With the NBA in the middle of a crippling lockout, and showing no signs of progress, professional players are exploring different options for the fall.
New Jersey Nets point guard Deron Williams was the first superstar to sign his name on the dotted line for a team overseas, inking a one-year, $5 million deal with Besiktas in Turkey.
Along with housing, a car and a 24-hour personal assistant, Williams has an option in his contract that will allow him to return to the NBA once the lockout ends.
What awaits Williams for when he arrives in Turkey?
Let’s just say it’s nothing like the cushy lifestyle in the NBA.
“For the people from the NBA going over there, it’s all mental,” Sacramento Kings guard Eugene “Pooh” Jeter said at the Drew League in Los Angeles.
The former University of Portland standout bounced around in Ukraine, Spain, and Israel before finally achieving his goal of the NBA last season as a backup for the Kings.
“You go to a different country and people don’t speak English,” Jeter said. “TV is not in English. Luckily, the people on your team speak English though. It’s a rude awakening if you haven’t been through that.”
The days of flying on a charter plane and checking into your own private hotel room on the road will temporarily be placed on hold. European teams fly commercial and players are forced to share a hotel room with a teammate.
“You have to bring your own uniform and shoes on the plane as your carry on luggage,” Jeter added. “Mentally, it’s a lot that comes with it. Hopefully they will be able to deal with that.”
The main concern for NBA players headed overseas is money. Besiktas is reportedly close to signing Kobe Bryant to a lucrative deal but their funds are tied up due to a soccer match-fixing scandal. Bryant is allegedly looking for a monthly salary of $1 million, which would force Besiktas to land a financial sponsor if they wanted to take another shot at landing the Los Angeles Lakers guard.
“A lot of times, guys are getting paid late,” said Chris Broussard, a senior writer for ESPN magazine. “Sometimes they don’t pay a guy at all if you aren’t playing well. Obviously with these superstars, I think they would pay them, but there check might be late.”
If Williams plays for Besiktas the entire season, the 27-year-old has an outside shot at leading his new team to a Turkish Basketball League championship.
“They’re far away from being a contender in both national and continental competitions,” said Ismail Senol, a Turkish play-by-play announcer for NTV SPOR and NBA TV Turkey. “They rolled the dice and signed D-Will as a PR operation. If the lockout lasts for a year, this signing will make them a contender for sure. If not, they have already won PR-wise.”
As for the action on the court, basketball fans shouldn’t expect the European leagues to be anywhere on par with the NBA.
“NBA talent will help leagues to sell more tickets, that’s it,” Senol said. “Remember Allen Iverson. He was great here. Seriously, Iverson worked really hard in practices and he led by example. But he didn’t change anything in Europe. He had a hard time adjusting to the style of play.”
The style of play in European leagues is drastically different than the NBA.
Teams focus on the fundamentals of basketball, routinely holding practice twice a day during the season to work on shooting. You’re more likely to see a pick and roll than a guy try to take the defender off the dribble.
“It’s not a young man’s game over there,” said Gary Washburn, national NBA writer for the Boston Globe. “Younger players are kind of frowned upon. It’s an older guy’s game. It’s a craftier game, where athleticism is not encouraged. The high-flying players probably won’t flourish as much as they do here, because athleticism in the NBA is encouraged.
While it might not be flashy, even a top point guard like Williams will have an opportunity to improve his game.
“He’s definitely going to get better,” Jeter said of Williams playing in Europe.
“Because if there’s one thing about Europe, you’re going to get better because you practice. If D-Will played for the whole year, he will come back and his shot will be more crisp.”
The other NBA superstar rumored to take his talents overseas is Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard.
“I’m not at liberty to talk about it,” Howard told The Associated Press last weekend, “but there’s a huge possibility about me going to China or me going overseas to play basketball.”
For Howard, playing in China would be more than just collecting a paycheck or staying in basketball shape — it would be an opportunity to further strengthen his brand in the most populated country in the world.
“It’s a great business opportunity,” said Broussard, who thinks there’s a 50-50 shot Howard plays in China. “The world is shrinking because of globalization. It would definitely make him that much bigger and larger worldwide if he does go over to China.”
Before Williams, Howard, or any other player plays overseas during the lockout, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) has to sign off on the contracts. Regardless if they spend six weeks or six months out of the country, the NBA players have the full support of the players association.
“If the owners will not give our players a forum in which to play basketball here in the United States, they risk losing the greatest players in the world to the international basketball federations that are more than willing to employ them,” said Billy Hunter, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association.
If enough A-level stars follow in Williams’ footsteps, it could directly impact lockout negotiations.
“It’s only one player, but if more stars of Deron’s caliber were to do this, it would put more pressure on the NBA,” Broussard said.
While Jeter would jump at the opportunity to return overseas during the lockout, not all players have reached that fork in the road yet with summer leagues in full swing.
“I haven’t thought about that,” Oklahoma City guard James Harden said. “I don’t know yet…I’m just trying to get better as the summer goes along.”