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Seeking lane into NBA, undrafted players turn to developmental and overseas leagues

The Los Angeles Times' Broderick Turner has the Los Angeles Lakers taking Lonzo Ball with the second pick. (June 15, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)

Throughout the three years he played at Maryland, Dez Wells often made references to the NBA. Whether it was talking about John Wall, a high school teammate in Raleigh, N.C., or outplaying future first-round draft picks such as Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, Wells seemed to be on the verge of an NBA career.

Two years after going undrafted, the 6-foot-5 guard is still trying to complete the jump.

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Like many former college stars, Wells has tried to use the NBA Development League as a springboard. A member of the Oklahoma City Thunder's D-League affiliate for the past two seasons, Wells understands what his former Maryland teammate, Melo Trimble, and others could likely go through during the NBA draft on Thursday as well as in the near future.

After not hearing his name called in the draft two years ago, Wells was undeterred.

"You have to have the trust and the belief that the war's not over," Wells said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "There's a lot of, I wouldn't say arrogance, but confidence you have to have in yourself that tells you, 'I believe what I believe in. I know what I can do.' With all that said, you just have to know it's a process. … You just have to embrace the grind."

Given that only 60 players over two rounds will be drafted, many will have to find alternate routes to get to the NBA.

They include playing in the seemingly nomadic and no-frills D-League — which became the NBA Gatorade League on Tuesday — where players average less in salary for a season than many NBA players average per game, or going overseas, as Wells did briefly last year.

There's also a new avenue that another 60 players (or more) will be eligible for starting with the 2017-18 season.

As part of the NBA's current collective bargaining agreement, each team can sign two players to what have been deemed "two-way contracts" that will guarantee them between $75,000 and $275,000 depending on how much time they spend on the NBA roster or in the newly named G-League, though most will likely be at the lower end of the scale.

Longtime player agent Bill Neff, who represents Wells, said in an interview Tuesday that his clientele is made up largely of what he called "fringe guys" that often have to take a circuitous route to the NBA — if they get there at all. While the two-way contract will open up more roster spots, it doesn't make the road to the NBA any easier, Neff said.

In some ways, it might have made it even more difficult since NBA teams would hold the rights to those on their G-League rosters.

"The NBA is really trying to control how guys get there," Neff said. "It used to be that if you were a Dez Wells and you were playing in OK-City [in the D-League], anybody [in the NBA] can sign them. The purpose of the two-ways is not so much to give more people opportunities as it is for … teams to control their budgets and cycle through more guys on these two-way contracts."

Still, Wells believes it's another way for him to fulfill his dream of playing in the NBA.

"I think it will be good, I think it will give guys more opportunity," Wells said. "I think it will make guys more comfortable, though it's hard to be comfortable in that situation. I think it will make it more competitive. Everybody will be trying to look toward those two-way contracts and make sure they put themselves in the best situation."

There's always the possibility that Wells will have to play in Europe, as he did with a team in Greece last fall (before returning to the D-League in January) and as former Maryland forward Robert Carter Jr. decided was his best option when he went undrafted last year and then had a disappointing showing for the Golden State Warriors on their summer league team.

It might have to be the route Trimble ultimately takes if he doesn't get drafted Thursday or is later signed, even to a two-way contract.

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Drew Nicholas, who backed up Juan Dixon and Steve Blake on Maryland's two Final Four teams, including the 2002 national championship team, said Europe is still a viable option for those trying to get to the NBA, though admittedly not as attractive financially as it was during his 10-year career spent mostly in Italy and Greece.

Despite being one of Europe's top scorers from the outset, Nicholas never got a solid offer from an NBA team.

"After being the scoring champion in the EuroLeague, my value just went up too much," said Nicholas, now a scout for the Minnesota Timberwolves. "If I had decided to come back to the NBA, I would have actually been losing money — a lot of money. I still continued to look at it as a business decision. I'd be making more money and I'd be playing, because I also understood if I went to an NBA team, I might be the 10th or 11th or 12th man. It was a pretty easy decision for me."

Nicholas said being successful overseas takes the right mindset.

"It takes a certain type of kid to go over there and really embrace being in a different country, embracing a different culture, willing to step out of your comfort zone, and willing to sort of immerse yourself in other cultures. Those are the guys that find ways to succeed," said Nicholas, who learned to speak Italian fluently. "I saw it many times where guys would go over there and stay within their own little shell because they didn't know how to adjust."

Given how much the salaries on European teams have dropped in recent years, in part because of financial crises in those countries, many will opt for the G-League, with hopes of securing a two-way contract or potentially an NBA contract, as former Indiana star Yogi Ferrell did last season with the Dallas Mavericks after going undrafted.

"The way the money is in the NBA, it's hard to say, 'Go to Europe' now," Neff said. "The money has gotten a little crazy [in the NBA], so you're probably better served by playing this out [in the G-League]."

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