Jalen Lewis saw packed Bay Area high school gyms in his future. He'd followed his close friend Ivan Rabb's legendary career at Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd and saw a similar future for himself.
Lewis—a 6'10", 16-year-old phenom—saw the big-name schools on his college offer letters: Kentucky, Kansas, Cal, Michigan, USC, UCLA, Stanford.
He'd just have to wait his turn to cash in on his abilities and potential.
"I always thought I was going to play D-I college ball at one of those big schools in front of those big crowds," Lewis told Bleacher Report.
Five years ago, the choice would have been tough but straightforward for ESPN's No. 2-ranked player in his class: deciding which school to play big-time college basketball at. But in late spring of 2021, the Lewis family got a call about a new pro league offering talented young players like Lewis a different path to the NBA.
"I was happy going along with the traditional route, watching him play in some of those legendary Oakland prep school games that people chat about for ages," says Jalen's father, Ahlee.
The pitch wasn't from a desperate agent or a scout from another country, or even LaVar Ball, but from media company Overtime: Be the youngest professional basketball player in American history and learn what you actually need to know.
Aside from the exposure afforded by Overtime's 5.3 million Instagram followers and 17.6 million TikTok followers, Jalen and Ahlee found themselves attracted to the off-court developmental aspects of the pitch. Brandon Williams, Overtime Elite's head of basketball operations and former NBA executive, sold the Lewis family on a different kind of educational curriculum, catering specifically to a future professional basketball player's needs.
"While we are helping them grow as athletes, we are preparing them to be great partners for NBA teams, partners for European clubs. Whatever their final destination is, they will understand the full scope of what that entails. They will have four-and-a-half hours of learning every day," Williams said.
Williams acknowledges there are costs to forgoing the high-level high school hoops path. But he firmly believes Overtime Elite can best prepare Lewis for his goal.
"Sure, everybody wants to boogie in front of a crowd and play when they are screaming," said Williams. "And we will create a great environment for that. But I want to make sure that, more than showcasing their talent, that we are developing their talent. And we can do that better than anyone."
Over the past few years, more elite prospects are rerouting around the NCAA and the NBA's age floor, choosing instead the NBA G League path (Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga), Australia and New Zealand's NBL (LaMelo Ball, R.J. Hampton), and now Overtime Elite.
Just in the past year, the NCAA took a step in trying to fend off some of these alternatives when it began allowing student-athletes to earn money from their name, image and likeness. For many, the NCAA remains the best path for high-level hoopers with eyes for the NBA. Others, like Ball, have publicly questioned the value of a traditional education.
The tide is changing quickly, and NBA talent evaluators are having to adapt on the fly. Happily, in some cases.
"I think it is awesome," said Kirk Lacob, executive vice president of basketball operations for the Golden State Warriors. "For a long time, we've only had one pathway for players to become pro athletes. I won't say it's perfect, but there are just more options.
"From a scouting perspective, I think it makes things a bit more difficult because there is more that we have to cover, more that we have to learn about these leagues," Lacob said. "It'll take a little bit of time to figure out how to project players."
Lacob's Warriors are direct beneficiaries of college alternatives, having recently taken G League Ignite prospect Kuminga seventh overall in the 2021 draft. Kuminga turned down scholarship offers to nearly every blue blood D-1 program in the country and still ended up in the lottery, along with G League Ignite teammate Green.
"[Kuminga] wanted to train like a professional," Lacob said. "He wanted to learn NBA verbiage. He wanted to know the things that he was supposed to do every single day and get a jump-start. And I think it has helped him already, because that transition is hard," said Lacob.
It's half past eight in the morning in a hot gym in Concord, California. Lewis has just finished up some skill work with his trainer, Teohn Conner.
"I'm just working. I got to get my skills right for the next level," says a sweaty but smirking Lewis.
Long before he became the youngest American ever to sign a professional basketball contract, Lewis had a pro-grade routine. Three days per week, skill workouts at 7 a.m. in Concord. Weight training in the afternoon in East Oakland with local legend Anthony Eggleton.
"I've tried to instill a great work ethic in him since day one, and he's really embraced everything that I've thrown at him," Ahlee Lewis says. "He's been in a rigorous academic environment since elementary school while juggling the basketball training schedule that I've had him on."
This September, Lewis will move down to Atlanta, where he will live on the Overtime Elite campus. Ahlee will split time between Oakland and Atlanta, monitoring his son's progress while also working full time in the Bay.
In some ways, Lewis' life won't be all that different. He's always been a gym rat; he's always had a social life. Ahlee sees the road bumps ahead for a 16-year-old moving to a new city and being around new people, and he's setting new expectations for his son.
Be the same young man who you've always been.
Be aware when you're meeting new people.
Think about what their true intentions may be.
"At home, things are pretty much the same because we are all about the work. But when he's on the road, I've told him to be aware because your actions are more in the limelight," Ahlee said.
Lewis admits his mindset has changed.
"I'm developing that pro mentality. Working on my body. Always eating right. Getting the right amount of sleep and taking no days off. You don't want to burn yourself out, but you want to stay in the gym."
Of course, there's the money. Kevin Draper of the New York Times reported players will make as much as $100,000 per year in salaries, in addition to equity. The language and value of his contract will not be made public by Overtime Elite, nor has Ahlee revealed any specifics.
"His financial situation has been misrepresented by a number of people out there," said a chuckling Ahlee.
Still, Jalen says his decision has caught the attention of some of his peers. As of last week, 15 players had signed on for Overtime's league.
"I've definitely been hit up by a bunch of top-ranked players across the country, just asking me what is going on at OT, because they are interested in joining too," Jalen said.
But the bottom line is this: The league will only thrive if players like Lewis springboard to the NBA, and others following Lewis' footsteps eventually view Overtime as a true NBA pipeline.
There will still be detractors from going the nontraditional route. But as Lacob points out, risks exist either way: "A lot of critics will point to, these guys aren't all going to make the NBA, and I don't think that's the point. There are a lot of places to play pro, and some of these programs are doing a really good job of setting these guys up for the future if they don't make it to the NBA, which if we are being honest, if you are a one-and-done in college [and flame out quickly], there aren't a lot of options for you."
As you might guess from a legitimate trailblazer, Lewis is confident in his decision.
"I think it is a way that I am going to enhance my game to the highest it can get to before I enter the draft," Jalen said.
And while he will no longer be doing it in packed gyms scattered throughout Oakland, like most products of the Town, he will still carry his hometown with him.
"I want to get there [the NBA] just for the Town. I want to make a statement for the Town. And show everybody there is skill here too. I want to put on."