Bryson Warren’s family members filled nearly two rows of seating inside the Overtime Elite arena Friday night. Warren, the first sophomore to win Arkansas’ Mr. Basketball award, was having a good game and even if you couldn’t see him doing so, you could hear it from the nearly two-dozen people in attendance wearing “Warren 30” t-shirts. As a member of the Overtime Elite (OTE) team, an assemblage of 27 rising juniors, seniors and post-graduate athletes from around the world, Warren is away from home and his family traveled more than 500 miles from Little Rock to support him on opening night. “I’m happy for him,” said older cousin Keon Utsey. “When you have a dream and you’re dedicated to it, it’s inspiring.”
Warren may have come 500-plus miles to Atlanta to live, work, play for Overtime Elite but there are players that have crossed the Atlantic to do the same. They are some of the best young basketball players in the world from places like Murcia, Spain, Brussels, Belgium, Cluj, Romania and Anchorage, Alaska, to name a few places. They are all here to receive training and coaching before making themselves eligible for the NBA draft or opportunities in the NBA G League or elsewhere. They are all here to get better.
OTE is a player development league, a training ground for young talent that allows for that talent to make a living during the process. It’s college basketball’s worst nightmare. Every one of the players on the roster have either played professionally overseas or have been recruited by Division I programs since they were high school freshmen. In the case of Mikey Williams, who played against OTE during the second game of the opening night triple-header, he has been recruited by nearly every collegiate program in the country since he was a sixth grader.
The sold out crowd of 1,222 included celebrities, both local, rapper K Camp, and national, former Phoenix Suns star and Mayor of Sacramento Kevin Johnson. Children chased each other around on the upper mezzanine level and fans took part in half-time shooting contests. The 103,000-square-foot arena was built in less time than it takes to play a college basketball season. Transwestern Real Estate Services Atlanta Transaction Sciences team members Clark Dean and Clark Seydel along with Chicago Managing Director Larry Serota were instrumental in this project becoming a reality. The company represented OTE in negotiations for its ground lease next door to Microsoft’s new Atlanta headquarters and across the street from Atlantic Station. The facility held a grand opening Wednesday morning, October 27.
A native of the Dominican Republic, Lewis Duarte has had to leave home to find better competition before but this is something different entirely. A 6-4, 176 pound guard with shooting ability and athleticism reminiscent of his older cousin Chris Duarte, the former University of Oregon star and Indiana Pacers rookie, Lewis said he’s on a mission and if moving to Atlanta and joining Overtime Elite s going to get him there then he’s along for the ride. “I’ve kind of been used to it and I feel like this is the best option for me,” he said after the game Friday night. Duarte scored a game-high 29 points on 9-14 shooting with six assists and three rebounds, while leading his team, Team Gomes, to a 86-71 victory. Asked about experiencing his first game as a professional in an environment like the one he witnessed opening night -some of the other Overtime Elite players have already played professionally- Duarte said, “It was crazy. It was great to see everyone come out tonight.”
Youth aside, Overtime Elite players are certainly professional players. Each of the 27 players will earn $100,000 this season, not including bonuses. They are also eligible for shares of equity in the league. There’s nothing amateur about this experience.
“The crowd was on fire [tonight],” said 7-foot French center Alex Sarr. “It’s really different from what I am used to in Europe.” Sarr finished the game without scoring (he was 0-5 from the field) but he made the most of his 24 minutes of playing time on the defensive end, blocking three shots and challenging even more throughout the game. “It’s really fun. I get to finally play with all of these guys from all around the world,” said Sarr, who is a former Real Madrid Baloncesto standout and member of the draft eligible class of 2024. Think LaMarcus Aldridge when he was a freshman at Texas and you’ll understand the potential of Sarr.
Duarte and Sarr are not the only serious NBA prospects playing for OTE. Forwards Malik Bowman, from Washington D.C., and Jai Smith, a 6-7 high-flyer from Syracuse, also showed signs of massive potential. Jean Montero, another Dominican guard, might be the most versatile of them all. During the victory over Dr. Phillip’s Basketball Club Montero, 6-2 and that might be stretching it a bit, scored 19 points, had four steals,10 assists and nine rebounds, all the while demonstrating the poise of a first-rate point guard.
There will be games throughout the week and on the weekends, running through late March. The tickets cost less than a Chick-fil-A meal with cheese. To say attending an Overtime Elite game is a bargain is an understatement. The players are paid and get to live in one of Atlanta’s upscale areas in the shadow of Microsoft. To support this league is to support what looks like the future of basketball development. What’s not to like?
Warren’s cousin Keon is right, it is inspiring.