The two-man game: A look into the NBL, and Europe as NBA pathways

We all know the NCAA is a proven pathway to the NBA's bright lights.

The NBL has however, seemingly paved the way to what might look like an alternative route to the NBA, with NBL import Terrance Ferguson being selected in the NBA lottery this year, with seemingly little impact to his stock.

Meanwhile, Jonah Bolden left the NCAA and chose to go pro in Europe, honing his skills against a tougher, more established level of competition. He was eventually drafted at number 36.

What are the pros and cons of a prospect using the NBL, when measured against Europe? Were Bolden and Ferguson the pioneers to an emerging trend, or were they simply outliers?

Our founding editors, Steve Chalmers and Damian Arsenis, lay it out for you.

Q: Does Ferguson's success give other American NBA prospects, the belief that playing a year in the NBL, versus the NCAA's one-and-done route still gets them drafted in the NBA without losing too much stock?

Steve: Terrance Ferguson's journey to the NBA is a unique one. While many Australian basketball fans put on the goggles that only highlighted Ferguson's Adelaide 36ers stint, you have to understand his path to the world's number 1 league started well before that.

Entering his senior year of high school, Ferguson was ranked at no.11 in ESPN's Class of 2016 Top 100. He played in the McDonald's All-American Game in 2016, and represented his country three times, all resulting in gold medals (U16 Americas, U17 World's, U19 World's).

Heading into the college signing season, Ferguson was an extremely valuable signature. Colleges were well aware 'T-Ferg' was going one-and-done before his entry into the NBA; he was bound to be a first rounder.

Having committed to Alabama, and then Arizona, the Adelaide 36ers experiment caught him by surprise; an opportunity to earn a wage while preparing himself for the big leagues to come.

Ferg's journey via Australia has a number of pros and cons. After being drafted to the Oklahoma City Thunder at 21 in the recent 2017 NBA Draft, the pros have outweighed the cons.

Starting with the bad, which ultimately turn into positives - Ferguson lands in Australia's NBL, a league of little interest to international viewers.

Despite constant local coverage –which, in turn, was mostly positive simply because of the hype from the calibre of player on our shores– Ferguson did not have to endure constant media attention, prior to his jump to the NBA.

While American media were out of the picture, NBA talent scouts were not. These members of staff were well and truly on the ball and in attendance throughout Ferguson's Adelaide stint.

From day one of the preseason, to game three of the semi-finals - there was always someone watching.

Like Bolden, Ferguson had the opportunity to prepare himself for the future playing against bigger bodies. It's a different ball game playing against men, compared to athletes your own age, and heightens his readiness for the NBA's level of physicality.

What if Ferguson had have gone to Arizona and played a year of college basketball. Would he have been picked higher in the draft?

Damian: Ferguson had been on the NBA radar well before he even considered turning pro, let alone doing so in Australia. He was pegged as a likely lottery selection and an almost certain first-rounder, as Steve pointed out. He was an All-American, at the pointy end of ESPN's Top 100, played for his country and won gold medals at junior international level.

His leap of faith to play in the NBL was not as great a risk as many predicted. By starring in the US high school system and in representing his country, Ferguson gained attention and generated all the hype he needed. All he needed was to show he could hold his own as a pro in a good league, as a teenager playing against grown men, to maintain his draft standing. He did just that, and now he is an NBA player.

Q: Given Fergs was special, how would NBL apply to other American kids who might want to try the same route? Does the same lack of US scrutiny, an easier transition thanks to an English-speaking environment, the enhanced level of physical competition give those kids an overall boost, compared to if they went Europe?

Steve: To start with, Australia is always open to taking these NBA prospects. It only enhances basketball down under. On the flip side, does it improve the players' chances?

It depends on the individual.

Ferguson is a high character guy. He found the balance between playing basketball in another country and being able to fit in and feel like he belonged.

An example of Australia being a great new venture for NBA prospects is that of Emmanuel Mudiay. Mudiay took a similar route to Ferguson, however he decided on a larger pay cheque in China prior to being drafted. The higher price tag obviously comes with the more difficult nature of 'fitting in'.

The English language is a huge positive for American players, many of which don't like to step outside their comfort zone. We, as Australians, provide a little bit of both.

The big positive for future players headed to our shores is the fact that they've seen it been done. They watched (already drafted) James Ennis succeed down here and flourish into a very capable NBA player. All eyes are now on Ferguson. Finally, NBA franchises and scouts now know what the competition is like down here and the NBL has well and truly been put on the global map.

Damian: The scenario will vary from athlete to athlete, and each one will need to make an informed decision as to what is best for them.

Ferguson may well have enjoyed being away from the media spotlight back home in the US, in contrast to Ben Simmons - ask him how it was like to be hounded by the media every day! Ferguson did not have the same problem playing in Australia. On the flip side, a player that did not have the same profile might not have achieved the same result. Ferguson came to Australia with hype. Would a player outside the ESPN Top 100 receive the same fanfare? Probably not.

The NBL is being compared with some of the top 10 leagues in Europe. Australia has a distinct advantage when it comes to culture and language. As an 18-year-old from the US - consider where they may feel more comfortable living away from home for the first time?

There is no doubting that the US college pathway is still the most successful pathway to the NBA, however it is not the most appropriate pathway for everyone. What Ferguson has done is shine a light on alternative options for those other players. The NBL is a good basketball league, one that is often underrated both at home in Australia and abroad. There's also the added attraction of boasting a language and culture not that dissimilar to the US, plus getting paid to play, which makes it a really attractive proposition for young athletes.

A byproduct of Ferguson's NBL adventure is that NBA scouts are now more familiar with the NBL and its local products. Would Mitch Creek and Nathan Sobey have received NBA Summer League deals without that additional exposure? With all due respect to the players who thoroughly deserve the opportunity, possibly not.

Q: What do we think about the Europe to NBA route for Australians? Bolden was projected from a late first to an early second, he was eventually taken at 36th by Philadelphia. Would Bolden have ended up being drafted earlier, if he'd stayed in the NCAA?

Damian: Again, every situation is different.

Bolden left UCLA due to a lack of opportunity. He wanted to showcase his complete skillset and at that point in time decided staying with the Bruins was not the best situation for him, as there were no guarantees he would get that chance the next season. If he transferred to another college, he would have been forced to sit out a year, due to NCAA regulations.

Bolden just wanted to play, and ended up turning pro to play in Serbia and the Adriatic League. He found himself in a great situation at FMP Belgrade, playing in a good league of a standard not too dissimilar to the NBL. Given the opportunity to play starter minutes, in essence he was given a green light to play freely. He stood up to the challenge and played so well that he earned the Adriatic League's Top Prospect award, which helped even more, given it was last won by Philadelphia 76er Dario Saric.

In Bolden's case, fortune favoured the brave; his decision to leave UCLA early and head to Europe was rewarded.

The European pathway by US athletes was pioneered by Brandon Jennings. He was the first US athlete to bypass college to play professionally, since the NBA's age restriction rule was implemented. Unlike Bolden, he was already a projected lottery pick, and wound up being taken at 10 by the Milwaukee Bucks after his one and only season in Italy.

Let us also consider where Bolden may have ended up if he stayed at UCLA. He would have played alongside Lonzo Ball, who after an outstanding season was selected 2nd by the LA Lakers. There are a lot of 'ifs' and 'buts', but the exposure Bolden would have received in playing with Ball, could have seen him taken as a lottery selection if he was given the chance to display his talent.

Q: How does this figure for Australian kids who aspire to the NBA? Are there tangible upsides to playing pro in Europe prior to the NBA draft, or is Bolden's route the rare exception?

Damian: It is extremely difficult for any Australian to gain a contract as an European import on a good team in a quality league, even more so if you also happen to be an 18 or 19-year-old prospect.

But there is one exception: if you hold a dual passport, with one of the countries being European.

A dual passport that allows you to play as a local in Europe, is the key for young Australians considering a pathway through Europe. This is where current Boomers David Andersen and Ryan Broekhoff have benefited, as both possess dual passports. This is in contrast to Brock Motum, who plays as an import in Lithuania (the highest paid one too). Even rising stars such as Mitch McCarron and Dan Trist, who delivered outstanding senior years in US college ended up playing in the Spanish second division, rather than the prestigious ACB.

Tom Wilson is following Bolden's pathway, with his recent decision to sign with Partizan Belgrade in Serbia. Whether Wilson gets the same opportunity to shine in his first season as a pro, and then gain the exposure he needs to be considered for the 2018 NBA Draft, is yet to be seen.

I honestly believe that the Bolden scenario is an exception to the rule. However, with so few NBL teams and therefore playing opportunities, and the potential to earn more money overseas, Australian players not wishing to attend US college would be foolish to not explore all their available options, just like what Wilson has done.

Steve: I've always been a firm believer that if you are an Australian and are good enough for the NBA, they'll find you.

In this day and age where anything and everything is so easily accessible, if you are a good enough basketball player to play in the NBA, it won't matter whether you are playing in the NBL, Euroleague, G-League or anywhere else for that matter.

Noise gets made about you, and someone takes notice.

Take Dante Exum for example; he was without a doubt 2014's International Man of Mystery (in NBA draft terms). Mystery to the general NBA public, but not to the NBA.

A boy playing high school basketball for Lake Ginninderra in the ACT, somehow makes the trip to the Nike Hoop Summit and balls out?

He was noticed.

Australian kids may aspire to make it to the NBA and find themselves going down the Euro pathway before being encapsulated by it - see Ryan Broekhoff. 'Rowdy' has now found a home in Lokomotiv and, while good enough for the NBA, wouldn't necessarily play there, because of his situation in Europe.

The biggest factor in young Australians hoping to make it to the NBA is finding the proven pathway. At this point in time, Europe and, more specifically the Adriatic League (which Bolden played in) looks like the better pathway to the NBA, albeit with the caveats Damian mentioned.

The NBL has seen a number of local stars make it to the big time, However when you get one opportunity as a young basketballer, 100 times out of 100, you would want to be taking the better odds.

So, concluding from the original question - tangible upsides in more dollars, easier transition from the style of basketball and also a better pathway (at this point in time) sees Europe as a more lucrative option.