Australia or New Balance: Which mysterious draft prospect picked the best route?

Yahoo Sports

CHICAGO — The disparate cases of two disappearing prospects will unfold at the NBA draft next month.

The first prospect, Brian Bowen II, spent the 2018-19 season in Australia after the NCAA denied his eligibility for his family’s involvement in taking money to secure his commitment to Louisville. The federal government’s revelations of that scheme led to the firing of Louisville coach Rick Pitino, and the federal basketball trial in October featured a tear-filled testimony from Bowen’s father about selling his son’s services to play college basketball. With few other options, Bowen, 20, took the initiative to play professionally in Australia last season.

The second prospect, Darius Bazley, also disappeared this season. He de-committed from Syracuse in March 2018 and announced, with much fanfare, that he’d be playing in the G League. That league is also filled with grown men, who likely would have knocked around his lithe frame. So he reversed course and essentially decided to sit out the season, taking an internship at New Balance that was reportedly worth $1 million over five years — provided Bazley sticks in the NBA.

Neither Bowen or Bazley was considered a sure-fire first-round pick when they completed high school. And after their divergent paths for the 2018-19 season, it will be compelling to watch how their career paths impact their short-term desirability and long-term development. And the reverberations from their decisions will continue to be watched closely as the NBA draft rules project to change in 2022, when a more direct path to the NBA becomes an option. (A question NBA executives bandied about in Chicago last week: What’s next? Players shutting down after their final AAU season and not playing their senior year of high school to preserve their draft stock?)

The cases of Bowen and Bazley converge with a compelling question that often emerges at draft time. Will NBA scouts and executives reward Bowen’s path of struggle, competition and eventual improvement in his overall game? Or will they reward Bazley’s path of least resistance — similar to Mitchell Robinson’s last season — which was highlighted by some air-glossed publicity around his internship and eye-rolling puffery by his agent, Rich Paul, about Bazley’s decision being a byproduct of a “broken system.”

The Black Team's Darius Bazley #55 in action against the White Team during the Jordan Brand Classic high school basketball game, Sunday, April 8, 2018, in Brooklyn. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
The Black Team's Darius Bazley #55 in action against the White Team during the Jordan Brand Classic high school basketball game, Sunday, April 8, 2018, in Brooklyn. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

A year ago at the Chicago predraft camp, Bowen looked out of place on the court and uncomfortable off it. Some of that was understandable, as he’d not played competitive basketball in a year and wasn’t physically ready to compete after sitting out the season at South Carolina. (He went there to practice and await his NCAA fate after the scandal broke at Louisville.) Bowen looked so lost at the 2018 camp that an NBA scout told Yahoo: “He’s in no man’s land. He may not be good enough to play in the G League right now.”

Bowen noticed. He decided to not declare for the draft and went halfway around the world to play for the Sydney Kings in Australia’s well-regarded National Basketball League. And that stinging scouting assessment stuck with him, as he pointed out to the author last week.

“I remember your article saying I didn’t belong out there,” Bowen said, matter-of-factly. “That was on my wall in Australia. I put that up there. I put that quote — ‘He doesn’t belong out there.’ [There’s a] lot of people I want to prove wrong, and you’re just one of those guys I want to prove wrong. I feel a lot better about myself.”

And he should. Bowen appeared a different prospect in virtually every way one year later, including beginning to fill into his 6-foot-7 and 200-pound frame. He carried himself with a confidence and maturity that one tends to gather after a few years away from home. He’s also been shaped by adversity, which NBA executives tend to value. Adjusting to the NBA is a lot more than 5-star hotels and collecting Instagram likes.

Bowen was outgoing and engaging in his interviews, even offering up an assessment of the local cuisine in Australia. “I tried kangaroo,” he said. “It’s not too bad. It’s like roast beef, but more chewy.” He also enjoyed his new culture, as he appreciated the local penchant for shortening words: “Breaky” for breakfast; “Tuggy” for his own nickname, Tuggs.

From a basketball perspective, he relished learning to avoid Andrew Bogut’s sharp elbows at Sydney’s practices and learned the nuances of daily professionalism. His statistics didn’t blow anyone away, but he averaged 15.4 minutes per game in 30 games and earned ringing endorsements from coach Andrew Gaze in the Australian media for his adaptability and willingness to be coached. The entire experience — new country, new team, better competition — changed Bowen.

“It’s just my confidence, man, it’s at an all-time high,” he said. “There’s nothing that anyone can say to really break me. I’ve been through the worst time in my life, honestly. Going through that, there’s nothing that can faze me.”

He didn’t look overwhelmed in Chicago this year, as the same scout who declared he was in “no man’s land” said that a year later Bowen belongs. “He’ll definitely get drafted,” the scout said, noting that every NBA team likely trekked to see him this year. The second round would be a safe prediction for Bowen, who’ll continue as a developmental prospect.

Brian Bowen speaks with the media during the second day of the NBA draft basketball combine in Chicago, Friday, May 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Brian Bowen speaks with the media during the second day of the NBA draft basketball combine in Chicago, Friday, May 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Bazley will likely get drafted as well, although the first round appears to be a long shot. He said he spent his year working out either two or three times a day — either in the gym or with weights — although the only empirical evidence of this came from him putting on nearly 20 pounds to bulk up to 208 pounds on his 6-foot-9 (in shoes) frame. He scored 11 points on the second day of the combine, but generally didn’t stand out against a field that will likely feature only a handful of first-round picks.

College coaches have been skeptical of Bazley’s path, in part because they don’t want to see top prospects follow. Also, it strains credulity to believe that sitting out was the right decision in the long term for Bazley’s basketball development. If he’d gone to the G League as planned, Bazley and his circle knew that he’d be overwhelmed physically.

“To go to a grit-and-grind league like that, you know playing with grown men, to just be thrown in that, I didn’t think that might have been best for me,” Bazley said. “The G League doesn’t have a high reputation for travel, how they eat and how they’re treated. We just didn’t think that was best for me, at the time, a kid, to come to a men’s league.”

The reality is that even if he’d gone to college he’d be spending much of the 2019-20 season in the G League. He could, perhaps, follow the path of 2018 first-round pick Anfernee Simons, who spent much of the season developing on the bench in Portland. (He played 20 games for the Blazers and four for Agua Caliente of the G League.) The issue for Bazley is that in the past 12 months he’s done little to stand out. One NBA assistant posited out that game situations are the only way to refine decision making, which is, in part, why Bazley looked pedestrian and blended in for much of the combine.

One NBA scout summed up Bazley’s future this way: “Whether he went to Syracuse, or did what he did, either way he was going to get drafted this year and spend most of the next year shuttling back and forth from his NBA team to their G League affiliate.”

Bazley’s move to ice his career for a season made much more sense than his initial announcement to de-commit from Syracuse and play in the G League, where he would have struggled. But will his decision to duck competition impact NBA decision makers?

We’ll find out in a month, as draft position will be an early barometer of which road provided the best foundation for long-term NBA success.

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