Overtime Elite, a program that is training the next generation of basketball players with a pro league for those 16-20 years of age, is offering professional opportunities and a scholarship option, disrupting the traditional college basketball system and pathways to the NBA.
OTE, led by a bona fide basketball legend in Damien Wilkins, will also be the subject of a new six-part docuseries, One Shot: Overtime Elite, premiering Sept. 5 on Prime Video.
M&F sat down with Wilkins to find out why evolution is essential for the growth of basketball, whether he wishes that OTE had been available to him as a young player, and what he hopes people will learn from the show.
A leader like Damien Wilkins speaks from experience. While he is currently serving as the general manager of Overtime Elite, he’s also one of the NBA’s most enduring athletes. Wilkins played for 10 seasons, representing teams such as the Atlanta Hawks and Oklahoma City Thunder, and is a second-generation player, learning the hoops from his father Gerald, and uncle (nine-time NBA All-Star) Dominique Wilkins.
In this new series, cameras will follow Wilkins and a cast of staff and hopefuls, such as recent NBA Draft lottery picks Amen and Ausar Thompson; undoubtedly two trailblazing athletes navigating their own challenges in pursuit of a career in the NBA. In each episode, audiences will go behind the scenes of Overtime Elite in Atlanta, to find out how these young upstarts study and train, while maturing not just as athletes, but as fully rounded human beings.
The OTE facility in Atlanta looks pretty incredible with an ecosystem dedicated to individual player development, education, and business training. It must be a great place to work.
Oh, it is. From a high school perspective, we’re actually cheating [laughs]. I say this all the time because, and not that we are literally cheating as you know, but the resources, the people, and all the things that we offer in our building from the courts, the weight room, just the space itself is unbelievable. There’s just no better place for high level, high school basketball than OTE and I truly believe that.
The NFL is finding new ways for young people to chase a professional career so it makes sense that the NBA is doing the same thing. Why is it important that we have these new pathways?
I think it’s about optionality, right? To give athletes different paths to success and different recipes to get to the same goal. The old ways don’t always work for everyone. Sometimes you’ve got to be flexible in your thinking, and evolve. You know, people don’t have to stay in college for years, you don’t have to go to traditional high schools, sitting in classes for seven hours, all day, and beg for gym time at your local high school when the cheerleading or the wrestling team has the gym reserved for three months. It’s just, like, a whole bunch of variables that we just don’t have (getting) in the way of that path to success for our guys in particular. And, in any other entity that is adopting that same model, you’ll find that these athletes are learning at a much accelerated and quicker rate.
Looking back on your development as a player, do you wish that this kind of option had been available to you?
Oh, absolutely. Knowing what I know now, and having this type of platform where I could have not only grown my brand, grown as a person, grown as a young man, and also grown as an athlete at such a fast rate, right? It would have been perfect. Once you take advantage of these resources, because there has to be a ‘buy in’ by the actual athlete, once you get that and you come out on the other side, can you imagine how many careers would have been lengthened? Plus, how many careers (on the court) would have ended, but those athletes would still have careers (in the media or as executives) because they learned so much at an early age?
OTE pays its players, but there is now an option for those that are enrolled to forego the salary in order to maintain college eligibility status. How important is it for OTE to be flexible and listen to players and tweak things in this way?
I think, in year one, we had our limitations but we also had a very successful year. We were very, very disruptive in that year because of what we were doing. Then we were able to offer the scholarship option and players didn’t have to give up their college eligibility and I think that opened up new doors for us.
One huge prospect that gravitated to this new option was Naasir Cunningham. At 6’ 7,” he’s a specimen!
He’s a super-talented kid. A very versatile athlete, and doesn’t have many weaknesses to his game. Obviously, he’s got to get stronger, and he knows that, but he came here highly talented, a special talent. He has a bright future.
Amen and Ausar, the Thompson twins, feature heavily in this new series. What can you tell us about their story from your perspective?
It’s unfolding well. You talk about two guys in one family that got drafted top five in the latest draft. It’s a testament to their hard work, a testament to their ‘buy in.’ We put challenges in front of them every day and they just met ’em. They kept working and stayed diligent and disciplined and this is the result of that work. And now, they are at a whole other stage where they are going to have to meet new challenges and, I don’t think there is anyone more confident in them than the people at OTE.
OTE puts a lot of emphasis on tailor-made programs that are focused on each individual. Can you give us a flavor of how this is achieved?
We can’t give every athlete the same recipe because every athlete isn’t the same. So, really, all of what we do here is cater to the person, from academics, to social and branding, to player development, to health and performance, strength and conditioning…all of those things. We try our best to meet the players where they are, and build them up from there. We break down some of the bad habits, work on a lot of the things that they are not so good at, and sometimes that gets uncomfortable, and frustrating for a lot of these guys, right? Your used to doing the things that you are super-duper good at, all the time, and we focus a lot on their weaknesses in all of those departments. We build those things up to meet their strengths, and then they come out as a complete, successful person rather than just a complete, successful athlete.
You mentioned strength and conditioning. This is something that helped you greatly in your career. How important is it to make sure that players are training off the court as well as on it?
It’s about being the total athlete. A lot of what you do off the court determines your success on it. You have to eat right, you have to get proper rest, you have to lift weights. All of those things help you to become your best self.
OTE also supports players mentally, and this is something else that probably wasn’t offered when you were coming through?
Well, that is a game changer, right? It’s something that has been talked about way more loudly, recently. Here we are in a space where it’s comfortable to talk about being uncomfortable. It’s okay to not be okay. Whereas in the past, you couldn’t really do that because it would be considered as complaining or whining. And this in itself is a reason why evolution shouldn’t be questioned as much as it is.
I think we are doing a good job, obviously there is a lot of work ahead for all of us, too, and we understand that, but I couldn’t be prouder of our staff, of the players that came and went, and I’m excited about the future of what we are building.