Top N.B.A. Prospects Skip College, but Not Stardom
The N.B.A.’s biggest stars often make their names during the N.C.A.A. tournament. But this year’s top draft picks may be players who found the spotlight elsewhere.
As children, the twin brothers Amen and Ausar Thompson adopted their father’s favorite sports teams. That made them Cleveland Cavaliers fans, then Miami Heat fans, then Cavs fans again as they followed LeBron James’s journey through the N.B.A. But when it came to men’s college basketball, there was no wandering around. They rooted for Kentucky.
When they were 12, they were especially attached to the Wildcats’ 2014-15 team, which had the twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison and entered the N.C.A.A. tournament with a 34-0 record. The team was so talent-laden that Devin Booker, a future All-N.B.A. guard, had to come off the bench.
In the Harrisons, the Thompson twins saw a model for forming a ferocious college backcourt on their path toward their dream of playing in the N.B.A. They could even imagine that path threading through Lexington, Ky. That April, Amen cried when Wisconsin wrecked the Wildcats’ perfect season by beating Kentucky in the Final Four.
But the Thompson twins, now 20, never went to Kentucky — or any college. Instead, they signed lucrative deals to play with Overtime Elite, a semiprofessional basketball league for N.B.A. prospects based in Atlanta. For the past two years, Amen and Ausar have been two of the program’s premier stars. They recently finished their final season by winning O.T.E.’s playoffs with their team, the City Reapers.
“The games were so intense,” Ausar said, “it felt like the N.C.A.A. tournament. I feel like O.T.E. got the first March Madness of 2023.”
When the first round of the Division I men’s basketball tournament tips off on Thursday, the brothers will be back home in Florida. They’re taking a week off before diving into training ahead of the 2023 N.B.A. draft in June, when they’re expected to be among the first 10 players picked. And they won’t be the only top-tier prospects missing out on the real March Madness.
In some mock drafts, the top four predicted picks are Victor Wembanyama of France, Scoot Henderson of the N.B.A.’s G League Ignite and the Thompson twins. If those predictions are right, it would be the first time since 2001 — and only the second time in N.B.A. draft history — that a college basketball player wasn’t selected among the top four picks.
“It really shows how many options are available to players now,” Ausar said. “There’s not just one way to make it to the league. You don’t have to do the same thing that everyone else is doing to get where you want to go.”
During the N.B.A.’s so-called prep-to-pro generation, dozens of players were drafted out of high school, including Kevin Garnett in 1995 and Kobe Bryant in 1996. In 2001, three of the first four picks were plucked out of the high school ranks: Kwame Brown (No. 1), Tyson Chandler (No. 2) and Eddy Curry (No. 4). Pau Gasol, the No. 3 pick, was selected out of Spain. None of the projected top four picks in this year’s draft had even been born.
While the prep-to-pro generation lasted only a decade before the N.B.A. added an age limit to the draft, these new alternative paths look more permanent. The N.B.A. has invested heavily in developing amateur talent, from its international N.B.A. Academy program with outposts in Australia, India, Mexico and Senegal, to the Ignite team, which is part of its developmental G League in the United States. O.T.E. is also well funded and backed by top N.B.A. players. And the N.B.A. may reopen the draft to high school players in 2024 as part of a new collective bargaining agreement that is being negotiated now.
For the foreseeable future, most prospects will still come from N.C.A.A. Division I basketball, but the pool for the top of the draft may continue to tilt toward the alternatives.
Drafts are notoriously difficult to predict, but one near certainty has emerged this year: Wembanyama will be the first pick. A 7-foot-3 center with an eight-foot wingspan and the ball-handling skills and shooting range of a guard, Wembanyama is considered a generational talent. His grandfather and his mother were professional basketball players in France, and he has been involved in French developmental leagues since he was 7.
“I’m going to miss France, for sure,” he told The New York Times in October. “But I’ve worked all my life for this, so I’m really just thankful and grateful.”
Wembanyama’s route to the N.B.A. was most likely never going to include a pit stop at an American college. But the roster of his current team, Metropolitans 92 in France’s top league, includes five former Division I players. Although the team was composed primarily to help develop and showcase Wembanyama’s N.B.A. skills, it has made a surprising push to second place. Wembanyama — who is averaging 21.7, 9.3 rebounds and 3.2 blocks a game — is why.
In October, Wembanyama got his first taste of playing pro basketball in America when Metropolitans 92 faced off against the G League Ignite team in a two-game exhibition series in Henderson, Nev., where the Ignite play their home games. In the first game, Wembanyama finished with 37 points, 5 blocks, 4 rebounds and 1 steal. Henderson, an aggressive guard, scored 28 points and added 9 assists, 5 rebounds and 2 steals en route to an Ignite win. But in the second game, the collision between the draft’s top two prospects took an all-too-literal turn when they ran into each other near the 3-point line.
Henderson left the game with a knee injury, and he has been hobbled by other injuries this season, but he has been a force on the court. In 19 games with Ignite, he has averaged 16.5 points, 6.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game.
Growing up in Georgia as a two-sport athlete, Henderson had only one rooting interest at the college level: football. He could have played for any college basketball team in the country and considered signing with Georgia or Auburn before ultimately inking a two-year, $1 million deal with Ignite.
“Playing with Ignite allowed me to get the grown-man bump,” Henderson said. “I’m going up against guys who have been up in the league and want to get back up again. They know pro basketball inside and out. They know all the angles. I wouldn’t have learned how to play against guys like these if I’d gone to college.”
Henderson has three sisters who played Division I basketball, but none of them made the N.C.A.A. tournament. He said he’s never filled out a bracket, but he always enjoys watching the games. He even remembers jumping around in his living room when Villanova’s Kris Jenkins hit a buzzer-beating, game-winning shot in the 2016 national championship against North Carolina. But he joked that his only regret about college now is that he didn’t get a chance to play for the back-to-back national champion Georgia football team.
“This is the future, man,” Henderson said. “Coming to the N.B.A. from overseas. Coming to the N.B.A. from O.T.E. Coming to the N.B.A. from Ignite. All the guys at the top this year bet on themselves and took their own paths. I commend everybody for doing their own thing.”
Ignite’s regular-season schedule doesn’t end until the second weekend of the N.C.A.A. tournament, but the team has shut Henderson down so that he can focus on training for the draft. He said he’ll tune into the tournament when he can — partly to enjoy the games and partly to scout the other top prospects who will be playing in it.
With his season wrapped up, Henderson will move back to Georgia, where his family owns a gym, Next Play 360. That will put him just a 25-minute drive away from the Thompson twins, who will be training at O.T.E. in hopes of overtaking him in the draft order.
“I like that we get to train before everyone else,” Amen said. “Some of the guys playing are going to be our competition next year, and I get to see what they do. We’re not rooting for any teams, but I hope we get to watch some good basketball.”