As Darius Bazley walked onto the Barclays Center court to warm up for the Jordan Brand Classic, he couldn't seem to slow his heart rate. He had played in NBA arenas before, but this was his first exhibition after announcing he would forgo college basketball and jump straight into the NBA's G League after high school.
As a boy, Bazley had rarely dreamed of playing in college. He had always desired to be a pro. And on this April night, he finally felt like he was on the right path."I know there's going to be adversity, and I know the only way to take it on if I want to be successful is straightforward," Bazley said. "I can't run around it or dig a hole under it. I have to take it straight on. It's not going to be easy, but I'll get through it."
It took about two months for Bazley's mother, Lynnita, and his Princeton (Ohio) High School basketball coach, Steve Wright, to convince the young star that a nontraditional route to the NBA could be right for him. From that moment, observers from all levels of basketball began to closely watch Bazley's development.
If Bazley is a lottery pick next year, it isn't hard to imagine other top-notch prospects deciding to follow his path. With his decision, the 6'9" power forward hasn't sunk the NCAA, but he has sprung another leak into its ship of amateurism. His power is as a potential pioneer.
But for now, Bazley's focus is far narrower. "I expect to produce," he said. "I'm not expecting to be going to a team and score 30 every night and average a triple-double. I'm not expecting that at all. But I am expecting to show flashes here and there and be professional and show coaches that I can do this at this level and mature as the process goes on. I want to be the best me I can be—that's the only expectation I have."
Bazley isn't the first player to forge a different path to the pros. In 2016, Terrance Ferguson chose to play for the Adelaide 36ers in Australia instead of Alabama. In 2014, Emmanuel Mudiay opted to spend a season in China rather than at SMU. And in 2008, Brandon Jennings joined a team in Italy instead of attending Arizona. They each became first-round picks in their respective draft classes. But only one player—Latavious Williams—has previously chosen the NBA's developmental league over an American university.
A top-20 recruit on Rivals.com, Williams was head coach Josh Pastner's first commitment at Memphis. But amid concerns that he wouldn't qualify academically, he chose the D-League—as it was then known—over a six-figure contract offer to play in China. The Miami Heat wound up selecting him with a second-round pick in the 2010 draft, but he has never played a regular-season minute in the NBA.
Will Bazley's future be brighter? Two positive signs are that he wasn't forced into this decision—multiple college coaches who recruited Bazley told B/R that his qualification wasn't in question—and that he is fully aware of the challenges he faces. Every game, he'll be playing against grown men who are fighting to make it into the NBA. But Bazley seems just as eager to show that he belongs on the big stage.
"Coming up to where I am now wasn't easy," he said. "I know there's going to be a lot of adversity. When I was younger, there were times when I'd question things, like after I had bad games when I needed to have good games. 'Am I really even good at this? Can I compete with these guys? I know I'm tall, and I know I'm talented, but it's not showing.' I had to overcome things like that and trust the process and trust in God."
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