Jayden Wilkins joins Overtime Elite looking to make name for himself

Damien Wilkins, (right) general manager and head of basketball operations at Overtime Elite Arena, interacts with his son Jayden Wilkins after he finishes practice on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023. (Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Damien Wilkins, (right) general manager and head of basketball operations at Overtime Elite Arena, interacts with his son Jayden Wilkins after he finishes practice on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023. (Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Jayden Wilkins was ecstatic, jetting through the hallways at Overtime Elite, cheering as if he’d just won a championship.

At last, the 15-year-old Wilkins dunked. He snagged a light lob and slammed the ball through the hoop, immediately taking off with a camera behind him. OTE shared the video on Instagram in September; the league does a meticulous job providing glimpses inside its doors.

“I had so much adrenaline the rest of the day,” Wilkins told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I was just so happy because I was working like crazy to get that dunk, and I got it. So it was just like, (sigh) finally.”

The guard since has dunked “multiple times.” Consider that a microcosm of Wilkins’ growth.

Wilkins has been at OTE for four months, one of three ninth graders who joined the league. In a typical day, he wakes up around 7 a.m. After eating breakfast, he’s putting up shots about 30 minutes later. He’ll hit the weights before attending class, then will finish with more workouts.

Perhaps it sounds monotonous to some, but it’s a steady stream of caffeine for Wilkins. He joined OTE because he saw it as the best avenue to prepare him for an NBA career.

“I probably think about (the future) twice a day,” Wilkins said. “It comes into my head like, ‘Where will I be in five years? Three years? Two years?’ It just depends.”

This level of dedication and obsession, even at his age, is necessary. After all, playing basketball professionally isn’t viewed as such a borderline preposterous ambition in his family.

Wilkins is the son of Damien Wilkins, who played basketball professionally for 14 seasons (10 in the NBA) and currently is the general manager and head of basketball at OTE. Damien, of course, is the nephew of Hall of Famer and Hawks icon Dominique Wilkins. Damien’s father, Gerald, had a 13-year NBA career.

This is the classic story for an athletically blessed family. Jayden is trying to make his own name for himself. As valuable as such rich basketball roots are, they also present unique challenges and potential pressure.

“I remind myself of that all the time: I’m my own player,” Wilkins said. “I just have to keep being me, keep surprising people. Eventually, they’ll know my name as Jayden Wilkins and not the GM’s son. That’s going to be a great accomplishment for everybody to know me as ‘Jayden’ instead of being Damien’s son or Dominique’s nephew. Through my game, I’ve got to show people what I’m capable of.”

Jayden was repeating his father’s message.

“I always tell him to be the best version of himself,” Damien said. “He’ll never be me. He’ll never be his uncle or his granddad. He wouldn’t be good at that. Be who you want to be, do what you want to do. Blaze your own trail. I try to keep that constant message going to ensure he doesn’t feel any pressure. He may, internally, from the public. But I also tell him to be very mindful of that as well. ‘You don’t have to worry about what the public is saying. You don’t know those people. Those people don’t know you. Please yourself and God. I’m happy if you’re happy. You being successful, you making shots, you being a McDonald’s All-American, those are great things that I want for you because I know you want that for yourself.’

“But ultimately, as a father, I just want him to be happy doing whatever it is that he loves doing. I think I’ve told him that enough, and I continue to tell him that all the time so he understands I really mean it. I want him to grow up and say, ‘You know, my dad would always tell he was just proud of me because I’m doing the things I love doing.’”

Damien continued: “Basketball has been great to our family. I’ve never taken that for granted. … Jayden is coming into that world. You can’t run from it. You can change your name, but you’ll always have Wilkins blood. So you can either try to run from it or accept it for what it is. I’d ask him, ‘Is there anything else you want to do?’ He’d say no, he wants to play basketball. Cool. He could be Jayden Wilkins the mailman if he wanted to, and that’d be fine. No one would expect him to do anything, but he’d still be asked the question from people outside. So I think, for me, I just try to make him understand that him being good at basketball is not going to make me love him any more. And him not being good at basketball wouldn’t make me love him any less. He’s my son, and I want what’s best for him in whatever it is he does. I think that’s why our relationship is so strong.”

Wilkins, a class of 2027 prospect, has been lauded for his shooting. He feels he already has made strides in passing, too. He’s working on attacking the basket more, a needed skill even for the best shooters. Listed at 6-foot-1, 157 pounds, time will tell what Wilkins offers physically. There are myriad reasons to feel optimistic he’ll emerge as a premier prospect.

“He’s the best shooter in our family now,” Damien said. “I couldn’t shoot like that when I was his age. … He’s probably, I’d say, a top-two or three shooter here as a freshman. I truly believe that, and I don’t think anyone here would argue that. He just makes shots.

Wilkins somewhat considered high school or prep school, but that was more due diligence. He aspired to be part of OTE, spending so much time around the league because of his father (“Him being here made my decision so much easier,” Jayden said). Jayden also acknowledged he wanted a higher level of competition opposed to regular high school basketball.

“When these doors opened here almost three years ago, and I started working here, when he first walked into this building, he told me that this is somewhere he wants to be,” Damien said. “He came here every afternoon after school, he would work out with the guys when he could, he would always want to just get shots up here. Always talk about, ‘One day, I’m going to be a part of OTE.’ And I would always tell him, ‘If you work hard enough, you can.’ He’s just been really intentional about that. To see all of that happening now, for his dreams to become his realities, I’m really proud about that as a dad.”

Damien mentioned that while it’s Jayden’s first official year with OTE, it almost feels like his third. Beyond his time spent at the facility, they were neighbors with the Thompson twins, Amen and Ausar, last year. Both twins were drafted in the top five of the NBA draft last summer, by the Rockets and Pistons, respectively.

Jayden looks up to the Thompsons. He followed them around, studying their habits, and he loved picking their minds about defense (both are regarded as stellar defenders). Seeing their commitment and work ethic helped Jayden understand how to reach his goals – and why OTE was the best situation for him.

OTE’s season begins Dec. 1. Wilkins plays for RWE, one of eight teams in the league.

“I’m so excited,” Wilkins said. “Everybody has to calm me down before a game. I get so pumped up, the crowd, this stage is just incredible.”

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