To the surprise of some, Long Beach State freshman star Alex Nikolov turned professional on Friday by signing with Lube Volleyball in Italy, forgoing his final three years of collegiate volleyball.

Nikolov served as arguably the biggest obstacle of the University of Hawaii men’s national championship season in 2022, averaging just under 20 kills per match against the Rainbow Warriors.

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“There were times when he took over the match whenever Hawaii and Long Beach played,” Spectrum volleyball analyst Ryan Kalei Tsuji told KHON2. “I think it’s great news for the University of Hawaii and University of Hawaii fans when the best player from your biggest rival decides not to come back. I think it’s a little disappointing because he was a fun player to watch. There was no doubt that people thought he was gonna leave early. I don’t think people thought he was gonna leave after his first year just because of the money that was presented to him. But overall, I think the University of Hawaii benefits a lot from this. They have everyone returning.”

Nobody doubted that a promising professional career was ahead for Nikolov, the only player in NCAA Division I men’s volleyball history to win AVCA National Player of the Year as a freshman. But turning professional after one year has little precedence in men’s collegiate volleyball. LBSU legends TJ DeFalco and Josh Tuaniga, the two most recent players from The Beach to win national Player of the Year, both finished their full college careers in 2019 before moving on to lucrative pro opportunities.

It has been barely over a year since legislation was passed to allow NCAA athletes to be able to profit off of their Name, Image and Likeness (NIL). One of the rare exceptions is international players such as Nikolov.

At Hawaii, its current dynasty under head coach Charlie Wade and assistant Milan Zarkovic has been buoyed by an influx of international talent. Jakob Thelle, Dimitrios Mouchlias, Filip Humler, Guilherme Voss and Spyros Chakas were all impact players on the 2022 championship team, and all are expected to return for the 2023 season. None graduated from high schools in America.

Time will tell whether Nikolov blazed a trail for international players to come after him or if he’s a rare case of a generational player who chose to cash in on a pro payday that matches his talent.

“I don’t think we’ll see that much of an impact from this that there may be a few players down the line (who leave school early),” Tsuji said. “Nikolov is a player that got a pretty good paycheck from this and decided to leave. I just don’t think there’s enough money in the NIL right now for men’s volleyball specifically to be a decision maker as to whether some of these athletes should stay or go. When professional money comes in, if that player wants it, there’s no way that NIL will compete with that, so I don’t really see that happening all too often.

“Having said that, I think that it sparks a conversation about how these foreign athletes and players from all sports should be given an opportunity to make money through NIL, and I think that’s legislation that needs to be discussed on a national level to find ways to allow these foreign athletes to also, in line with their American teammates, be able to make money.”