Overtime Elite trying to become ‘hub’ of player development for youth basketball

Samis Calderon of the Cold Hearts dunks during an Overtime Elite playoff game Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024 at OTE Arena in Atlanta. (Photo by Adam Hagy/Overtime Elite)

Credit: Adam Hagy/Overtime Elite

Credit: Adam Hagy/Overtime Elite

Samis Calderon of the Cold Hearts dunks during an Overtime Elite playoff game Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024 at OTE Arena in Atlanta. (Photo by Adam Hagy/Overtime Elite)

Corey Frazier bet his future on a Zoom shared-screen picture in 2021.

It wasn’t a visual of something already operating, though, it was a building model for Overtime Elite’s basketball league that hadn’t been built yet. A St. Louis native, Frazier didn’t know where it would be built in Atlanta, nor what it would pan out to be.

But Frazier still bit, he saw the start-up’s vision and was sold. Hired as an assistant coach and lead skill developer, he viewed it as an opportunity to pour into the next generation.

Now in its third year, OTE has become one of the hot topics in youth basketball. Filled with talent and facilities to develop players at a high-level, it’s become a path for players to make it to the collegiate level and beyond.

“It’s not high school, it’s not college, it’s not professional basketball, but it’s all three of those at the same time,” Cold Hearts coach David Leitao said. “It’s far beyond anything that a teenager, an 18-, 17-, 16-year-old could get anywhere else in America.”

Leitao said OTE, located in Atlantic Station, faced many doubters when it started because of its model. Athletes signed professional deals and gave up their college eligibility for an unproven path.

That changed in year two, though, when receiving money for a player’s name, image and likeness became part of college athletics after a Supreme Court ruling. The change allowed OTE players to pursue NIL opportunities and preserve their college eligibility.

And with OTE Arena’s completion a week before the inaugural season, the company’s business pitch leveled up.

“The biggest separation and why kids come here is the ability to be in the gym 24/7,” said Frazier, the coach of the RWE team. “A lot of times, when you go to a local high school or different prep schools … they don’t have the availability.”

The 103,000-square-foot, three-level facility oozes the ingredients of an NBA atmosphere, offering an NBA-length court with courtside seats and LED lights stacked on the ceiling.

The arena also features two NBA-length practice courts, a weight room, private chefs and technology to monitor sleep patterns, free throws and more.

Coach Corey Frazier (center) gives directions to Jayden Wilkins (right) during a training session at Overtime Elite Arena on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023. (Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

Daily schedules include team workouts in the mornings, classes for players still in high school and individual workouts afterward.

“It’s the best high school facility training-wise, playing game-wise that I’ve ever seen,” said Damien Wilkins, general manager and head of basketball for OTE. “We have a group of people here who deeply care about our young men that we bring in here, and they’re with them every day all day demanding excellence on every floor of this building.”

Wilkins played 13 seasons in the NBA, following in the footsteps of his father, Gerald, and uncle, Dominique. He emphasizes to the players to do the work and stay consistent.

This held true following OTE’s second season, when Amen and Ausar Thompson were drafted fourth and fifth in the 2023 NBA draft.

Leitao, who coached the twins, described it as the league’s “aha moment,” putting the basketball world on notice and demonstrating OTE’s validity. He said the twins didn’t come to Atlanta as lottery picks, but worked toward that echelon.

“Our cheat code is that we beat time. What you learn here you’d probably learn as a college freshman,” Leitao said. “Our name that week, being talked about so much, I think it drew the casual fan, the basketball so-called experts … and then it allowed them to keep their eyes on us.”

The exposure shined a light on the league’s overall talent as well. Kentucky guard Rob Dillingham and NBL Perth Wildcats’ forward Alexandre Sarr, who played in OTE last year, are top prospects for this year’s NBA draft.

Games began to sell out regularly with college coaches and NBA scouts in attendance to see the league’s hype.

“If (OTE) keeps doing it with the money and facilities that they have, this thing can go on forever,” said Eli Ellis, a YNG Dreamerz guard who committed to South Carolina. “I didn’t think I was going to be able to play in the NBA or even had the dreams of it really until the beginning of January where I was like, ‘I got the possibility.’”

Ellis is a product of what OTE’s player development can help do. Playing with the Thompsons last year, he was a corner specialist who averaged 13.8 points per game. This season, Ellis is the main ballhandler and led the league with 33.4 points per game in the regular season.

His social media following also has skyrocketed, and fans bring head-shaped cutouts of him and his brother, Isaac, to games.

And he isn’t the only player experiencing this – the league has 28 players committed to colleges and three McDonald’s All-Americans. This has created a competition level that challenges and prepares players for the next step.

In a league filled with talent, everyone can’t be “the big man on campus.” They must carve out their roles or sputter, something most players don’t face until college.

“(In AAU) I’ll get two or three pros, if I’m lucky, on a team, and the rest of the guys are role players. Here, the role players could be stars anywhere else,” Frazier said. “They’re probably thinking, ‘well those guys were already good,’ (but) no they weren’t. They were good, but they weren’t at the level they are now without going through this process.”

Hired initially as the dean of athletes and culture, Wilkins wants to instill the importance of career development and longevity into the players.

Focused on OTE’s future, Wilkins expects the league to add more teams and hopes it becomes the mecca for youth player development.

“When you think of basketball development, when you think of accelerated development and training, you think about OTE,” Wilkins said. “I want, one day, (NBA commissioner) Adam Silver to call us and say … ‘can you guys be the hub that we’re looking for?’ That to me is very possible, and I don’t think we should think it’s not.”