Overtime Elite’s Damien Wilkins adding to family legacy

Damien Wilkins, Overtime Elite’s general manager and head of basketball, has always wanted to do what people said he can’t.

Wilkins, of course, comes from a strong basketball family. His father, Gerald Wilkins, played 13 seasons in the NBA. He is also the nephew of Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins, a nine-time All-Star. So, the 42-year-old is looking to leave his own mark by helping the next generation of players achieve their goals.

Wilkins knew that he wanted to be a GM since his third year in the NBA. He went to a summer development program, which exposed him to league GMs, coaches and scouts.

Before the program, he had aspirations to coach but hearing from former players including Malik Rose (who is now head of basketball operations for the NBA G League) convinced him that he wanted to be the guy who runs the team instead.

“It was always very interesting to hear them talk about the lack of minority representation in those roles,” Wilkins said. “And then I think that’s what kind of got me really, really interested in doing. I wanted to do it more, after hearing their stories about their struggles to get there and stay there. And then, again, the lack of representation from our community that’s in those rooms.”

Now he is heading a system that looks to give basketball’s top prospects another avenue to reach their professional goals. Overtime Elite, now in its first full year since it launched in March 2021, gives prospects tools to help them develop their skills, work on their academic objectives and empower them economically.

They’ve started to see some returns of their efforts to buck the traditional path to the NBA. Former Team Overtime forward Dominick Barlow signed a two-way contract with the Spurs, and guard Jean Montero signed an Exhibit 10 contract with the Knicks.

In the upcoming NBA draft class, Amen and Ausar Thompson are projected lottery picks, while Jazian Gortman is projected to be selected in the second round.

“We have a lot of work to do ahead of us, obviously,” Wilkins said. “But I think there’s a number of different things that have gone on since we started that lets people know that we’re not going anywhere. We’re disruptive. Yes. But I think that’s the plan, to do things differently, nontraditionally.”

They have recruited nine players for the upcoming season, including Naasir Cunningham, the No. 1 high school basketball recruit in the 2024 class. Cunningham has offers from Duke, UCLA and 10 other schools.

The NBA isn’t the only path that Overtime Elite has encouraged its signees to strive for.

Emmanuel Maldonado was drafted by Mets de Guaynabo in the Baloncesto Superior Nacional League in Puerto Rico. It also had eight players graduate from the Overtime Elite Academy in its first year and has tried to teach them other ways they can be involved in basketball.

To do so, they have tried to utilize the experience of Wilkins, who played in the NBA with the Sonics, Thunder, Timberwolves, Hawks, Pistons, 76ers and Pacers. He was also a regional representative for the National Basketball Players Association for three years, where he supported players with resources “off the court” to help further their respective careers, following his retirement in 2018.

Before his professional career, Wilkins was named a McDonald’s All-American in 1999 before going on to play basketball at N.C. State for two years. He went on to test the waters at the NBA combine in 2001 but opted to return to school.

He transferred to Georgia after a coach told him not to come back to N.C. State, and Wilkins said that put a chip on his shoulder. A solid career at Georgia, however, ended in controversy as the Bulldogs’ bid for the NCAA Tournament was railroaded by a conflict between Tony Cole and coach Jim Harrick.

Wilkins decided to embrace the turbulence, though, and he uses that to prepare the 30 players at Overtime Elite for their futures. He hopes that his visible role as GM and head of basketball operations for Overtime Elite can show there are plenty of ways to be successful in basketball.

“It’s just everything,” Wilkins said. “It’s everything about me. Like all of this, the struggles, the demands, the hard work that has to go into, the uncertainty, right?

“They’ve sacrificed a lot. Our first few guys (have) given up their eligibility to come here and be the pioneers, the guys who helped them, the new wave of guys get the scholarship options, they all sacrificed a lot to be here. So I owe it, we owe it to them to give them all that we have. If that sometimes means our experiences and sharing those things with them to help them go right when they’re going left, then so be it.”

Overtime Elite has the local presence of the Hawks as an example for their young players to turn to. They use visits to home games and visits from players to their advantage and show them what success could look like for them.

Following the advice of his father, the younger Wilkins has stressed to the players at Overtime Elite not to burn bridges. He has tried to impress upon them the importance of nurturing their professional relationships because they have no idea where it may take them.

That advice has helped him throughout his career. As Wilkins continues to build up Overtime Elite, he adds not only to the legacy of the Wilkins family but also changes the lives of the players they sign.

On Wednesday, Overtime Elite will have its draft in which Wilkins will construct three teams of 10 players. Overtime Elite will release its schedule Friday.

“I just want this to keep growing, and I want this to be the hub for professional development,” Wilkins said. “And to be in front of that in this city, as a Black man. Wow, right?”