Why you should care
Because the player who was going to lead your school’s basketball team to the Final Four is playing in Australia instead.
One man’s vacation spot is another man’s basketball career map. Cyprus, Turkey, Belgium, the Philippines: Head coach of the Australian Adelaide 36ers Joey Wright has worked his magic in them all.
It makes sense that Wright, who has played and coached at universities in the U.S. and internationally, would be the man at the forefront of a potential shift in basketball. Since 2006, when the NBA ruled that players had to be a year removed from high school before being drafted, many American basketballers have used the year to up their games in the NCAA college system. Players who take a scholarship for 12 months before jumping to the NBA are known as one-and-dones. But Wright has another idea. Instead of heading to college, he thinks those biding their time for a year should look abroad, where they get paid, play against much tougher competition and can devote all of their time to basketball.
That pitch landed him Terrance Ferguson, a projected first-round pick in the 2017 draft. Ferguson was slated to attend the University of Arizona before decommitting in the summer before his freshman year, joining Wright’s 36ers. “It’s a grown man’s league,” both Wright and Ferguson repeated. “We would beat the best college teams by 20 or 30 points,” Wright asserts; he adds that athletes like Ferguson learn professionalism they can’t access in college. Players are responsible for their timeliness to meetings and practices, diet and training. No spoon-feeding, he reiterates.
The 76ers’ Ben Simmons admitted he never attended class while at LSU, in just the latest exposure of flaws in the one-and-done system.
Wright’s pitch is sounding pretty logical these days; the 76ers’ Ben Simmons admitted he never attended class while at LSU, in just the latest exposure of flaws in the one-and-done system. Retired baller Reggie Miller has publicly called the one-and-done system a joke, while owner Mark Cuban lamented that the state of college basketball is “horrible” and “ridiculous.”
Wright isn’t the first person to try to woo young talent overseas. Point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, a good friend of Ferguson’s, climbed up draft boards throughout 2014 and 2015 in China, which he chose over an offer from Southern Methodist University. In 2015, he was drafted seventh by the Denver Nuggets. But Australia might turn out to be a better option than China for top young athletes of the future, in part because there’s little culture shock. “Everything they see on TV they can see here. Every single song they listen to in America, they can hear here,” Wright says. Plus, says Australian sportswriter Boti Nagy, Chinese teams regularly get “crushed” by Aussie competitors by as much as 80 points. (Wright’s team recently beat one of China’s top teams, the Shadong Golden Stars, 103–37.)
For his part, Wright enrolled at Drake University before transferring to the prestigious University of Texas program, where he played point guard from 1988 to 1991. According to Wright, his UT basketball card, currently selling for $3 on Amazon, is “very overvalued and they should at least throw in some free shipping.” Despite his humility, Wright’s record is respectable: After leading an offensive juggernaut trio dubbed the BMW Scoring Machine at Texas, he was drafted by the Phoenix Suns in 1991, falling short of making the team’s final roster just before the start of the season. Getting cut led him to play ball around the world and then landing in Australia with the Geelong Supercats. His coaching path was equally adventurous. Before settling in Australia, where he says he’s long wanted to live, he coached the Austin Cyclones for a year and then headed up programs at the Regents School of Austin, St. Edward’s University and a professional team in Europe, Seastar APOEL.
His wealth of experience makes him well-respected. As Nagy notes, “Wright is viewed as a ‘player’s coach’ insomuch as he enables and empowers his players in the decision-making process.”
If Wright has it right and the NCAA gets replaced by international ball over the next decade, then the college game is about to change dramatically. No longer will top high school athletes appear on television with a line of college hats in front of them before they pick one up announcing their school on signing day. Things will get less glamorous, with decisions being made through a path of behind-the-scenes phone calls and negotiations, much as Ferguson’s predraft experience went. And the lack of all that melodrama? It’s got Wright in a cushy position.