By: Twumasi Duah-Mensah
“Heritage High hoops star snubs UNC, signs with Greek team Panathanaikos instead.”
That’s an eye-catcher. It seems risky to spurn college for professional basketball. The fallback of a degree in case of injury or not being good enough to hang with the pros should be reason enough to stay stateside. So why did 5-star recruit RJ Hampton decide it was best to take his talents to New Zealand?
Hampton saw NBA Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic establish himself as a future superstar and got to thinking. Doncic had experience playing grown men and former NBA players in a competitive environment where ball movement and basketball IQ reigns supreme. Could he benefit the same way? Could other players?
Foreign leagues like the National Basketball League (NBL) in Australia have a clear pitch for high school prospects looking outside the country: their league puts young stars ahead of their peers by allowing them to display their talents against grown men while paying them for what they’re doing. The path from overseas to NBA stardom, however, may only be crossed by a certain few.
It’s not all about the money
Some prospects, like Oklahoma City Thunder guard Terrance Ferguson find the academic demands of college and NCAA restriction on players’ profiting off their likeness so detrimental to their career, they deemed overseas basketball as the superior path to the NBA. For Heritage hoops legend Jayden Gardner, he found overseas basketball good for helping a prospect’s financial situation, but he couldn’t trade a “vital” support system for a paycheck.
The “million-dollar facilities, Hall of Fame coaches, highly paid trainers and resourced athletic departments” are a pull factor, as CBS writer Matt Norlander notes, but Jayden found the opportunity to “build [his] name while staying local and having family and friends [coming to his] games” impossible to throw away.
The mental aspect
Gardner could not neglect the mental effect of playing overseas. If you’re not mentally ready to match the physical ability of grown men, adjust to the customs of your new country, or not have family around (unless they’re willing to move with you, as was the case with Hampton), playing overseas might not be the best idea. Mental preparedness isn’t only tested off the court, either.
You’re not special anymore
Styles of play overseas tend to be faster than college with the ball and players twisting and shifting around to create space and score. Not only is a higher basketball and passing IQ needed, but a higher level of patience is crucial. Overseas leagues are just as, if not more, high-stakes as college basketball, and unlike the NCAA where young players’ inconsistency blends in, overseas coaches don’t have time for the ups and downs of a prospects who plans to leave in a year or two. You’d have to be as special and consistent as Luka Doncic to avoid starting games on the bench.
Overseas basketball has its downs…
But for a player who doesn’t mind the aforementioned caveats, the international experience can, indeed, prepare a player better for the big time. The swift adaptation to culture and play style, the team-first mentality, the necessary physical upgrade—all that hard work, unlike college ball, literally pays off, with some players signing deals worth up to $2.5 million a year.
It’s unlikely the jump from high school to an overseas league won’t become a trend, not only because of all of college’s pull factors, but also since the NBA is scrapping the one-and-done rule as early as the 2022 draft, a rule change allowing high school prospects to jump straight to the NBA. With these promising alternative pathways for top high school prospects, the NCAA has a challenge on their plate to try and retain America’s most promising ballers.