Kyle Boone

Editor's note: This story was originally published on June 21

John Podziemski is a cheery Midwesterner with a peppy spirit and endless enthusiasm. On a late afternoon in early May, I call him up to talk about his son, Brandin, a 2023 NBA Draft prospect who had generated second-round buzz around that time. John answers the phone early on the second ring with a jolly, "Good morning, Kyle!" It takes all of 79 seconds of small talk before he's gushing about Brandin's perseverance over the last two years on a road that took him from four-star recruit to buried bench piece at Illinois to breakout star at Santa Clara — a trajectory that now puts him on the precipice of being a first-round pick Thursday night. 

John is, by all accounts, a supportive and loving father who is his son's biggest cheerleader. Deep into our discussion, however, he comes clean and admits there was a time when he wished Brandin — now one of the fastest rising prospects in this year's class — would fail at basketball.

"Honestly, truthfully, God as my witness: I wanted him to fail so badly at basketball," he says. "So, the first thing I told him is 'You have to play up.' And then he's like, 'OK, deal.' I just wanted him to fail in basketball so that he would be done and say, 'I'm coming back to baseball.' I just had baseball in my mind. We knew nothing about basketball. I couldn't believe we were even trying it. All we knew was baseball and he was so good at it."

The younger Podziemski was a multi-sport athlete growing up who played safety in football and was an imposing force on the mound in baseball. He was an uncommon breed who didn't specialize in one particular sport or even at one particular position within a sport, a strategic choice by his pops which helped him become a multi-tool baseball talent who batted with power and ran with reckless abandon in addition to having a great arm.

Baseball was Podziemski's primary sport because baseball was virtually all he knew growing up in Greenfield, Wisconsin. He was good at it. Good at football, too; as a punishing safety he loved hitting people. As he grew up, basketball wasn't really in the picture. It was only by happy accident he even stumbled into it thanks to a weekend routine that included CBS games at his mom's house.

"Growing up I always played baseball," Podziemski said. "I would spend Saturdays with my dad, Sundays with my mom, and there would always be games on CBS, so I would watch and found it interesting. ... Watching basketball inspired me to get a video game just because I thought it would be cool, so I just watched how guys shot and how it made sense. Then I'd try to implement it during recess at school. I just learned from the video game how to shoot and how to play, and over time I improved and refined my shot, got some shooting coaches input."

Podziemski says NBA 2K10 was his video game of choice. It helped spark his interest in basketball and hone his eventual craft of choice. He played much of the game as an Indiana Pacer because it allowed him to play with Travis Diener, a fellow Wisconsinite who, coincidentally, is now helping him prepare for the draft. 

"I remember, I'm working out with Travis Diener up here, and I remember playing in the video game with him when he was on the Pacers," Podziemski said. "I was playing a video game as him, and now I'm getting ready for the draft and he's working me out. It has kind of come full circle."

Eighth grade was the year basketball officially entered the picture for Podziemski, known best as "Podz" by those closest to him. His father finally let him play despite his reservations that it may interfere with baseball. A decision was reached after a conversation the two shared coming back home from a trip playing travel baseball during the summer in between his seventh and eighth grade.

"We were coming back from Vanderbilt," John said. "We're driving back and he said, 'Dad, I've got something to tell ya. You know, Dad, I don't want to play baseball anymore. It's boring, and it's too easy.' But I always saw him as a baseball player — and still to this day I do. 

"I thought it was just a phase when he told me this," he continued. "Then he told me he liked a challenge and baseball wasn't a challenge. He told me, 'Don't you wonder how, when I go to pitch and it's a big game, I'd get behind in the count or I'd load up the bases?' I said, 'Yeah, son, it's because you didn't have it or you were just warming up.' Then he said, 'No, I did that intentionally because I wanted to see if I could get out of it.' 

"I said, 'That's a gift, Brandin.'"

Still, basketball wasn't exactly love at first sight, even if it presented a challenge he no longer found in baseball. Brandin picked it up in eighth grade and stuck with it throughout high school, going on to eventually win Mr. Wisconsin Basketball in 2021. But playing up against older players presented real challenges for him and it never became an obsession, at least not like it is now. Despite his eventual four-star pedigree, he never had jaw-dropping athleticism or preternatural gifts.

"I started basketball in eighth grade," Podziemski said. "I didn't know if I really loved it loved it until my sophomore year going into my junior year. So I kind of played just to play it those first three years."

Thirty-four months ago, basketball offered him no opportunities beyond a new challenge. He had no scholarship offers. No recruiting service ranked him. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, gaining exposure was challenging for high school recruits trying to attract coaches whose travel schedules were either limited or completely non-existent. He played on the Nike EYBL circuit, typically flush with high major coaches and talent evaluators, but people weren't showing. On top of that, when he was playing, it wasn't to his liking … or anyone else's.

"I remember playing absolutely terrible," Podziemski said. "I talked to Antonio Curro (the Founder of NY2LA Sports and Director of the Phenom University travel program, who has been a mentor to him) after, and he was like, 'No one wants you.' A couple weeks later I'm practicing, then I'm still playing bad. Mentally, I wasn't right. I just kind of cried, let it all out one day and flipped a switch. I told myself I was going to do this. I wasn't going to be a bum anymore. I was like, I'm going to do this for real."

The switch-flip within him ignited interest across the country. Kansas offered. Kentucky offered. No interest quickly turned to overwhelming interest. Still, he was fueled — pissed off, even — that the interest didn't come more quickly and that he didn't play well enough to warrant that interest. So he changed his routine. He started getting up at 5 a.m. to go to the gym. He asked questions, he made a concentrated effort to improve … and he did.

"Antonio was like, 'Hey, you're not good enough.'" Podziemski said. "I took that to heart and it motivated me."

Santa Clara v Brigham Young
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Illinois offered Podziemski in December 2020 and instantly became a player in his recruitment. Less than eight months later, he was signed, sealed and delivered as a promising young prospect who could flourish in coach Brad Underwood's high-octane, guard-friendly offense.

The promise didn't last. 

Trent Frazier opted to return for a fifth year at Illinois, Alfonso Plummer joined the team as a transfer, and both Jacob Grandison and Andre Curbelo ran it back, too. Room for Podz was hard to find. He appeared in 16 games and played a total of 69 minutes that year before again being told he was not good enough.

"Coach Underwood kind of just made it known that I wasn't good enough to play, so I was like, I don't want to risk being 20 and not being able to play," he said.

Podziemski entered the transfer portal and found a fit and a home at Santa Clara. 

To say the rest is history is to suggest that Podz's destination was the journey to get to this point. Far from it. After winning Co-WCC Player of the Year honors as a sophomore while averaging 19.9 points per game and shooting 44% from 3, he is entering rarefied air as a potential top 20 NBA Draft pick from Santa Clara, which only Jalen Williams (2022) and Steve Nash (1998) have accomplished. Williams was a massive pre-draft riser who went on to be a lottery pick a year ago. Podziemski's stock hasn't soared to that extreme, but in many ways his two-month lead-up to the draft is following a similar track to Williams. He is one of the few who received a green room invite to attend the draft in person in New York, along with his family, on Thursday, indicating he could be selected inside the first round.

The elder Podziemski harkens back to where all of this started. 

"I can remember driving back from playing baseball before his eighth grade year, and he said, "Dad, I promise you, if you let me play basketball, I will make you so proud,'" he remembers. "And believe me, he has lived up to every ounce of it. And we've never looked back."

Podziemski is now hundreds of miles away from where his basketball journey began, both literally and figuratively, on a path that has had twists and turns thrown at him like a cruel obstacle course. He has navigated it with grace and executed it in style. And in the city that never sleeps, it's fitting Podziemski's wildest dreams -- of being drafted into the NBA -- are soon to come true.