Duke takes bold step in NIL landscape

The Blue Devils hired former Nike and NBA marketer Rachel Baker as their first GM

Duke's hiring of Rachel Baker as the basketball program's first general manager could help the program retain players like Trevor Keels (1) and Wendell Moore Jr. (0) when their NBA prospects are not as high as someone like Mark Williams (15). (Tony Avelar / AP Photo)

When UNC and Duke played in the Final Four, the two teams were separated by a mere four points.

Once the season ended, however, the distance between the programs seemed to be a chasm.

It was business as usual at Duke, known for more than a decade for its reliance on one-and-done players who leave for the NBA following their freshman season. Sure enough, when the deadline for remaining in the draft passed, three Blue Devils freshmen — Paolo Banchero, AJ Griffin and Trevor Keels — had departed for the league, joining fellow early entries in sophomore Mark Williams and junior Wendell Moore Jr.

Over at North Carolina, however, the situation was hardly normal. Armando Bacot, who just missed winning ACC Player of the Year, and Caleb Love, a guard who carried the Tar Heels to wins with some explosive scoring outbursts during UNC’s tournament run, both announced they were returning to Carolina for one more run at the championship. RJ Davis, another productive guard, and Leaky Black, a senior given an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID season of 2020-21, also chose to return. Neither was a sure thing.

Just like that, Carolina was set to return, nearly intact, while Duke turned to its stellar incoming freshman class, as well as a group of transfers, to rebuild, as it’s done ever since Kyrie Irving wore dark blue.

The contrast couldn’t have been starker. UNC, long known as proponents of the old-school approach under former coach Roy Williams, has embraced the new college landscape, creating a framework to help support student-athletes looking for income from the NCAA’s new Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) rules. While figures have not been released, there is widespread speculation that Love and Bacot will both be able to earn well over six figures while remaining in Chapel Hill for another year, matching or exceeding a potential G-League salary should they not be drafted in the first round.

While that wouldn’t have been enough to keep Banchero or Griffin at Duke — both are expected to be high picks in the draft and earn the chance at generational wealth — Keels and Moore in particular may have been lured to return to Duke had a similar framework existed with the Blue Devils.

New Duke coach Jon Scheyer has taken steps to ensure that future underclassmen don’t have to face the NBA decision without an NIL safety net in place.

Scheyer announced last week that Duke became the first NCAA team to hire a general manager, tapping Rachel Baker to fill that role.

As GM, Baker will “specialize in helping players enhance their personal and professional skill sets, capitalize on strategic partnerships, including NIL opportunities, and work to support players in navigating the opportunities and challenges that come with being a student-athlete at the highest level,” according to a release from the school.

In other words, Baker will be working to construct that safety net, making sure that Duke has the NIL opportunities that other programs have enjoyed for the last year.

Baker is more than suited for the role. She’s spent eight years working for Nike and one in the NBA, focusing on sports marketing initiatives. Many of the Duke players will be familiar with her through her work for Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League, the summer league that most top high school recruits play in to help build exposure.

Baker has also worked with NBA superstar Kevin Durant to help develop strategic marketing initiatives with Nike.

In other words, potential Duke recruits now have the option of having their NIL marketing efforts supported by someone who has worked at two of the best marketers in the business — Nike and the NBA — and has helped Durant maximize his marketing opportunities.

“The state of college basketball is growing and changing at an exponential rate,” Scheyer said in the release. “Rachel is a one-of-a-kind talent with unique experience that will provide our players and their families with an unparalleled resource and partner as we navigate new frontiers of college basketball together. Through her work in the NBA and at Nike, she brings nearly a decade of expertise in the business of basketball to our staff, as well as her gifts in relationship and community building, leadership development, and experiential marketing. We can’t wait to see all she brings to our program in this newly-created position.”

“I could not be more excited to join Jon Scheyer and the entire Duke Basketball family,” Baker said. “We’re in the middle of such a transformative moment — not only for Duke, but for the college basketball landscape — and the chance to be part of it is the opportunity of a lifetime. Duke Basketball has remained rooted in honoring our storied history while writing the future of the game. I am humbled and honored to join this tradition and can’t wait to get started.”

The move should help Duke close the NIL gap on the competition.

Now, if only Baker could do something about those four points.