Choose your own adventure: How players navigate the elite basketball landscape

Choose your own adventure: How players navigate the elite basketball landscape

In 2021, Rodney Rice was ready to begin his senior year at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland. He was already a star for the boys’ Powerhouse basketball team. All signs pointed to Rice’s breakthrough last season.

Around the same time, something radical was happening in youth basketball. Suddenly, a new option for high school players appeared. A sports media company, Overtime Elite, has launched a development program for a few dozen elite players. OTE did something unheard of: paying young players to skip their high school teams and develop their talents as professionals with a burgeoning league.

Rice dreamed of one day playing in the National Basketball Association. OTE, with its focus on professional coaching and high-profile competition, might have been a fast track. It was an opportunity to spend a few seasons in the OTE program while also graduating from high school and getting paid for the experience.

OTE offered to pay Rice a total of $600,000 along with promising more name, image and likeness deals, Rice’s father told Capital News Service. OTE declined to comment, saying the league is not discussing contract negotiations.

“They talked about how they liked my game, how they can see me play there… and possibly get drafted in a few years,” Rice said. “It didn’t sound bad at all.”

Shake up the high school athletic hierarchy

Elite high school players like Rice have more options today than ever before. Two media companies are shaking up the old order.

The National Interscholastic Basketball Conference is a super conference featuring ten teams from private and parochial schools from Florida to Long Island to Utah. All conference games will be broadcast on ESPN cable channels or streamed on ESPN+.

Overtime is a fledgling media company that attracts a huge audience for social media posts featuring high school gamers. It founded OTE to capitalize on this audience.

In the end, Rice decided to turn down Overtime Elite and accept an offer to play college basketball at Virginia Tech. He is now a freshman at the school in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Rice’s decision differs from the decision of 27 elite high school basketball players who came to Overtime Elite in their freshman season. One of them was Malik Bowman.

Bowman spent his freshman and sophomore years at Bishop Walsh School, a small Catholic high school in Cumberland, Maryland. His playing for the Spartans drew attention from major college programs such as the University of Maryland, Georgetown and Ohio State. Choosing to skip college, Bowman announced on Twitter in August 2021 that he would be joining OTE’s freshman year program.

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“I just think if I go here I’ll have competition to play against every day,” he said. “And in addition to the professional coaches and coaches who played [professionally]I knew I could learn a lot from them.”

Bowman said he was concerned about moving to Atlanta to take part in this new program, but after his freshman year he felt he made the right choice.

“I was nervous because OTE is of course new. It didn’t make anyone [NBA] yet,” he said. “Now I would think I’m more confident in the decision I made.”

Another option for today’s elite talent is NIBC, the league where the 6-foot-6 Travis Roberts competed in his 2021-22 senior season before joining the Jacksonville State men’s basketball team.

Roberts did not visit NIBC. The League found him when his school, Bishop Walsh, joined the Startup League in 2021 and found himself in the company of elite teams across the country. Still, he expressed his gratitude for the one year in the league he was able to get.

“It was great playing against a top team in the nation, top players, getting attention and you get the best conference in the nation,” said Roberts. “It has been good for us.”

Choose the best way

Basketball runs deep in the Rice family.

Rice’s father, also named Rodney, played high school basketball at St. John’s College High School in Washington, DC and was named the 1983 first-team All-Met and Washington Post Player of the Year. He also played college basketball for a year at Boston College before finishing his college career at the University of Richmond. Rice’s grandfather played at Fairmont Heights and was an All-Met in 1960.

OTE first approached the newest Rice to continue the basketball legacy through a youth coach who knew the family, Rodney’s father recalled. Older Rodney works as a player representative.

Talks got so serious that Rodney’s father visited OTE’s basketball training center in Atlanta.

Negotiations extended into October, with OTE putting an offer on the table: $600,000 over two years plus $150,000 in null opportunities, according to Rodney’s father.

The numbers startled Peter Strickland, Rice’s trainer at DeMatha Catholic.

“I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, this world is changing,'” Strickland said. “We are now pursuing high school players … to turn them into pros at a very early age.”

There were good reasons to say yes to OTE, even beyond the obvious financial incentives. In the new development program, Rice would have the opportunity to learn under head coach Kevin Ollie, a former NBA player and former coach of the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team, which won a National Collegiate Athletic Association national championship.

The Rice family was also intrigued by the educational program offered by OTE. In addition to basketball practice, all players attend classes and work toward graduating from high school.

“Having the opportunity to take classes during the season was a bonus, you could work toward a degree,” Rice’s father said.

At Overtime Elite, Rice would be a pro and forfeit any remaining high school and college eligibility. That would have closed an important door for Rice. His former high school coach, Mike Jones, left DeMatha Catholic in 2021 to become an associate head coach at Virginia Tech. The coach and player had developed a close bond, and Virginia Tech was one of the few schools Rice considered, along with Louisville and Alabama.

The decision to say no to OTE and yes to Virginia Tech was ultimately made at the family breakfast table.

“It was me, Rodney’s mom, and himself, and we sort of went through the pros and cons,” Rodney’s dad said.

“My father told me, at the end of the day, I make my own decisions. But I want everyone else to be comfortable too, especially if it’s my family,” Rice said. Rice’s sister also joined him as a student at Virginia Tech.

“I made my decision based on my social life, being around people my own age and people who don’t play basketball,” Rice said.

Look out for Rice in his maroon and orange Hokies uniform this basketball season. He will wear #1.

Jakob Bowen and Travis Chase are reporters for Capital News Service, a nonprofit, student-run news organization operated by the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. This story was produced by students at the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism.

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