LAS VEGAS — Thirteen miles from the Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion, three hours before the 2014 NBA Summer League was set to tip off, the business of basketball continued apace.
DeVon Hardin, a 6'11" former-Cal-standout-turned-hoops-journeyman, threw down dunk after jaw-dropping dunk, with only gravity getting in his way. David Nurse, an NBA shooting coach and the founder of Perfect Star Sports, happily logged assist after assist, though there wasn't a scorekeeper in sight to record them all.
On the third floor of Life Time Athletic in Summerlin, there was but a flimsy, ceiling-to-floor partition separating the professional aspirations of a grown man from the boundless energy and enthusiasm of children anxiously awaiting a big field trip.
So, too, was Hardin. The formidable big man was hoping to book a ticket across the Pacific Ocean to spend a season playing professionally in China.
"My mindset is to, basically, when they come out of there, to make them think, 'We can’t pass on this dude,'" Hardin told Bleacher Report after his workout. "'We need him.'"
Unfortunately for Hardin, the NBA long ago decided it didn't need him. At one point, Hardin seemed destined to wind up among the best players in the sport. After all, there aren't many people on earth with his towering height and muscular build who could pull off an inverted, 360-degree dunk, much less with such ease.
The former Seattle SuperSonics selected Hardin with the 50th pick in the 2008 NBA draft—the same year they added Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, and moved to Oklahoma City. Hardin had high hopes for his future, only to see a nagging pain in his left shin revealed to be a stress fracture in his tibia.
The day before the start of his first summer league, no less. It would be three years before Hardin's leg felt normal again.
"The way I’m jumping now, I couldn’t do that then," Hardin said. "I still have the rod in my leg, but yeah, I don’t feel it anymore."
He didn't seem to feel it in that gym, or during his recent stint playing professionally in Brazil, for that matter. Hardin was an All-Star and All-League performer with Basquete Cearense in 2013-14, with a victory in the NBB's dunk contest among his many highlights. That marked Hardin's first complete season in several years and his best as a pro to date.
Hardin showed off much of that same awe-inspiring athleticism once the expected contingent from Foshan, a Chinese Basketball Association squad in search of another big man, stepped into the building in the Las Vegas suburbs. Among them were three tall men—one, Grant Zhou, a power broker of sorts within the Chinese basketball world; the other two were coaches—and a shorter one, purported to be the team's owner.
They chatted, through Zhou, with Hardin's representatives from Tandem Sports and Entertainment, while watching David Nurse put Hardin through the paces of a workout that Nurse had crafted the night before based on his subject's game film.
"When I’m working out a player for a team, I want to highlight their strengths and make sure that they look, like you would to sell anything," Nurse told Bleacher Report. "Design the workout basically on what would make him look the best while also keeping the flexibility of knowing that the Chinese team is gonna want to see some things in particular that they wanna see."
What they saw was an impressive array of post moves, rebounds, runs up the court and, most surprising of all, jump shots—all from a guy who'd flown in from Dallas the night prior and had neither met Nurse nor been through this particular routine before. Hardin hit from the elbows, off the glass from the side, at the free-throw line and even from beyond the arc, making 9-of-10 from straight away. Hardin's jumper was flowing well enough, in fact, to draw a request from Foshan for him to shoot more in front of them.
"They wanted to see more of, can he make a shot consistently with range? Can he bring the defense out? And he could," Nurse said. "He shot it extremely well today. It’s a testament to him and the work he’s been putting in."
And to just how helpless someone of Nurse's stature (around 6'4") was and would be in the face of a physical specimen like Hardin.
Hardin's opportunity to shine in Brazil (and the one before him in Las Vegas) was a long time coming. The Thunder stashed him overseas while his stress fracture healed. During that time, Hardin became more trade chip than actual player to OKC. Had the Thunder pulled the trigger on the deadline trade for Tyson Chandler in 2009, Hardin would've wound up with the former New Orleans Hornets.
Instead, OKC retained Hardin's rights until 2010, by which time he'd already played in Turkey, Greece and the D-League with the Tulsa 66ers. The next few years saw Hardin chase his dream around the globe, from Israel, Belarus and Argentina to Venezuela, Qatar, China and back to the D-League, this time with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
"This is actually pretty rare for us," Graham Boone, the director of basketball operations at Tandem, said of Hardin's audition. "I think a lot of guys have had consistency in their play and their health. They don’t need to do these workouts because the teams have a lot of scouting tape on them.
"While it’s not common, I think it’s entirely necessary for a guy whose resume is kind of hit-and-miss."
Hardin's story, though, is hardly unique. Year in and year out, scores of America's college basketball stars leave their native shores to pursue the game as a job elsewhere, often after finding their opportunities to do so in the NBA wanting. According to US Basket, there were 5,133 Americans playing abroad at last count. Of that substantial sum, 50 were in China.
Some, like Hardin, are beset by injuries. Others simply don't have the skills to score one of the few free jobs of the 450 total the Association has to offer. Nurse was one of the latter—a shooting specialist at Western Illinois who bounced between the D-League, Australia, Greece and Spain before committing himself to training his peers full-time.
Hardin doesn't have any regrets about his own journey. Instead, he has a wife, two young children, a wealth of worldly adventures he's had the privilege of sharing with them and, he hopes, many more to come.
"It’s been a long road. It’s been a rough road," Hardin went on. "It’s also been rewarding in the sense that I’ve seen many countries. I’ve experienced a lot of things. I’ve met a lot of great people. To go back and say I would change this and change that, you know, you’re kind of selling yourself short because I don’t wanna sell short the experiences I’ve had."
Hardin's next experience may well be found in Foshan, a city of more than seven million people in China's Guangdong province. Nothing official has yet been struck between Hardin's representatives and the pro team there, though DeVon remains hopeful of his prospects.
"I mean, I have a pretty good feeling," Hardin said, trying in vain to hold back a beaming smile. "They weren’t oohing and aahing, but I could see."
Shortly thereafter, everyone who was party to Hardin's workout disbanded—Hardin back to Dallas, his reps from Tandem back to Washington, D.C., the folks from Foshan back to China and Nurse back to L.A.
The audition was over. The summer league has now packed up its operations for the year. Hardin is still waiting on word from Foshan.
And the business of basketball continues apace.
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