After Starring in Australia, Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson is Finding His Way in the NBA

LOS ANGELES -- Australia’s National Basketball League (NBL) has become a budding hotbed for future NBA talent. LaMelo Ball, a projected lottery pick in 2020 and the youngest brother of New Orleans Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball, became the youngest player in NBL history to log a triple-double, pouring in 32 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds for the Illawarra Hawks. R.J. Hampton, another likely entrant into next year’s draft, emerged as a double-figure scorer for the New Zealand Breakers before suffering a hip injury.

Their performances have drawn NBA scouts and executives to Oceania—as well as the attention and opinions of fans on social media to the league’s streams—to see if LaMelo and R.J. are the “Next Stars” that the NBL’s program purports them to be. At times, it has seemed as though almost all eyes in the basketball world have been transfixed across the Pacific Ocean.

That is, except for those of the man who paved the way for LaMelo and R.J. to spend their “gap year” in the Earth’s southern hemisphere.

“Not gonna lie,” Terrance Ferguson tells CloseUp360 in Los Angeles while the Oklahoma City Thunder are in town, “I haven't really been following them.”

In 2016, Terrance became the first American teenager to skip college in favor of a basketball sabbatical in Australia. The following year, the Thunder selected him with the No. 21 pick in the NBA draft.

Now, in his third year as a pro back in the United States, Terrance is far more consumed with some of the same concerns that LaMelo and R.J. will face once they make the leap to the NBA than what they're currently up to down under. After missing five games due to a hip injury, he returned to OKC's starting lineup with 12 points against the Chicago Bulls and has since settled back in as one of the team's defensive aces.

“We're in season right now,” Terrance continues. “I really try to focus on our team, our next game, our opponent at the moment. Just those simple things. I got a life of my own. I've got my daughter I've got to focus on. I haven't really put as much thought into watching them, what they've been doing over there.”

Such is life for a young player in today’s NBA. Even a pioneer like Terrance doesn’t always have the privilege of looking back on the path he paved, wittingly or otherwise.

Terrance Ferguson

Terrance Ferguson was the first American teenager to skip college to play professionally in Australia. (Amir Ebrahimi)

Terrance might not have gone abroad as an 18-year-old if not for a fortuitous trip to another far flung corner of the basketball world: Portland, Oregon.

In April 2016, Terrance and his mother, Rachelle Holdman, flew to the Pacific Northwest for the annual Nike Hoops Summit at the Moda Center in Portland. There, he suited up for USA Basketball’s Men’s Junior National Select Team, alongside phenoms and eventual NBA draftees like Jayson Tatum, Markelle Fultz, De’Aaron Fox, Jonathan Isaac, Josh Jackson and Jarrett Allen.

Team USA didn’t just beat the World Select Team, featuring Deandre Ayton, Justin Jackson and Kostas Antetokounmpo; the Americans did so by the largest margin of victory (34 points) in the history of the Nike Hoops Summit.

And they did it with Terrance leading the way. He scored a game-high 21 points, drained seven threes, and brought a toughness and tenacity to Team USA’s defense that precipitated 29 turnovers by its international opponents.

“I got the hot hand, and the players were going to feed me,” he said at the time, per USA Basketball, “so I was shooting it.”

That performance lit a new fire under Terrance’s college recruitment. A month earlier, he had decommitted from the University of Alabama. Four days after the Nike Hoops Summit, he switched his verbal allegiance to the University of Arizona.

After the game, a representative from the NBL’s Adelaide 36ers approached Rachelle with a request to meet with her and her son over dinner. During a sit-down at Olive Garden, he told Terrance and Rachelle, each of whom knew nothing of the NBL, about Australia’s league, the opportunity to play in Adelaide and what Terrance could earn there—specifically, a paycheck and other compensatory perks, from housing and food to endorsement deals.

The offer held plenty of intrigue for Terrance. Sure, he would get to see the world, work with professional coaches and trainers, and compete against grown men—all of which would bode well for his maturation both on and off the court.

More importantly, getting paid to play half a world away would allow him to take care of his mom. Terrance had seen how Rachelle labored through two jobs at a time and coped with layoffs just to make ends meet for him, his brother, Brandon, and sister, Brittnay. As a kid, he’d not only dreamt of putting his mom in a nice home with a comfortable life, but shared as much with her. Skipping college to go pro would allow him to deliver on that promise a year sooner than expected.

Still, Terrance wasn’t ready to sign with the 36ers. He did, however, ponder the possibility of playing and living abroad. Terrance consulted with, among others, Emmanuel Mudiay, his former teammate at the defunct Prime Prep Academy in Dallas. In 2014, Emmanuel had famously eschewed a scholarship to Southern Methodist University in favor of a $1.2 million contract with the Guangdong Southern Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association.

In doing so, he extended the path Brandon Jennings had previously paved for American prep stars overseas from Italy to China—and validated that decision even further when he became the No. 7 pick of the Denver Nuggets in the 2015 NBA draft.

But Emmanuel made sure to share the good and the bad from his experience with Terrance. The money was great, but an ankle injury cut short Emmanuel’s time on the court in China, and the language barrier across the Pacific left him feeling isolated. If Terrance were to play overseas, Emmanuel warned him, he should consider those potential obstacles.

Australia, though, wouldn’t have quite the same obstacles to consider. The dialect of English spoken there wasn’t exactly the same as the one found in America, and the accent was entirely different. But by and large, Terrance could get by without encountering the same challenges that befell Emmanuel.

In June 2016, after mulling his options on his own and discussing them with his family, Terrance switched his commitment again—this time in Adelaide’s favor.

“I wanted to make some money for my family,” he says. “That was the big decision—is to make money for my family and being able to pay some bills. That was pretty much my decision—to go over there and compete with some grown men to get ready for the league.

“I guess it worked out pretty well.”

Terrance Ferguson

Terrance consulted with fellow Prime Prep product Emmanuel Mudiay before deciding to play overseas. (Amir Ebrahimi)

Just because Terrance could speak the language in Australia doesn’t mean his time with the 36ers was entirely a breeze.

On the court, the wiry teenager didn’t receive any favorable treatment, be it from opponents or his own coaches. He averaged a modest 4.6 points in 15.2 minutes per game. And that outside shot that made him such a hot commodity coming out of high school? It yielded results (38.1 percent from the field, 31.3 percent from three) that planted doubts in the minds of scouts who came out to observe him.

Off the court, though, Terrance found a fairly comfortable life. When he wasn’t busy working on his game in an otherwise empty gym, he got to enjoy the beachside life in Adelaide. And though he was thousands of miles from his friends and most of his family in Tulsa, he could always count on having some of the comforts of home, since Rachelle had joined him in Australia. 

So if (or, really, when) meat pies and vegemite didn’t suffice, Terrance got to enjoy his mom’s home cooking, from lasagna and spaghetti to chicken and macaroni and cheese. When Thanksgiving rolled around, they were among the few ex-pats in town feasting on the most American of holidays.

“We did a lot of stuff together, so having her there helped me really focus,” he says. “It helped me feel at home, like I was at home. The people in Adelaide made me feel like I was at home. It was a dope experience.”

As much as Rachelle did to provide for Terrance in Australia, his time in Adelaide allowed him to return the favor well beyond what he took home from the 36ers. The team provided him and his mom with a car, along with a platform on which to procure endorsement deals with Under Armour and PSD Underwear.

Not to mention, the visibility to become not only a first-round pick in the NBA draft, but also return to his home state of Oklahoma as a member of the Thunder.

The clock inside the visitors’ locker room at Staples Center is ticking down under an hour before tip-off, and Terrance is getting in one last snack. As a third-year player in the NBA (and fourth-year pro), he’s largely eschewed junk food in favor of a more athlete-friendly diet, though there are occasional exceptions—like, say, when there’s popcorn on offer.

“If it's good,” he says. “It has to be buttery, has to have the right amount of butter.”

Normally, though, popcorn isn’t part of Terrance’s pregame routine. He usually munches on fruit while relaxing, listening to music and going over film.

“But they've got some good popcorn here,” he adds, “so you gotta get some in.”

Of course, there are many more career-threatening temptations than just buttery popcorn that come calling for NBA players of all ages. 

Meals rich in salt and unhealthy fats. Late nights out on the town. Shady characters and other hangers-on who prey on fame and fortune. An even wider range of pitfalls that emerge when riches flow to young people, especially those who don’t come from privilege.

Terrance, though, seems largely unperturbed by any such distractions, and has every reason to remain so. He’s been a regular starter in OKC this season, just as he was in 2018-19. The Thunder may not be contending for a playoff spot, after doing so with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, but Terrance is getting to learn from a legend in Chris Paul, nonetheless.

By dint of his rookie contract, Terrance will be eligible for an extension during the summer of 2020. As someone averaging fewer than six points per game for a lower-tier playoff team, he may not seem a surefire candidate for such a pre-emptive payday (he’ll be a restricted free agent in 2021). But the skills that got Terrance to the NBA in the first place—namely, his shooting (35.8 percent from three) and defense—are both trending upward.

“He's done a really nice job, and continues to get better and improve,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan says. “I think he's got a really, really bright future ahead of him just because he's really, really smart.”

Terrance has millions of reasons to maintain his focus. He wants to continue to support his mom and siblings, and now has a daughter—Lylah Rose, whose first birthday is coming up—to look after. In mid-November, Terrance missed a Thunder game to attend a child custody hearing with Lawren Jensen, his ex-fiancee and Lylah Rose’s mother. The two broke up in March and have been battling in court since June.

Three days after his absence, Terrance returned to score a season-high 19 points to help OKC top the Philadelphia 76ers, 127-119, at Chesapeake Energy Arena. He credited that performance to a number of factors, from a good feeling he had during warmups to encouragement from teammate Steven Adams, but cited, first and foremost, having Lylah Rose in the stands for her first NBA game.

“She's almost one, so she probably didn't know what was going on,” he says. “She's out there just paying attention to her toys, her headphones probably bothering them. So I'm pretty sure she didn't care about it, but it was good having her there, though.”

For Terrance, too, it’s good be back home, amid the comfort of family and friends in a familiar place, with an outlook shaped by an experience that’s now more than two years and thousands of miles away.

As for LaMelo and R.J.? Terrance may not be watching them, nor did he play or contribute as much as they have when he was in Australia. But the former 36er isn’t entirely removed from the situation.

For one, Terrance has known R.J. since the latter was in middle school through his father, Rod, a college basketball player at SMU-turned-professional hooper overseas and coach in the Dallas area. Terrance didn’t hear from R.J. or LaMelo before they made their respective decisions to jump to the NBL, and while he’s careful not to comment too much on what they did, he, of all people, can understand why they did it and see the wisdom in bypassing the NCAA en route to the NBA.

“Everybody's decision comes down to their own. I don't really like to put any word on it,” Terrance says. “I can only make a decision for me. I let everybody else make a decision for theirself. 

“They made great decisions, though, overall.”

 

Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.