and show up.”

And showing up Wilcher, Whitehead and Wagner have. These impressive young men have  strategically positioned their influence to uplift their respective hometown communities, showing up in ways that you don’t typically see from teens in high school. 

“I want to give back by showing people that hard work pays off and you can do anything that you put your mind to. I try to inspire by setting an example and leading the way,” says Wagner.

“That’s one of the biggest things I want to be remembered for,” adds Whitehead. ”I want to show kids that there is a way to get out of Newark without being involved in the streets. I want kids to have hope getting to whatever it is they want to do and that they don’t have to be in the streets to do it” 

Shares  Wilcher, “I’ve been trying to use basketball to inspire kids in the community. I’m currently working with my former elementary school where I'm hosting a reading competition with the kids. We’ll give a prize to whoever reads the most books. In the summer, I plan to coach the little kids in our local basketball league. I want to help them get better.  In the future, I want to open an after-school program for kids in Plainfield. I want to give them and outlet away from spending too much time in front of their computers/TV and provide them with an opportunity to be active and have fun through exercise”

In exploring the potential for his own NIL opportunities, Wilcher noted that he has the opportunity to learn first-hand from his older brother, CJ Wilcher, a student athlete at the University of Nebraska.  

“My brother [CJ] has been fortunate enough to obtain a few NIL deals, however, I expect our opportunities will be different.  Both of us are taking our own lane; he’ll be a helping hand, if I ever need advice on anything,”explains  Wilcher. “We’re blessed for these opportunities. Personally, I’m excited to indulge in NIL and build a brand. I recognize it’s important to get your name out there.” 

Inclusion will provide student athletes like Wilcher, Whitehead and Wagner  an opportunity to level the playing in their favor, but it will also present a risk that has potential to cloud priorities. And while the students realized that there is much opportunity to gain by leveraging the benefits of NIL, they also realize that they need to balance their  priorities.

“I definitely think that NIL is big,” shares Whitehead. “I feel like they put it out there for a reason. But right now I am focused on finishing the rest of my high school year, winning the national championship and becoming a better player.” 

Adds Wagner, “It could be a good and bad thing. Some people might get a nice deal and stop working. Others may work hard and get a deal. It will give players an  opportunity based on the work they put in.”

Indeed, much is to be determined as it relates to what effect NIL will have on high school student athletes in the broader scope of competition.  Nevertheless, the NIL dynamic of the student athlete experience has commanded the attention of the sports world, leaving both participants and spectators on the edge of their seat as they wait for what’s next to come.