Darius Bazley has heard the question.

It’s almost always the first thing anyone wants to ask the rookie.

“You get some people here and there they’ll just ask you about it, ‘Yo, like how was it not going to college?'” Bazley told recently. “I know when I was going through the whole pre-draft process traveling from team to team before we’d go out and work out [the other players would] all be talking about college. And someone would pop up and say ‘Well, how was it, just sitting out?'”

It was a little more than a year ago when Bazley decided to forgo a scholarship at Syracuse for a potential path to the via the G League. He then opted to skip the G League as well to instead focus on preparing for the draft.

Bazley isn’t the first player in the one-and-done era to bypass the traditional college route before entering the . But the Oklahoma City Thunder forward did something almost entirely unprecedented. After his brief flirtation with joining the G League, Bazley signed an endorsement deal with New Balance that included a one-year internship with the -based sneaker company.

During that year, when he wasn’t working out at the company’s facility in preparation for his eventual jump into the draft, he was immersing himself in the business side of basketball. He spent time working directly with multiple divisions at New Balance, ranging from marketing to apparel to product testing. He was involved in the design process as New Balance built its first basketball performance shoe since the late 2000s, and got an up-close look at the manufacturing process at New Balance’s factory.

While some endorsers get a taste of that with their sneaker companies, Bazley got far more up-close experience, not just getting a tour on a quick visit, but having the opportunity to spend days sitting in meetings, doing product testing and contributing in meaningful ways beyond just picking a sneaker he liked.

In true 21st century fashion, Bazley also got to learn about building a personal brand from New Balance’s digital and social teams, even using his Instagram account to provide insight into what his internship was like.

But with New Balance, Bazley wasn’t just learning, he was teaching as well, giving New Balance’s product team insight into what young players want. He had a direct hand in designing the player exclusive colorways he’ll be wearing this season, coming up with the “Fresh Prince”-inspired colorway that he wore at the draft combine. He also designed an exclusive edition of the New Balance 997 and helped pick out the additional items that were in the seeding kit sent to members of the media.

“We found not only a great partner in Darius and someone who wanted to treat this very seriously and do this for real,” said Patrick Cassidy, New Balance’s global director of consumer marketing. “So we worked pretty hard to make sure that this was an actual thing. And to Darius’ credit he went all in on it.”

Now that Bazley has transitioned fully from “intern” to “endorser,” Cassidy’s goal is for his former intern to be “the most knowledgeable, insightful athlete in the game about the shoe industry and how things are made and developed and get on the feet of elite athletes and what the industry is like.” But for Bazley, the internship went far beyond just basketball and shoes.

“The main thing I really took away from that is just learning how to be professional,” he said. “That was my first job ever so having to go into work and being in an office space with a lot of middle-aged people — you got to learn to be professional. You got to learn to communicate with different people.”

Bazley is now moving on to his second job ever, forward for the Thunder. It’s a job that has already seen its description change, thanks to Oklahoma City’s offseason trades of Paul George and Russell Westbrook. While Bazley won’t have the opportunity to learn from George, his relationship with his own agent gave him access to one of the most sought-after mentors in the : LeBron James.

Throughout his year away from organized basketball, Bazley had multiple conversations with James, though the topic rarely focused on basketball itself.

“It’s more like — we’re at Top Golf or something and we’re just having a good time stuff like that,” Bazley said. “Sometimes you don’t even have to have a one-on-one. You can just sit down and listen. If you listen more than you speak, you’ll learn a lot. And with my situation, I was lucky enough to be around greatness every day.”

The Thunder are hoping some of that greatness will rub off on Bazley as he joins a suddenly rebuilding team led — for the time being — by another member of James’ inner circle, Chris Paul. Bazley got off to a delayed start with the Thunder this summer, as he’d been officially drafted by the Utah Jazz, then had to wait to make his Las Vegas Summer League debut as a backlog of agreed-upon trades got processed in a particular order.

“His ability to handle the ball at his size is really, really unique, and defensively he’s got great range for a young player at that size, as well,” Thunder GM Sam Presti said. “It’s going to be a process with him. We’ll have to be patient. We understand that. But at that range of the draft, to be able to get a player that has those ball-handling skills at 6-foot-9 is pretty unique.”

Bazley was able to show off some of those skills in Las Vegas, but the initial steps of his transition to the game were not without difficulties. Having not played in a formal setting since the 2018 McDonald’s All-America Game, Bazley looked rusty in his Thunder debut, going scoreless and attempting just two shots. However, he showed steady improvement in his four summer league outings, eventually putting up 11 points and making 3-of-5 3-point attempts in OKC’s final game of the summer.

Because of the Thunder’s roster turnover, Bazley has a unique opportunity to contribute in OKC as a rookie. Last season, the Thunder’s four rookies combined to play just 769 minutes, ranking 19th in the . The last rookie to be a regular part of the Thunder rotation was Domantas Sabonis, who started 66 games for OKC in 2016-17. The last Thunder rookie before Sabonis to play at least 20 minutes per game in his first season was James Harden all the way back in 2008-09.

Bazley might not hit that 20-minute-per-night milestone, but he’s excited for the opportunity to prove himself.

As Bazley begins to adjust to the game, he does so with no regrets on how he got there. He knows that people will always question his decision to skip college and the G League, but he is appreciative of the route he chose and the work it took to get him through.

While his path took him away from organized basketball for a year, it also gave him an early start on the off-court transition to being a professional. He learned much-needed skills like money management and communication, and said he feels better prepared for the adversity that every rookie faces.

“There’s going to be times where you hit a roadblock in the league where you’re not getting the minutes you wanted or say you’re injured and you’re not able to play and you don’t know how to handle that,” he said. “I do.”

Bazley said he doesn’t feel any added pressure to succeed to prove that his path to the works, but he already has people following in his footsteps in one way or another. RJ Hampton, a projected top-10 pick in the 2020 draft, has chosen to bypass college, though he’ll play professionally in ’s National Basketball League. He also has already landed a sneaker endorsement deal with Li-Ning, a year earlier than his high school classmates who attended college will be able to. And high school senior MarJon Beauchamp has announced his intention to skip college next year and enter a 12-month training program to prepare for the 2021 draft.

But Rich Paul, Bazley’s agent, said players looking to take this path can’t be doing it solely for the money. Just like it was for Bazley, it has to be with a bigger goal in mind.

“For those chosen few that decide to take another route, there’s an alternate route, but the steps are very, very strategic and you have to embrace the process,” he said. “It can’t be about anything besides ‘I’m willing to do the work and position myself to take on the challenge that I have ahead.’ And if you do that you tend to reside on the side of success.”

.com’s Dave McMenamin and contributed to this story.


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