Right from the top, I want to make something clear: My dream, for as long as I can remember, has been to play in the NBA.
That doesn’t make me unique. In fact, more or less every kid I’ve played with and against on the AAU circuit these past few years shares the exact same dream.
The difference is that most of them are going to be playing college ball next year. I’m not.
Last week I announced that I’m going to take a different path by entering the NBA G League draft this fall.
My decision surprised quite a few people, and has even sparked some debate just because I’m the first prospect to try it. So I wanted to take some time to explain why I decided this was the right move for me, and why I think it’s something more kids who share my dream should consider in the future.
I think that, to understand my mindset in making this decision, you need to know a little more about me as a person. I grew up in a big family with two brothers and four sisters. When there are that many people around the house, you’ll usually try to find any excuse you can to get outside. For me, that excuse was basketball.
I was probably around seven years old the first time I dunked. Sure, I had to jump off a couch that the kids in my neighborhood had dragged under the basket, but, yo, I got some air.
Long before I played in any kind of organized league, I felt like I might have a natural talent for the game. I was tall. I could dribble a little bit. My shot was ugly, but it worked. Even though I was miles from where I needed to be in terms of skill to play in the NBA, challenging myself to get to that level became my big-picture goal. I knew that’s what I wanted.
I didn’t actually try out for my first organized team until several years later. I was in eighth grade at that point and I’d only played rec ball. I remembering feeling kind of surprised when I made that team. The coach, Coach Mason, saw something in me that I had maybe felt up to that point, but I’d never heard anyone with any authority actually say. He told me that if I worked really hard, I had the talent to go places with basketball. Honestly, I only half-believed him. I thought he was pumping me up. But, looking back, I can see that that moment really sparked what would unfold over the next four years.
The NBA doesn’t start with college or even the G League. It’s a track most people get on well before then. The first step is recognizing you have game. From there it’s about doing everything you can to get exposure. Your next big opportunity will usually depend on having the right person watching you play in the right game at the right time. For me, that happened when I was in ninth grade. My high school was playing in a tournament against a school who a lot of scouts were there to watch. I wasn’t on anyone’s radar at that point, but I had a really good game. After it was over, John Stovall, who covers the AAU circuit, said he liked my game and was going to recommend me to some of the top AAU teams in Ohio. And that’s where things kind of took off.
I’ll always remember my first offer because my coach told me about it after a game in which I’d played terribly. I think we’d lost by 20 and I was slumped down in the locker room when he came up to me and said, “Keep your chin up.” And I looked at him kind of confused, then he continued, “Toledo just offered you a full scholarship.”
That was dope.
While I was on the AAU circuit, my goal was to earn whatever college scholarship offers I could, because that was the next logical step. But what I should clarify, and I think this is true of a lot of recruits, is that as I accumulated more offers from great programs, I looked at all of them the same way: As a one-year stop before declaring for the NBA draft. That might come off as brutally honest, but the current system has set up top high school players to think in those terms. It’s not that I look down on college basketball or anything close to that. I just knew I wasn’t going to attend any school with the intent on pursuing a degree, at least not at this stage of my life. My mindset was that a college degree would be there for me in the future, but right now, everything is basketball.
The whole recruiting process was a wild journey. I ended up falling a little bit in love with every school I visited. I had every intention of attending college for a year, so I spent a lot of time thinking about where I’d be most happy. Ultimately, I determined that the best spot for me was Syracuse.
Honestly, I viewed it as an honor just to be recruited there. Coach Boeheim is a legend. The facilities are unreal. And there are plenty of amazing basketball players who took their skills to the next level after playing there. That’s all to say, I really think I could have thrived there, which is why I was so excited when I got my offer.
But a few months ago, I was having a conversation with my mom and one of my coaches, and they brought up this notion of playing professionally for a year before entering the NBA draft. At first, I basically dismissed it entirely. I just had trouble picturing myself doing that. A little time passed, then we all had another conversation, and for the first time the G League was brought up.
No top recruit had ever attempted to spend a year playing in the NBA’s development league before trying to make the jump. It wasn’t that it couldn’t be done, it just hadn’t been attempted. To do it, I’d have to pass on the opportunity to play at my dream school. But in a lot of ways it seemed like a cool opportunity to progress as a player in ways I probably couldn’t in a college setting. Instead of taking intro classes and going to parties, I’d spend every day battling for minutes against seasoned professionals. I had to pick between being a freshman or spending a year in an organization full of people all sharing one focus: Finding a way to get to the NBA.
No one had ever made it work before….
But what if it did work?
Since the NBA implemented the one-and-done rule, most prospects have followed the same path: College for one year, then the draft. If you take a look at the upcoming NBA draft, pretty much every player projected to go in the lottery has done that.
And while it has worked out well for a lot of other prospects over the years, it’s also worth noting that the one-and-done college route doesn’t work out for everyone. You probably don’t remember a lot of those names. A lot can happen during that one year — whether it’s injuries, lack of playing time or coaching turnover.
Going to college isn’t the wrong path by any means, but it’s also not always the perfect one. The way I see it, my GPS is set to the same destination as every other top recruit in the nation, I just picked a different route.
When I made my decision public, I was actually pretty encouraged by the response. People seem to respect that I’m trying something different. Of course I know the decision was really upsetting to Syracuse and their fans. I definitely understand that, but I also know that in my heart, this is the right decision for me. That being said, I’m always going to pull for the Orange. I’m hopeful that my spot is given to someone who can go there and help that team win a national championship.
I understand what I’m giving up by jumping to the G League. I know it’s not going to be glamorous. I’m walking away from the opportunity to be the big man on campus and play in front of 33,000 screaming fans at the Carrier Dome. That’s not easy to do.
But when I broke everything down and really considered what I wanted for my future, I realized that, even though it hasn’t really been done before, spending a year in the G League is going to prepare me for the NBA in a way that no other setting can.
Part of it comes down to a number: 38%.
That’s the percentage of NBA players who have some experience playing in the G League. And that number has steadily climbed over time.
That’s one of the reasons going to the G League appeals to me more than playing overseas. In the G League every day, I’m going to be competing with and against NBA talent. I’m going to learn NBA schemes, adopt an NBA practice schedule and generally be in an environment where the main focus of everyone I’m around is competing at an NBA level. I know that I grow most when I’m challenged. That’s how I went from a rec league basketball player in eighth grade to being considered one of the top prospects in the country. I put in a lot of work just to get to the point where the outside world actually cares where I’m playing basketball after high school.
Of all the critiques I’ve gotten, I think the funniest one is when people point out I’m only going to make $26,000 next year. Because I’m like, “Yo! I’m going to make $26,000 next year!” I’m 17. I think having five dollars is a lot of money. If I have five dollars in my pocket when I go to school, I’m the happiest guy on earth. If my mom slips me a 20 I feel like I won the damn lottery. That’s a lot of chips I’m buying. You know?
But at the same time, of course, I’m not doing this strictly with money in mind. If that was the case, I probably would be going overseas. I’m viewing this next year as an investment in myself. I won’t get the chance to play in a nationally televised rivalry game or in an NCAA tournament, but while the spotlight is on the players who do, I’m going to be grinding. I’ll be in some gym measuring myself up against great players and trying to surpass them. And while I’m doing that, even if the nation isn’t keeping track of my progress, all I need is the right person, watching me play in the right game, at the right time.
I understand that there are risks involved in being the first person to try something like this. But honestly, I’m taking a risk every time I step onto the basketball court. This game guarantees you nothing, and you’re only as good as your health. I only get one shot at this, so I feel really good that I’m doing it my way.
If things don’t work out like I’m planning, maybe I’ll be known as the last player ever to attempt something like this.
But I have a pretty good feeling I’m about to become the first of many.