LAS VEGAS — Every year, several college basketball players forgo a year, if not multiple years, of NCAA eligibility in order to try to make their dream of playing in the NBA become a reality.
The chance to make a living as a professional basketball player in the world’s premier basketball league is not easy to pass up on.
And for some players, the decision to leave college early to jump into the NBA immediately pays dividends. Former Arizona Wildcats Stanley Johnson and Aaron Gordon, for example, left college after one season and wound up being taken in the first round of the NBA Draft.
Now, both are making seven figures while playing on the game's biggest stage.
Their decision to skip school cannot be questioned—they made the right choice.
But not every player is as fortunate as those two. For every player like Johnson or Gordon, there’s another like their former teammate, Brandon Ashley.
Ashley played three seasons at Arizona, where he averaged 10.3 points and 5.4 rebounds per game in 95 career contests. Rather than returning for his senior year to earn a degree and help the Wildcats reach a Final Four, however, Ashley decided to enter the 2015 NBA Draft, believing it was the right choice for his development as a player and his career.
“With all the talent we had at Arizona, it was hard for me to showcase my full skillset,” Ashley told DraftExpress.com in a pre-draft interview.
Yet, 60 players were selected in the draft, and Ashley wasn’t among them. He’d wind up starting the season in the NBA Development League, a distant step from the NBA itself.
Because he wasn’t in the NBA, his decision to enter the draft was immediately questioned, yet Ashley believes leaving after his junior year was the right choice, nonetheless.
“I kind of feel like everybody develops differently at different times at different paces,” Ashley told the Daily Wildcat at the Las Vegas Summer League while sporting a blue shirt with the Arizona ‘Block A’ on it. “But for me, personally, I think me going to the D-League and getting out of college was probably a good move for me for the simple fact that I feel like I’ve grown since I left school.”
Ashley continued, “That’s not a knock on [Arizona head] coach (Sean) Miller at all. He’s a fantastic coach, and he brought a lot of out me, but I just felt like I learned more being on my own and kind of having to do a lot more stuff for myself.”
And despite not playing in the NBA, Ashley did get a taste of the NBA lifestyle.
He played for the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas in the summer of 2015, which resulted in him getting an invite to participate in the Dallas Mavericks’ training camp.
There, Ashley had a chance to learn from veteran NBA players and got a first-hand look at the work it takes to become an NBA player.
“It was a good experience,” Ashley said. “Being around veterans that have been around the game and have been big parts of the game for such a long period of time, it definitely meant a lot.”
One of those players was Dallas’ star forward Dirk Nowitzki.
“He’s kind of in his older days now, so he’s more focused on being smart with his time rather than spending hours and hours in the gym,” Ashley said. “Just making sure that he’s really efficient with the time he does have in the gym.”
Ashley didn’t earn a roster spot with Nowitzki and the 'Mavs, but he’d sign with the team’s D-League affiliate, the Texas Legends.
Ashley averaged 14.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game with the Legends in 33 games, and shot 39.3 percent from the 3-point line, an area of his game that he’s worked hard to improve.
“[The NBA] wants guys that can space the floor out, that can knock down open shots,” Ashley said.
His success with the Legends led him to be named to the D-League’s West All-Star team, but he’d eventually leave the D-League a month later to play overseas for Alba Berlin of the German Basketball Bundesliga.
Ashley averaged 19.5 minutes per game with Alba Berlin, and led the team in rebounds per game (5.7).
“It is a completely different game,” Ashley said of his time in Germany. “The game out there is a lot slower, a lot more focused on skill. Over here (in the United States), athleticism is a big part of it. It’s a different game, different style, and different pace and all of that.”
Despite the success he had in Germany, Ashley isn’t ready to give up on making the NBA just yet.
This July, Ashley has played for the Mavericks in the NBA’s Orlando Summer League, and the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League.
He averaged 10 points and eight rebounds in two games in Orlando, and through three games in Las Vegas, he’s averaging 9.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, while shooting nearly 46 percent from the field.
They’re respectable numbers, but Ashley admitted he isn’t playing as well as he would like.
“So far it honestly hasn’t gone the way I’ve wanted it to,” Ashley said Sunday after scoring 11 points and grabbing five rebounds in the Hawks’ win over the Washington Wizards. “I don’t think I’ve performed the way I’ve wanted to. I definitely want to pick up my level of play. I have to show that I’m a consistent ball player. That I can go out there, knock down open shots, finish at the rim, catch the ball and make plays for other people.”
He hopes he can showcase himself well enough to where an NBA team extends him a training camp invite. From there, he’d have to continue to stand out in order to earn an NBA roster spot.
It would be an unconventional—yet not necessarily uncommon—path into the league. After all, Ashley’s former teammate, T.J. McConnell, successfully did it last summer.
Still, the odds are surely stacked against Ashley, given that several other players are in a similar position.
And if he fails to make an NBA team, Ashley says he’ll remain with Alba Berlin and continue his career as a professional basketball player overseas.
It’s not quite the NBA, but Ashley will still be making a living playing the game he loves. Not to mention that if he can continue to develop as a player — in which he believes it’s easier for him to do as a professional than it would've been as a student-athlete — the jump to the NBA will continue to be a possibility.
But regardless of what happens before now and late October when NBA rosters are finalized, Ashley remains certain that leaving Arizona after his junior year was the right decision.
Besides, in a perfect world, Ashley would have left even earlier than he did.
“I do believe so,” he said when asked if he would’ve entered the draft after his sophomore season if not for a season-ending foot injury he suffered against California. “It was definitely something I was considering at the time. I think I was in the mock drafts at that point, and so I definitely think it was something that could’ve worked out for me.”
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