July 22, 2024

Overtime Elite’s pivot from college basketball foe to friend gives it staying power as an NBA pipeline

When Amen and Ausar Thompson went back-to-back in the 2023 NBA Draft, Overtime Elite general manager Damien Wilkins genuinely believed two top-5 picks might go down in OTE lore as the standard and the pinnacle.

It only took a year for records to be broken.

For the second straight season, OTE –– a basketball factory tucked in Atlanta, Ga. –– helped develop two more lottery picks. Washington plucked French sensation Alex Sarr with the No. 2 pick; Sarr spent two years with Overtime Elite. Entering Wednesday’s first round, many circled Kentucky’s Rob Dillingham as a candidate to slip out of the lottery. That did not materialize. Minnesota, fresh off an appearance in the Western Conference Finals, traded up to No. 8 to take the polarizing guard who may just be the best shot-creator in the draft, despite weighing in at just 164 pounds and owning a 6-foot-3 wingspan.

“Who cares about wingspan when you can put the ball in the basket,” Wilkins, a 10-year veteran, said with a laugh. “I’m a basketball player, man. If you can hoop, you can hoop. I don’t care what your wingspan is. It’s like the old adage when (Kevin Durant) came into the league that he isn’t strong enough because he only lifted 185 pounds at the combine twice. He’s a born scorer and the game isn’t played in the weight room. Sure, the weight room is important for athletes of any kind, but who cares about that stuff when you can hoop? Rob is a basketball player. Let him go out there and do his thing and the measurements don’t apply to certain people. He’s one of the guys they don’t apply to.”

The Thompsons, Sarr and Dillingham give OTE a bit of earned swagger. So does the real success of Dominick Barlow, who went undrafted in the 2022 NBA Draft but has found a way to stick with San Antonio for two straight seasons. Tyler Smith, another former OTE alumnus, likely will not have to wait long on Thursday to hear his name called in the second round of the draft.

The foresight and willingness to adapt have given OTE a chance at staying power at the top of the basketball food chain that is seemingly always changing.

The NBA’s G League Ignite can boast it had two lottery picks on Thursday, too. Detroit took Ron Holland at No. 5 overall and Chicago scooped up Matas Buzelis just six picks later. But the Ignite shut its doors in March after a dreadful 2023-24 campaign.

OTE has no plans of going anywhere. It’s here. Changing its strategy helped.

At first, there was real consternation in college basketball circles that G League Ignite and Overtime Elite could be a real threat to the college game with bags galore to (legally) throw at some of the top prospects in the country. G League Ignite opened in April 2020 and scooped up five-stars like Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga. When OTE opened 11 months later, it set its sights on those top hoopers, too.

“In Year 1, there were a lot of rumblings and grumblings,” Wilkins said. “We didn’t make a lot of friends at all. The way for people to get here was to give up their eligibility. That’s just how we had to do it.”

But when Name, Image and Likeness got introduced, college basketball started to punch back in a real way. So Overtime Elite pivoted in 2022 to offer prospects a scholarship option, instead of a salary, to preserve NCAA eligibility. Overtime Elite wisely pivoted from a competitor to college basketball to a new-and-improved, feeder program.

The relationship between OTE and college staffs instantly changed.

“It wasn’t really awkward at all, it was unspoken,” Wilkins says. “We never talked about the thing. There were a lot of coaches who are in our building now who we talk to on a daily basis were against our first-year model. If you were in their shoes, you can see why. We take talent from them. You’re taking opportunities and players from them. I get it. But we had to start somewhere. Without that start, that relationship we have now probably would have never happened.”

OTE provided Dillingham some semblance of structure that Kanye West’s failed Donda Academy couldn’t rival. OTE has pivoted from competing against college basketball to helping it. Dillingham was one of the most dazzling freshmen in the sport last season at Kentucky. 

“We provide a bunch of feedback to the coaches with scouting reports, numbers they’re doing every day, analytics, how many shots guys are getting, what percentage they’re shooting, how much they’re in the gym,” Wilkins said. “All of those things we provide for the college coaches and it’s been a great partnership so far.”

Its biggest rivals now are big-time prep high schools, not college basketball or the G League Ignite.