The formula was the same for so long: Play well in AAU and high school, go to a Division I program, and continue to grow and develop for one to four years before entering the NBA Draft.
The cookie-cutter path followed by countless greats of the game seemed to be the optimal track to a professional career, save for a short stint of high school players making the jump to the league prior to the “one-and-done” rule.
In the last few years though, a new trend has quietly been making its way across top prospects and despite the mixed results, it plausibility may continue to rise amid NCAA scandal.
Top high school prospects are passing on college and instead opting to play a season professionally overseas in one of many competitive foreign leagues.
Many of these high school players are not just three-star recruits at small high schools, but ESPN Top-100 high school players, many of which who are in the top-15 of their class and have amassed offers from top-tier Division I programs.
One of the most notable success stories came from Emmanuel Mudiay, who showed that this irregular route to the league can work.
Mudiay was the No. 5 prospect in the class of 2014 who had offers from powerhouses like Kentucky and Kansas, but selected Southern Methodist University in the end.
The summer prior to starting college, Mudiay decided to forgo attending SMU after the NCAA ruled he was ineligible academically and could not play. Instead, he played in the Chinese Basketball Association, where he averaged 18 points, six rebounds and six assists in 10 games for the Guangdong Southern Tigers.
Mudiay went on to be drafted seventh overall by the Denver Nuggets, where he earned All-Rookie second team honors and became a mainstay in Denver’s starting lineup.
Former No. 11 prospect in the 2016 class Terrance Ferguson passed on offers from Maryland and Arizona to play professionally in Australia for a season. He is now a first-round draftee playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Some may argue that these players could have followed a similar path and been exactly where they were now, but there are a few factors to consider that show the choices they made were more advantageous.
The first and most prominent factor is the pay. These players are not just receiving scholarship money, but room and board and some small monthly stipend.
Mudiay negotiated a $1.2 million contract with Guangdong, and Ferguson likely received a similar contract with the Adelaide 36ers.
Ferguson saw the impact it could have on his family and not just himself, which he revealed in an article in The Players’ Tribune.
“I mean, think about it, I’m going to be a professional basketball player!,” Ferguson wrote. “I get to take care of my family! My mom doesn’t have to work anymore! That’s every kid’s dream. I’m smiling right now as I write this!”
Potentially more than just the money is the different lifestyle and development players have playing professionally than collegiately.
“In terms of development, players from overseas are further along than players here,” Ferguson said. “Just look at the last NBA Draft. In college, you have time limits on your workouts, you have class, you have so many other things taking up your time. Overseas, you’re on your own, playing in a grown man’s league. You’re working out twice a day, just focusing on basketball.”
Without classes and all the other commitments that come with college, Ferguson and Mudiay could focus on playing games, training, and workouts.
It’s a sacrifice, naturally, as they leave behind the college experience to live in an unknown place far from friends and family, but if recent history is any indication, more budding starts may follow in the footsteps of Mudiay and Ferguson.
Kyle Kasharian is a business major from Green, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ItsKyleKash.