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There is a recurring theme this time of year when college basketball athletes start deciding whether or not they are keeping their names in the NBA Draft or if they will be returning to their respective schools. We just saw it as Ohio State fans reacted to Duane Washington Jr.’s decision not to come back to Columbus. The theme is that guys will announce they are staying in the NBA Draft to follow their dreams and foregoing the rest of their collegiate careers, and the reaction that inevitably comes next is that with guys who are projected to go in the second round or especially undrafted in the NBA Draft, fans will question their decision and ridicule their futures.
The common response is this, “Have fun playing overseas;” sometimes it is worded differently, but the sentiment is the same.
As someone who has followed all aspects of basketball, including overseas hoops, this has always fascinated me.
First of all, a quick PSA: If you like hoops and don’t follow overseas basketball, you are doing a disservice to yourself. It is so much fun. Okay that is out of the way.
Second of all, this is often meant to be an insult. Of course, it is not always meant that way, but for the premise of this article, I am referring to the people that dismiss the prospects of playing professionally anywhere other than the NBA.
It is also implies that overseas basketball is a basically a JV league to the NBA’s varsity, or that guys who end up overseas aren’t very good and up playing their because they just aren’t talented enough to play in the NBA.
Here’s the thing: This is not the insult that you may think it is.
“Ha! Have fun making millions of dollars playing basketball while getting to live in an incredible foreign country!”
Sounds a little strange when you think about it like that, doesn’t it?
Currently in the NBA, there are 30 teams and roughly 15 players on each roster. That is approximately 450 players in the league. Adding in the G League and you have 27 more teams and about 400 more players.
As of 2019 (we won’t count 2020 because COVID altered those numbers), there were roughly 4,600 D1 basketball players. But that is 4,600 players per season in college basketball. There are 450 NBA player’s total. And of those 4,600 players, those are just Division One players. As we know there are plenty of other guys that have NBA talent.
This past season, there were 363 early entries into the NBA Draft, not including the seniors who chose not to exercise their extra year of eligibility. Currently, the NBA Draft only has two rounds and 60 total picks.
Break it down like this, there were almost as many early entrants this season only as there are total players in the NBA; again, that’s excluding seniors.
Suffice to say, no matter how good you are, the odds of making the NBA are very, very small. And there are some benefits as to why guys might want to play overseas rather than in the NBA. And yes, some actually choose too.
The NBA is an extremely specific league. Some players, no matter how talented they are, don’t fit the game the way it is played in the NBA. That isn’t a slight on them as a player, it is just the way it is. The game overseas is more focused on player movement and involvement, and not the isolation we see in the league here.
During the NBA lockout in 2011, some NBA players went overseas to get in some time on the court and many struggled to adapt to the different style and system that is played in Europe.
For Ohio State, guys like Jon Diebler, David Lighty, William Buford and Deshaun Thomas have all succeeded overseas for just this reason. Their games are much more predicated on movement and team play, rather than just taking the ball and going to get a bucket like a James Harden or Kevin Durant. Just last month, Lighty won his second French League finals MVP award and fourth league championship.
David Lighty @OSULighty23 (@OhioStateHoops) is the Most Valuable Player of the 2021 @LNBofficiel #Final4JeepELITE for ASVEL Lyon-Villeurbanne #LDLCASVEL @LDLCASVEL https://t.co/8VYaJWu4aO pic.twitter.com/Lf0h1seQPc— FTF (@ForTheFansHQ) June 26, 2021
Guys like Buford, Lightly and others could have continued to grind in order to find a place on an NBA roster, they just decided to go overseas and have long careers there instead of fighting for every minute on the floor in the NBA, where they likely would end up making less money anyway. Just last month, Lighty won his second French League finals MVP award and fourth league championship.
Speaking of money, overseas players make anywhere from $400,000 to $4 million per year. However, over 70% of players make in the middle to upper tier of money in the European leagues.
So while the top pay in the NBA is definitely more lucrative, there is still a very happy living to be made overseas for guys who are never likely to get big contracts in the NBA anyway. And there are a lot of great leagues outside of Europe as well, there is great basketball played in Israel, China, Australia, Korea, and more. This spring, Jared Sullinger was named the MVP of the Korean Basketball League Finals.
Jared Sullinger was selected as the MVP of the 2020-21 KBL Finals!!— East Asia Super League (@EASLofficial) May 10, 2021
Nicknamed 'Professor Sullinger,' Jared Sullinger finished his last class yesterday, leading KGC to win the title. Sullinger went OFF, recording 42 points and 15 rebounds@Jared_Sully0 pic.twitter.com/6hHxIaJai2
Then, you have to consider that the normal shelf life of an NBA player is 4.5 years. Players like LeBron James, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony are the outliers, not the majority. Most NBA players are looking for a new career path at ages 26-28.
However, overseas players tend to last longer because there are more options and the leagues are not as cutthroat as the NBA.
Another benefit are international agents. In international basketball, you don’t pay your agent, your team does. So that is more money in the players’ pockets. Also, agents work more bonuses into players contracts overseas, so again, more money for the players. Some bonuses are as simple as an amount of money per basket made. You won’t see that in the NBA.
Put all of these together — and add in the fact that some of these leagues are in truly incredible countries — and it makes sense that guys are making the leap early from college. It isn't because guys are getting bad advice or are delusional about who they are, it is because even if they don't make it in the NBA, overseas basketball is not a bad way to earn a living. And it certainly is not worthy of an insult.