There will always be meetings. Morning meetings, afternoon meetings, meetings with coworkers during lunch, after lunch, about lunch. Former NBA forward and new Overtime Elite (OTE) General Manager Damien Wilkins spent a lot of his early life on the basketball court and these days it’s in meetings.
Early one weekday morning Willkins was in a meeting with Overtime Elite Director of Player Personnel & League Administration Louis Lehman. The topic of discussion was whether or not to play a game in Fresno, California in early December. The job of a general manager is to generally manage, or better said, “To make sure we are not overspending,” said Willkins. The trip to California has to make sense on both a basketball and financial scale and it is Wilkins’ job to decide. OTE will make a number of road trips this season. The players, which have been broken up into three individual teams based in Atlanta this season- City Reapers, Cold Hearts and YNG Dreamerz- and six overall, will travel a lot this year. There are eight road trips planned for 2022-23, including the team having already played in the New Jersey, and playing in Arizona, the Bronx and North Carolina late this season.
They will also have a game against a European professional basketball team. Wilkins says he, Lehman and the rest of the staff are “Just an email away,” when it comes to teams contacting OTE about a game. He fields plenty of calls per week like these. OTE recently began its second season after what could only be called a successful debut campaign in the bubble at Atlantic Station. What began as an anomaly is now a big hit with sports fans in a city full of professional and collegiate sports, not to mention high school sports, to choose from. Wilkins was a part of OTE from the beginning but now he’s the general manager and he has an 11 a.m. weekly budget meeting to go to and there’s a reporter and photographer in his office. “It’s cool to be in this moment right now,” Wilkins said of being general manager. “I’ve been thrown into the fire and have had to learn to connect with NBA general managers, manage schedules, and try to get pro-eligible players in position to get better by playing against pros.”
There is a lot of help on hand though. Along with Lehman there’s newly hired Basketball Operations and Innovation guru Dash Sperling, who keeps an eye out for rule changes and “ways to make the game exciting,” Sperling said during the morning The Atlanta Voice spent at OTE headquarters in Atlanta.
“I have great help around me. I rely on Lou a lot with how to dissect rosters since he was here last year,” said Wilkins. The OTE teams will sometimes play games on the road while other teams will not and then later play at those same cities. When that happens Wilkins has to have meetings [Editor’s note: There were a lot of meetings that morning] with the staff about how to coordinate study halls and flights.
The job is like no other Wilkins has had to do after a long pro career and having been around the game of basketball his entire life. Sitting in his office, there are daily reminders of his basketball life. The jerseys of his father, former NBA guard Gerald Wilkins and uncle Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee and Atlanta Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins, are framed alongside his former Seattle Supersonics jersey. All are number 21. “You can’t do this job without making mistakes,” Wilkins said, a broad smile spreading across his face. Asked if he has made a mistake yet, Wilkins answered, “Yes, for sure.”
To put it in better perspective he added, “I don’t think Michael Jordan would draft Kwame Brown again.”
Been there, done that
Having played in the NBA for a decade and before that at major universities in the Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference, and before that as a 1999 McDonald’s All-American while at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Wilkins knows full well what many of the players he’s looking out for as general manger are going through. The OTE experiment is more like an experience now as more of the players are looking like future NBA draft picks. The Thompson twins, Amen and Ausar, for example have already been on the cover of Sports Illustrated and are constantly scouted by professional scouts. Wilkins ability to relate to players is a definite plus. Rarely if ever will they have the opportunity to have a former player still in his 40’s as the general manager of the teams they will eventually be running.
Stopping to speak with the twins during a morning workout on the OTE practice court, Wilkins looks like he could be a player because he still plays. With former contemporaries working out at the gym as well -former Georgia high school superstar and NBA Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams and former NBA guard Rodney Hood were in the building on this day- there is also a chance for Wilkins to be in his atmosphere. Former NBA players shooting around, stretching and staying in shape. OTE has a general manager that played in an NBA game as recently as the 2017-18 season. The players notice that and that can go a long way when it comes to time to explain the breaks of the game to them.
Wilkins remembers how former Seattle Supersonics GM Sam Presti was always straight up with his four years with the team. That experience helps shape the way he manages the OTE roster. “Having the mindset of taking care of your athletes like you know that they are going to want to come into the building everyday,” said Wilkins. “A part of that is being honest with them, at the moment they may not want to hear it, but down the road they will look back and appreciate that I was always straight up with them.”
Wilkins has been there and done that after having played for seven NBA teams, in China, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and in the G League (which was then known as the D League when Wilkins played in 2014-15 and 2016-17).
Good days, bad days and more good days
Wilkins says the challenges and the tough days have been the best part of the job thus far. Asked what the best part of the job is, he brought up the behind the scenes moments where the staff has to “move and shake to get stuff done, because instead of saying we can’t we locked down and we got creative, used our resources,” he said.
He also gets to see his son, Jayden, an eighth-grader, while at work. “Seeing him here, being a part of the academic curriculum the guys go through, watching his workout, grow, learn, travel with us. Seeing the guys embrace him like a little brother,” Wilkins said. “Everyday, it’s like one of the reasons why I get up and come in.”
Managing expectations is one of the tougher parts of the job, says Wilkins. The players that sign on to play for OTE are some of the best players in the country and overseas. They all believe they have enough talent to play professionally. “Some people come here and they have expectations of who they are and what they want and we have to manage all of those things,” Wilkins said. “You have to be honest and be up front and help them understand. It’s a constant conversation.”
“It can be difficult but it comes with the job,” he said.
Speak it into existence
Wilkins’ pinned tweet says a lot about where he is today. “I’m going to be an NBA GM one day” was tweeted on May 18, 2018. Asked what were some of his immediate goals as OTE general manager he quickly answered, “Player development. I want to put the best product that we can put on the floor. That’s what’s important. Can we deliver what we go into homes and promise parents.”
He added, “I think we have all the tools in place here to produce an elite person.”