From Flint to the Phoenix: Terry Armstrong is rising fast

It’s easy to forget just how young Terry Armstrong is. A little over two months removed from his 19th birthday, he says he’s “kind of a shy guy—I don’t really talk that much”. It’s hard to believe that’s true, though, when listening to him speak about moving to the other side of the globe, competing with grown men in the NBL and, most importantly, taking care of his family.

Melbourne couldn’t be much further from Armstrong’s hometown of Flint, Michigan. It’s a city that’s been in the spotlight for the best part of a century, for better and for worse. Initially, it was known as the birthplace of General Motors. More recently, it’s been the site of one of the world’s biggest public health emergencies, after lead from aging pipes seeped into the city’s water supply.

It was in that environment, and in a place once dubbed “America’s most dangerous city”, that Armstrong and his family grew together.

“Growing up in Flint, obviously it’s hard. My family, we struggled a lot but we’re still making it through,” Armstrong told The Pick and Roll.

“The water thing, my family still has to take showers in it—it’s supposed to be better now, but the pipes are still kind of messed up.”

While he’s moved to Australia to play for the South East Melbourne Phoenix this season, his family have stayed in Flint. With dreams to be drafted into the NBA next year, he says that’s the biggest motivator he could have.

“[I’m] just trying to help my mum out, I still have brothers and sisters that are younger than me staying with her… My dad passed a year ago so he’s not there, so just helping them out, making sure she’s OK and taking care of the kids,” he said.

“I feel like me seeing what the people go through there really motivated me and pushed me more in basketball.”

It’s that maturity and perspective that make his age a forgettable detail. There are still some reminders, though, that he is just like any other high school graduate. After attending four different high schools across four years, he says the chance to trade in his textbooks for more time on the court was too good to pass up.

“It was really my dream to go [to college], but then after I sat down and thought about it, I was just tired of school. I graduated and I’m like ‘I don’t know if I can do school again,’” he said.

“I just wanted to focus on basketball more and get to the position where I can help my family— I can always go back to school.”

With his decision made to forego college and play professionally, the next question was where that might happen. Arthur Smalls, Armstrong’s agent, recently told ESPN that seeing fellow Next Star signee RJ Hampton announce his decision opened his young client’s eyes to the possibility of a move to Australia.

For Armstrong, there was a fairly simple appeal to the land Down Under.

“Australia’s an English-speaking country. I’ve only just turned 19 a few months ago, and I don’t want to be in China or anywhere else where I don’t know the language,” he said.

On top of Armstrong and Hampton, the 2019/20 Next Stars class also includes highly touted youngster LaMelo Ball and New Orleans Pelicans draftee Didi Louzada. Being listed alongside two prospects generating top-five draft buzz and one player already selected by an NBA team, has seen Armstrong fly somewhat under the radar. While he’s not worried about competing with his peers, he says the extra attention on them does give him a little more motivation.

“RJ and LaMelo, we’re great friends, and I’m friends with Didi, so I want the best for them and I’m pretty sure they want the same for me,” he said.

“But it’s definitely motivating me… I’ve always been the underdog, so my plan is to just come in and prove people wrong.”

The best way for him to do that will be to make an impact on the court. All three of Ball, Hampton and Louzada will play major minutes for their respective teams, but the path is a little less clear for Armstrong. The Phoenix are a brand new franchise yet to play an official NBL game, but their roster has plenty of experience on the perimeter, with Boomers star Mitch Creek and NBL veterans Ben Madgen, Adam Gibson leading the way.

Armstrong knows he’ll have to earn his time on the floor, and while it’s his offensive play that made him a four-star recruit and a top-40 player in his class, it’s at the other end of the floor that he says he’ll try to make an impression.

“I feel like I will gain more minutes if I help the team out on defence… I really want to be a threat on the defensive end of the floor, because I feel like everyone already knows I’m gifted offensively,” he said.

That’s a tough ask for a player making the jump from underage basketball in high school to matching up with grown men in one the world’s best professional leagues. According to ESPN, Armstrong is six-foot-six (198cm) but weighs just 185 pounds (84kg). Armstrong knows he’s in for a tough battle in such a physical league, but he’s already trying to lean on and learn from his new teammates.

“Coming into practicing with the team and seeing how physical it was, I think that’s what caught me off guard,” he said. “I talk to [my teammates] a lot trying to learn mostly on defence. I talked to Mitch [Creek] and as soon as he got back he came in, loud voice, talking in practice, so I’ve really been watching him.”

While Armstrong may lack the size and strength of some of his peers, his athleticism blows most of them out of the water. That was on full display at the NBL Blitz in Tasmania, as he took out the dunk contest in spectacular fashion.

It’s clear that Armstrong has NBA hops, but there was also some NBA influence in his second dunk of the contest. He met fellow Flint native and Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges during his high school career, and it was with the one-time NBA dunk contest competitor that he first trialled his winning slam.

“Me and Miles are great friends… I’ve been watching his process through high school, college and now in the NBA,” he said. “We were having a mini dunk contest after a workout and I just tried it and I made it, so ever since then I was like ‘OK, next dunk contest I’m going to do it.’”

He says that’s about as far as the planning went, though.

“Going into the dunk contest I didn’t know what dunks I wanted to do, so it’s kind of like once they hand me the ball I just go to the free throw line and start thinking, and then just trying whatever comes to my mind,” he said.

Armstrong may have already made an impact with his performance at the Blitz, but he’s hoping to make an even bigger splash on the court once the season gets underway. He’ll miss the Phoenix’s season opener with a minor foot injury, but says he’ll be back practising next week and ready to go for their home opener against Brisbane.

And once he is back on the court?

“Hopefully just playing well this season, getting my draft stock up and going from there.”

It’s a simple plan, but one that he hopes will take him to the NBA and beyond.