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'Gap Year' explores alternate path to NBA

December 14, 2020
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When the NBA implemented its “One and Done” rule in 2006, it altered the draft landscape. Players could no longer enter the draft directly out of high school; they had to be both a) at least 19 years old, and b) at least one year removed from the graduation of their high school class.

In practice, this essentially meant that players would go play for a college team for one year before making their way to the draft. However, playing in college, while perhaps the most conventional choice, was not the only one.

Players had the option of playing professionally overseas for a year. And the NBA’s G-League developmental league also presented an opportunity to play for pay in that year, albeit considerably less lucratively than a foreign league.

But then there’s Darius Bazley, who followed an entirely different path – one that may lead to a different sort of opportunity for other players down the road.

The new documentary “Gap Year,” directed by T.J. Regan and Josh Kahn, follows Bazley as he embarks on that different opportunity. Instead of going to college for a year or heading overseas or to the G-League, Bazley embraced a heretofore unseen path – an internship.

A million-dollar internship.

The film follows Bazley from the end of his high school career through the various options he entertained. This is a player who was considered the top prospect in the state of Ohio; he was named to the 2018 McDonald’s All-American team among many honors. A world of opportunity opened up before him – and he proved willing to weigh them all.

First, he committed to Syracuse, where he undoubtedly would have played for a year for Coach Jim Boeheim and then made his way into the NBA Draft. He changed his mind, however, considering instead a move to the G-League, a developmental year where he would have received some financial compensation for his play. But after he signed with Rich Paul and Klutch Sports Group, another path opened up – a new path that no one had ever taken.

The athletic brand New Balance had been considering ways to get back into the basketball arena after an absence from the scene. New Balance sought to shift its standing in the athletic show realm; they were already considered top-tier among running brands, so why not get back onto the hardwood? To make that shift happen, they needed to make a big splash.

Enter Darius Bazley.

What followed was unique. Bazley was given a paid internship at New Balance, the precursor to what is hoped to be an ongoing brand/athlete relationship. And while the compensation was significant, it was intended to be a very real job – one with responsibilities and expectations. He worked with various aspects of the New Balance team, learning about – among other things – the true depth of work that goes into something as seemingly simple as a basketball shoe. He attended meetings and toured factories and ran focus groups; he was legitimately involved in the process from soup to nuts. All the while, Darius spent the year working out, but not playing as part of any formal athletic league or entity.

No one – not Rich Paul, not the team at New Balance, not the NBA, not Darius himself – knew if it would work, but Darius proved willing to shoot his shot. And ultimately, it paid off: Darius Bazley was the 23rd selection in the 2019 NBA draft. This past season was his rookie year with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

It’s never easy being the first. Going against the conventional wisdom brings all the doubters and naysayers out in force. And Darius Bazley had plenty of doubters. All manner of experts – coaches, analysts, other talking heads – questioned the feasibility of this plan. Could he maintain and develop the skills necessary to compete over the course of a year without competition? No one knew, but everyone had an opinion.

What’s clear in “Gap Year” is that Darius Bazley’s path is not one-size-fits-all. Not every player would be able to do what he has done. But for Darius, it seems clear that it was a gamble that paid off. Not only did he get drafted (and a bit higher than expected at that), but he learned about personal responsibility and accountability in the workplace. He knew how to play basketball, but he didn’t necessarily have the tools to treat it as a job as well. That new understanding, that knowledge, is arguably as valuable as anything he would have learned playing in the ACC or the G-League.

The documentary is a tight 50 minutes, a real quick hit. It’s well paced and spaced, though I might have liked to see a little bit more – the story is engaging enough that I think it could have carried another 20 minutes. Jay Williams and Jay Bilas – ESPN notables – do a great job of filling in the gaps with regard to what the move potentially meant to Bazley’s career. Rich Paul remains as charismatic as ever. NBPA executive director Michele Roberts offers some welcome insight from her perspective, while we also get some interesting stuff from New Balance global marketing director Patrick Cassidy.

“Gap Year” is an interesting document, a filmed record of a unique path to the NBA. Will there be another million-dollar intern? Tough to say. But it’s also tough to argue that this initial go-round was anything other than a win-win - both Darius Bazley and New Balance got their money’s worth.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 14 December 2020 15:37

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