College basketball's most marketable players, starting with Aliyah Boston and Drew Timme

ByMyron Medcalf via ESPN logo
Thursday, August 25, 2022
ESPN

In July 2021, name, image and likeness (NIL) rules and laws opened the door for college athletes to make money for the first time. It did not take long for them, or brands, to capitalize.

The past year, however, has also demonstrated swift changes in the NIL market. Yes, the biggest names remain the most marketable in both men's and women's basketball. But, it turns out, national brands have not been as influential as local and regional sponsors for most college athletes.

What does that mean? Athletes with millions of followers are still getting paid. But the the rest of the field benefits, too, thanks to a combination of elite basketball skills, a sizable social media following, an affiliation with a program or market with a strong economic engine and their future potential. College basketball's top athletes were also most successful in the postseason -- so the ability to carry a team to a national title is meaningful. NIL is still relatively new, which means definitive metrics around marketability are still in the works. But every player on our 2022-2023 list has either attracted the attention of major brands or developed relationships with agents or companies that suggest their NIL futures are bright. Our information, assembled from a variety of sources that include Opendorse and social media metrics, back the respective placement of each player on the list.

One important note: You will not see Paige Bueckers, last year's most marketable athlete, on this edition, because of the unfortunate, season-ending knee injury she suffered this summer. That said, Bueckers is still technically the most marketable athlete in college sports. Just ask Crocs and Gatorade, both of which have major sponsorships with the UConn junior and former Wooden Award winner.

1. Aliyah Boston, South Carolina Gamecocks

The most dominant force in women's college basketball (16.8 PPG, 12.5 RPG in 2021-22) has picked up NIL deals from major brands Bose, Crocs, Under Armour and Bojangles in the past year, some of them coming even before she led the Gamecocks to the 2022 national championship. With 107,000 followers on Instagram, Boston, the reigning women's Wooden Award winner, is now represented by Klutch Sports -- the same group that represents LeBron James, and will only continue to boost her brand during the 2022-23 season.

2. Hanna and Haley Cavinder, Miami Hurricanes

Before transferring to Miami, the Cavinder twins combined for an average of 34 PPG at Fresno State. This year, they'll take their 5 million-plus followers on social media, and the $1 million-plus they've reportedly made in NIL deals -- including deals with Champs Sports, WWE, Boost Mobile and Baseline Team, their own apparel brand -- to the NIL-friendly South Beach campus.

3. Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky Wildcats

Yes, the reigning men's college basketball Wooden Award winner is back for another season to chase a championship with the Wildcats. A factor could be the nearly $3 million he has reportedly made so far in NIL deals. That's more money than the projected second-round pick would've made as a rookie in the NBA.

4. Caitlin Clark, Iowa Hawkeyes

The Big Ten women's basketball player of the year is an automatic bucket no matter where she is on the floor, which is why she has attracted praise from the likes of Steph Curry and Kevin Durant. The major brands have noticed, too. The junior currently has deals with tax preparation company H&R Block, trading card company Topps and supermarket chain Hy-Vee, all contributing to a reported seven-figure income off NIL.

5. Hailey Van Lith, Louisville Cardinals

After averaging 14.4 PPG and helping her team make a run to last year's Final Four, Van Lith's brand -- she has more than 800,000 followers on social media -- has continued to grow. She has deals with Dick's Sporting Goods, JCPenney and Adidas, which announced last month that she's one of just 15 women's college athletes that the sportswear giant has signed.

6. Shaqir O'Neal, Texas Southern Tigers

The son of Hall of Fame center Shaquille O'Neal and entertainment mogul Shaunie Henderson knows a thing or two about fame and marketing. His 4.5 million-plus social media followers have already helped the redshirt freshman sign a lucrative deal with British apparel company boohooMAN and partner with the popular video game Fortnite.

7. Amari Bailey, UCLA Bruins

Bailey, a five-star prospect with 562,000 Instagram followers, seems to have it all for a marketable athlete: He was Bronny James' teammate in high school, and he's cool with Drake -- who briefly dated his mother, model and social media influencer Johanna Leia. Last year, Bailey bought his mother a Porsche with the NIL cash he received as a prep star, and he's set to make even more at UCLA.

8. Azzi Fudd, UConn Huskies

Fudd, who averaged 12.1 PPG in 2021-22, should play a more significant role for the Huskies with Bueckers set to sit this season out. Last year, the freshman signed NIL deals with BioSteel, Chipotle, American Eagle and NBA star Steph Curry's SC30 Inc. That trend should only continue in the sophomore campaign for the young star with 217,000 Instagram followers.

9. Sedona Prince, Oregon Ducks

Her TikTok about the differences in the 2021 men's and women's NCAA tournament weight rooms made her go viral with the help of more than 3.5 million followers on social media. Now, Prince is one of the faces of women's basketball and NIL, as proven by appearances at WNBA and college basketball events, and a portfolio that includes a deal with Crocs and an equity partnership with Riff Energy+, a beverage company she represents as its chief community officer. Per Opendorse, she also charges a minimum of $5,000 for an appearance fee.

10. Drew Timme, Gonzaga Bulldogs

The Wooden Award contender returned to college basketball after testing the NBA draft waters, ready to lead Gonzaga to its first national title after averaging 18.4 PPG and 6.8 RPG last season. His talent and personality have helped him gain regional deals, including with a local casino, and deals with national brands, such as Topps. Expect more as the season gets underway.

11. Haley Jones, Stanford Cardinal

In a recent interview, Jones said she is a student-athlete first, but also a businesswoman. With the help of the PRP sports management agency -- a group that also represents Jayson Tatum and Shaq -- the 2022 Pac-12 women's player of the year already has deals with both the NBA2K video game and Beats by Dre headphones.

12. Emoni Bates, Eastern Michigan Eagles

Bates, who charges over $1,000 for an autograph, per Opendorse, initially committed to Michigan State in high school but then signed with Memphis before entering the transfer portal after a turbulent freshman campaign. He has finally landed at Eastern Michigan, a Mid-American Conference school that won just 10 games in 2021-22. Although he has lost the luster he had accrued as a top prep star, he still has 428,000 Instagram followers and a chance to change the narrative in a smaller spotlight that's closer to his hometown of Saginaw, Michigan.

13. Deja Kelly, North Carolina Tar Heels

The junior, who was named first-team all-ACC after averaging 16.5 PPG in 2021-22, returns to a Tar Heels team determined to make it past the Sweet 16 this season. At just 20 years old, Kelly is also the proud owner of a BMW SUV, bought with money received from NIL deals with brands such as Essentia Water and Beats by Dre in the past year.

14. Armando Bacot, North Carolina Tar Heels

It pays to be a leader at a school like North Carolina, the 2021 national runner-up. Bacot's mom told Sports Illustrated in June that the senior, who became the first player in NCAA tournament history with six double-doubles in one tournament last season, will make more than $500,000 in NIL deals in 2022-23 -- a package that includes asking for more than $2,500 in appearance fees and for autographs, according to Opendorse.

15. Dereck Lively and Dariq Whitehead, Duke Blue Devils

The No. 1 and No. 2 men's college basketball recruits, respectively, have already hired agents to represent them on NIL deals before they've even played their first collegiate games. A smart move for the projected 2023 NBA draft lottery picks, and two of the young faces of college basketball's most powerful brand -- a school that recently hired Rachel Baker, who previously worked for the NBA and Nike, as its general manager to oversee NIL opportunities.

16. Angel Reese, LSU Tigers

The top transfer available this offseason, per ESPN, Reese (17.8 PPG, 10.6 RPG last season at Maryland) joins three other transfers on Kim Mulkey's second LSU team. She already has deals with Wingstop, Amazon and Xfinity, along with her own personal clothing line that's available online.

17. Zia Cooke, South Carolina Gamecocks

With the help of more than 200,000 Instagram followers, the all-SEC second-teamer has one of college basketball's most diverse NIL portfolios. She recently dropped a new song via NFT ($19.99); she has deals with Bojangles, Dick's Sporting Goods and even the U.S. government; and she and Caitlin Clark are the faces of H&R Block's $1 million "A Fair Shot" initiative, which aims to address financial inequities between men's and women's college sports.

18. Jahvon Quinerly, Alabama Crimson Tide

The leader of cult basketball crew Jelly Fam, Quinerly (13.8 PPG last season) charges a minimum of $80 for a personalized message on Cameo. The senior guard, who has more than 400,000 followers on Instagram, has also played off his crew's name and released his own brand of grape jelly, along with his own apparel line.

19. Hercy Miller, Louisville Cardinals

Followed on Instagram by Bronny James, Paige Buckers and other young basketball talent, the son of rapper Master P has been hanging out with rapper Jack Harlow and taking selfies in mansions this past summer. He reportedly signed a $2 million NIL deal with a tech company last year, and transferring to the Louisville brand should only enhance the sophomore's money-making opportunities.

20. G.G. Jackson, South Carolina Gamecocks

He quickly signed with South Carolina's NIL collective Carolina Rise after decommitting from North Carolina over the summer. Jackson could be the most important recruit in the history of South Carolina men's basketball, and a fan base that wants to win big will reward the five-star freshman for his decision with significant NIL opportunities -- which, many believe, helped him change his college decision.

21. Doug Edert, Bryant Bulldogs

Since leading Saint Peter's to a first-round upset victory over Kentucky in the 2022 NCAA tournament, Edert and his famous mustache have gained nearly 160,000 Instagram followers. Buffalo Wild Wings almost immediately inked a deal with the senior point guard -- who has since transferred to Bryant -- during the tournament, and additional deals, including merchandising partnership with Campus Ink, have followed.

22. Hunter Dickinson, Michigan Wolverines

This summer, Dickinson told a reporter that his decision to withdraw from the 2022 NBA draft and return to Michigan for his junior year included his NIL potential and the opportunity to "not have to worry about money." The 7-foot-1 center, who averaged 18.6 PPG and 8.6 RPG last season and is a two-time All-Big Ten selection, has already landed a major deal with Outback Steakhouse.

23. Gradey Dick, Kansas Jayhawks

The McDonald's All-American became the first Kansas player to sign with a major management firm (WME) before he ever enrolled in college. His nearly 150,000 followers on social media should only increase when he finally takes the court for the reigning men's national champs in Lawrence.

24. Jaden Owens, Baylor Bears

Between TikTok and Instagram, the Baylor guard boasts more than 400,000 followers. She not only has deals with major brands, such as Reebok, she has also been an advocate for equitable NIL deals across gender and racial lines.

25. Rori Harmon, Texas Longhorns

The Big 12 women's freshman of the year increased her profile when she led the Longhorns to the Big 12 tournament championship last season. She has signed with WME and has secured a deal with Wingstop after just one year on campus.

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