Darius Bazley didn't know what to expect when he stepped foot on New Balance's campus in July. Bazley and the brand share Boston as a hometown, and as a boy, Bazley had worn 999s and 580s. But as he grew into one of the best basketball players in his high school class, he'd abandoned the brand for gear from Adidas and Nike. Now New Balance—which hasn't made publicly sold basketball shoes since it ended its endorsement of James Worthy in the 1980s—wanted to sell him on signing with it.
New Balance executives weren't sure what to expect, either. For the past three years, they'd been rebuilding their basketball department behind the scenes with an eye on a major signing in the fall of 2018 and a sneaker launch in 2019. But Pat Cassidy, the company's director of global consumer marketing, couldn't be sure how a young basketball player would react to a pitch from a brand he'd never associated with his sport.
Still, Cassidy felt hopeful.
The company had first grown interested in Bazley as a potential target when the 6'9", 210-pound wing announced he would skip playing at Syracuse and instead spend a year in the NBA's G League before entering the 2019 draft. Bazley had been a 5-star small forward, per 247Sports, and his enviable athleticism made him a promising prospect. And as the New Balance team read Bazley's quotes in the Yahoo Sports story that announced his decision to forgo school, it felt New Balance and Bazley were on parallel paths to becoming basketball disruptors.
When Bazley signed with Rich Paul's Klutch Sports in April, Cassidy's confidence grew. In his previous career at Dime magazine, Cassidy had developed a relationship with the superagent (who counts LeBron James and John Wall among his 18 NBA clients) and was sure he would get a meeting.
"One of our things from the beginning was that we're not going to take a quantity-over-quality approach," Cassidy said. "We'll never have 100 basketball players. We've been on the hunt for guys who are outliers. We want guys who are doing things a different way. We want guys that can make their own paths."
Bazley has been blazing his own path for the better part of this year. His original decision to play in the G League was prompted by conversations with his mother, Lynnita Bazley, and his Princeton (Ohio) High School coach, Steve Wright. The three of them believed he'd benefit more from a year of fully committing to basketball than from one spent balancing the sport with school. But Paul thought he had a better plan for Bazley's future—one that didn't involve him playing in the G League—and the pair worked together to come up with a strategy of training for the year and evaluating potential endorsement opportunities.
After an initial meeting with New Balance in July, Paul added another element to the plan: an internship. Cassidy was enthralled by the idea, and the three sides reached an agreement at the next meeting in October. Bazley signed a five-year endorsement deal that includes a guaranteed $1 million and could be worth as much as $14 million, depending on various draft and performance incentives. He also agreed to intern at the company's Boston headquarters from January to March 2019, working primarily with the marketing and social media teams. Paul hopes the program will benefit Bazley not only with job skills but also with the 2019 draft evaluation process.
"The valuation of a player while he's in school is important to NBA teams," Paul said. "Teams do background checks. They evaluate timeliness and work ethic and things of that nature. I wanted for Darius to have that even if he didn't play.
"An internship is great because he'll train prior to work, go to work, eat, watch basketball and go to bed for 90 days. Also he'll learn the business. People talk about life after basketball, but they wait till after basketball to start thinking about that. Darius won't have to wait."
But Bazley may have to wait on draft night as a result. Once projected as a potential lottery pick because of his size and athleticism, he is now viewed as a borderline first-round pick. And because he won't be playing publicly, he will not have the same opportunities as international prospects or American college basketball players to boost his stock.
In the past five years, several players in American high school basketball have attempted unique paths to the NBA, with mixed results. Terrance Ferguson (Australia), Brandon Jennings (Italy) and Emmanuel Mudiay (China) each played abroad and were selected in the first rounds of their respective drafts. But just last year, highly touted big man Mitchell Robinson declined to enroll at Western Kentucky and sat out for a season, which caused him to drop into the early part of the second round.
Bazley said that dealing with the public reaction to his initial decision to join the G League helped him when he withdrew. "I didn't look at what anyone else was doing," Bazley said. "This is something I want to do. People who say my stock is slipping or whatever—they don't matter. At the end of the day, people saying those things aren't the ones who will draft me. I don't pay attention to the mock drafts. I just play basketball."
Paul counseled Bazley not to obsess over his potential draft position but to set his sights beyond where he's selected. "Some people value draft stock, and some people value careers," Paul said. "I'm a career guy. We've seen guys who go No. 1 overall and are out of the league in a few seasons, and guys who go No. 60 and have max contracts. Darius will be fine. I'm not worried about his draft prospects."
When Bazley's decision to sign with New Balance became public in October, many viewed it as a way for the sneaker company to make inroads with Paul's other high-profile clients. "Let's kill that narrative right now," Paul said. "That's totally not true. In the event that another opportunity arises, and it makes sense for New Balance and the client that I'm representing at that point, then we'll look at it. There's no forgone decision that because they're doing business with Darius that we'll do business again down the road."
For now, Bazley is living and training in Memphis, Tennessee, with former NBA player and current Memphis Tigers assistant coach Mike Miller. During the three-month internship, Bazley said basketball would continue to be his primary focus. "It'll be just like if I was going to school," Bazley said. "It's not like I'm working from sunup to sundown. There's always time in the day for you to perfect your craft. I'll work out in the morning and at night. I'll do whatever it takes."
As part of his internship, Bazley will help New Balance launch its first basketball sneakers in 30 years. After work, he'll wear prototypes and provide feedback. But, for now, there are no plans for him to have a signature shoe. New Balance's strategy seems to be similar to what Puma executed this offseason with the signings of Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III, the top two picks in the draft, who now play in the same style shoes. But where Puma complicated its rollout by not having its shoes ready for its stars, New Balance is firm in its belief that its sneakers will be ready in time for Bazley's 2019 NBA Summer League debut. For both Bazley and New Balance, that day will represent a long-awaited return to the court.
"I've been on a pretty unconventional path," Bazley said, "and so has New Balance. This has felt like the right fit from the start."