For many college basketball standouts their path to the NBA is clear. They enter their names into the NBA draft, get selected by a team, and make the roster. But what happens when you don’t get selected? Many players choose to play in the NBA Developmental League, the NBA’s built in farm system, as a means to reach the NBA. This is evidenced by the fact that in the past five years “there have been 304 undrafted D1 rookies in the D-League.” However, there is another avenue for fringe NBA players to develop their game and reach the NBA: playing overseas.
Malcolm Delaney faced this dilemma after his senior year at Virginia Tech. Despite being a standout player during his four year career he went undrafted in the 2011 NBA Draft. Delaney was disappointed but didn’t let that deter him, as French basketball club Élan Chalon had recently offered him a contract to play overseas and he had the option to pursue his NBA dream through the NBA D-League. This left him at a crossroads where he had to decide between two options: sign an NBA D-League contract or accept a contract to play overseas. Delaney weighed his options but ultimately for him it was a no-brainer, he wanted to take the path less traveled so he accepted the contract to play for Élan Chalon to “build [his] future and take a different route to the NBA.”
Malcolm Delaney’s journey highlights the fact that European basketball leagues provide fringe NBA talent a better avenue than the D-League to develop their game, earn fair compensation, and chase their dreams of making the NBA.
Delaney was introduced to the sport of basketball at the age of five because his family was big into sports. He claims that “as soon as the ball was put into my hands, I fell in love with the game.” It was at this point that Delaney’s NBA aspirations began to take form.
“I think [playing in the NBA] is every kid’s dream. It was a dream of mine when I was younger until I realized it was a profession. [Then it became] more so a goal of mine.”
As Delaney continued to grow, his game grew with him. People started to take notice of his skill when he was a teenager and he was offered an athletic scholarship to Towson Catholic High School to play basketball. At Towson, Delaney was a four year letterwinner and accrued a variety of accolades throughout his high school career including Baltimore Catholic League Player of the Year, Baltimore Sun Metro Player of the Year, and Gatorade Player of the Year. Colleges began to take notice of his talent and began to offer him scholarships which is when it became clear that the NBA could be a reality for him.
“I was a really good basketball player since I was young but once I received my first college scholarship it became clearer [that basketball could be a career for me].”
Delaney received offers from Clemson, Indiana, Iowa State, and Maryland, however, when all was said and done, he ended up choosing to play his college ball at Virginia Tech. Choosing the right school was not easy as each school presented a great opportunity for Delaney. His competitive nature compelled him to play in the ACC as it was arguably the best conference in college basketball. What separated Virginia Tech from the other ACC schools was the opportunity for immediate playing time and his family’s comfort with the coaches and the school overall.
“The main reason [I chose to play at Virginia Tech] was because I was getting an opportunity to get playing time as a freshman in the best conference in the country. [It also helped that] my family was also very comfortable with the school and the coaches.”
Delaney quickly became a key player earning a starting spot 11 games into his freshman season; he ended the season ranked second in assists and fourth in scoring. He broke out his sophomore season and never looked back, ending his career with a third team all ACC selection, two first team all ACC selections, and multiple major upsets over blue chip ACC programs, including Delaney’s fondest memory at Virginia Tech of beating top ranked Duke his senior year.
“My best experience in college was beating number one Duke at home on College Gameday my senior year. It was possibly the biggest win in [Virginia Tech’s] basketball history.”
After his senior season, he had done everything he could do for the Virginia Tech program, other than securing an NCAA Tournament berth, the next logical step was to move on to play basketball professionally. He entered his name into the 2011 NBA Draft and went through the pre-draft process, consisting of workouts and interviews with various teams. Delaney ended up being undrafted but there was a silver lining as he had received a contract to play elsewhere.
“After I was undrafted I was disappointed but I already had a contract in France so I knew I was going to get the opportunity to play and get paid for what I loved doing.”
Historically, players similar to Malcolm Delaney, standout college basketball players who go undrafted, take their talent to the NBA Developmental League due to the fact that D-League teams provide increased exposure to NBA teams. Recent examples are players such as Aaron Craft, Dez Wells, James Michael McAdoo, Quinn Cook, Scottie Reynolds, and Sean Kilpatrick. All were considered stars at the collegiate level but each player had concerns about how they would project to the NBA. Delaney went against conventional wisdom and decided to spurn the D-League, stating that the “D-League definitely wasn’t an option”. Instead, Delaney opted to sign a contract with Élan Chalon in France.
“[I decided to play basketball in Europe because] it was the best business decision for me; I wanted to build my future and take a different route to the NBA.”
One of the main reasons that playing basketball overseas is the best business decision for players is due to the fact that the compensation for average players overseas is significantly more than even the best D-League players.
“In the D-League, players make between $12,000 and $24,000 for a season. In Europe, most players make a starting salary between $65,000 and $100,000, often untaxed.”
Choosing to play basketball overseas also presents an interesting opportunity for fringe NBA talent to get valuable playing experience against quality competition. Delaney echoed these sentiments as he explained how he has been provided the opportunity to play against the best European competition while earning enough money to make a living.
“Europe has been a great experience for me. My game has developed and I’ve worked my way to being one of the top players in Europe. I have also earned me enough money to start making business moves off the court. I’ve really benefited from it.”
For Malcolm Delaney, taking his talents overseas has paid off, literally and figuratively, as he has become one of the better players in Europe, evidenced by how in demand his services are; he has played for four different teams and the value of his contracts keep growing. In his time with these teams he has experienced a great deal of individual and team success, adding serious hardware to his trophy mantle.
“In my first three seasons in Europe I have won 5 titles and 2 MVP awards.”
In Delaney’s first season overseas with Élan Chalon, he won the Leaders Cup and French Cup, which are annual cup competitions for French professional basketball teams, as well as the championship for Ligue Nationale de Basket Pro A. The following season with Budivelnyk Kyiv, Delaney led his team to win the Ukranian Basketball SuperLeague Championship, winning the MVP award for his performance throughout the season and playoffs. He followed that up the next season by leading his team, Bayern Munich, to a Basketball Bundesliga championship, securing the Bundesliga MVP in the process.
With all of his success overseas, Malcolm Delaney’s dream of playing in the NBA is closer to being a reality than ever before.
“It will be great to play in the NBA for sure and it may be happening very soon.”
While with Bayern Munich, Delaney was garnering interest from the Houston Rockets after their point guard, Patrick Beverley, went down with an injury. Unfortunately a deal did not materialize as Delaney was in the midst of Bayern’s season and his contract did not have an NBA-out clause so he was not able to pursue that opportunity. However, the Rockets offer shows that he is on NBA teams’ radar, signaling that an NBA opportunity is not far away.
Malcolm Delaney isn’t the first player to develop his game in Europe as a means to make the NBA and he won’t be the last. Many basketball players with NBA aspirations have followed and continue to follow a similar path as Delaney’s as a means to reach the NBA. According to my research, from 2010 to 2015 the percentage of undrafted free agents to start their professional basketball career overseas has risen from 38% to 46% respectively.
The rise in players deciding to go overseas has coincided with the advancement of overseas scouting which allows players to not be out of sight, out of mind while playing overseas. Also, European basketball leagues have grown into a de-facto developmental league as NBA teams are sending their draft picks overseas to develop rather than signing them to D-League contracts.
“Over the last two years, 40 percent of the NBA’s second-round draft picks never actually signed NBA rookie contracts. Thirty-eight percent of those 60 players went overseas; only 8 percent wound up in the D-League.”
This trend not only highlights the merits of European basketball leagues but also the need for the NBA to restructure the Developmental League in order to make it a viable option for fringe NBA talent to develop.
“In the grand scheme, there is an eventuality to all 30 NBA teams having their own wholly controlled minor league team, however, there isn’t a huge rush from the D-League level to just pop up 11 more franchises. There are some logistics that still have to play out.”
Until all 30 NBA teams have their own D-League team fully controlled by them, fringe NBA prospects will continue to head overseas at increasing rates. If the D-League were fully developed at the time Malcolm Delaney came out of college, maybe he would have taken his talents to the D-League, but instead he took a different path. Like Robert Frost once said:
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”
Malcolm Delaney took the path less traveled by, and if he makes it to the NBA then it will have made all the difference.