When a player goes undrafted and heads overseas to begin his NBA career, it's often difficult to get back. Simply put, there are more NBA-caliber players than there are jobs in the league, and "being there" is often a pre-requisite for getting one of those gigs. That especially applies to the point guards, a ubiquitous position in the NBA that is littered with high-end talent.
Those were the odds facing former SEC Player of the Year and collegiate All-American Scottie Wilbekin this offseason after the young point guard went undrafted in 2014 and ended up playing in Australia and Greece. However, he beat those odds this summer by earning his way to a partially guaranteed deal for this year with the 76ers, an organization where he will have a very legitimate chance at not only making the roster, but also earning minutes.
"My mindset was just to get better, honestly," Wilbekin told CBSSports.com about what happened to him after he went undrafted. "I knew I was going to be playing basketball somewhere, so wherever that was going to be I just wanted to get better and come back to Summer League and just be ready."
To say that he came back ready would be an understatement. He was excellent both in Orlando for the Magic and in Las Vegas for Philadelphia. Particularly in the desert, he averaged 14.4 points, two assists and 1.6 steals per game for the Sixers, and was typically the best overall player on the floor for them.
His game has grown tremendously in the 16 months since he last suited up for the Florida Gators in 2014 by living the life of a basketball nomad. First, Wilbekin went over to Australia and played for the Cairns Taipans in the NBL. More and more, Australia is becoming a very attractive route for players to take, as the length of the season allows them to get a second contract somewhere else later in the season. Cairns won the league's regular-season title before losing in the grand final, and Wilbekin averaged 15.2 points and 4.3 assists per game on his way to being named the team's defensive MVP as well as to the First-Team All-League.
"Everybody wants to go to Australia," Wilbekin said with a quick laugh. "When I was over there, Coach [Aaron] Fearns really helped me mature as a player and as a professional, and I think that's just the main thing. I got another year under my belt playing professionally, and saw different things."
Wilbekin then headed to Greece, where he played for AEK Athens starting in March, where he again played solid hoops, averaging eight points and four assists in 27 minutes per game on a team that finished top-five in the league.
"It was a big difference," Wilbekin told me when comparing the two situations. "The style of play was a little bit different. It was more physical in Greece, and there was better competition. Not by a huge margin, but it was better. There were more NBA guys."
So how did this winner fall through the cracks and not get drafted in 2014 after he shot 39 percent from 3 in his final three seasons, played terrific defense and led his team to at least the Elite Eight in each of the two seasons he was at the helm? One reason was simply the absurdity of the pre-draft process.
Wilbekin got to college as a 17-year-old after graduating high school in three years. Still just a bit immature, Wilbekin ran into some trouble. He was twice suspended for a total of eight games -- there was nothing major behind the suspensions, such as legal problems or anything -- and was given an ultimatum from coach Billy Donovan about whether he wanted to stay with the program. Wilbekin decided to stay, and he led the Gators to two excellent years while rehabilitating his image. Still, the connotation stuck, and Wilbekin was harmed because of it.
"I think it was just the suspensions in college," Wilbekin said about why his image was so poorly construed. "Even though Coach Donovan tried to let the world know that I'm not a bad person or didn't have character flaws, the label still kind of gets placed on you when that happens. Ever since then, I've just been trying to repair that."
However, that immaturity and youth that plagued him back then could come back and help him now. Unlike most collegiate seniors, Wilbekin still has some upside left. In fact, he's younger than quite a few players who were drafted this year despite being a college graduate himself, such as Jerian Grant, Delon Wright, Rakeem Christmas, Branden Dawson, Cady Lalanne, Sir'Dominic Pointer, Aaron White, Marcus Thornton, Joseph Young and Olivier Hanlan.
So now he'll head to the NBA to join those players as well as join a derby for the point guard position with the Philadelphia 76ers, who signed him to the type of four-year deal that has drawn the ire of some within the NBA. Basically, Wilbekin is at the mercy of the 76ers for the next four years or until they decide to part with him. For his part, Wilbekin -- and most players I've asked about the 76ers contract practices recently -- has no problem with that potential contract.
"As far as me limiting myself and my potential in the future, I'll worry about that when I get there," Wilbekin said. "I'm lucky to have this opportunity, so I don't really think about it in terms of short-term vs. long-term."
His utmost concern right now is simply making the team, where he'll be competing with T.J. McConnell, Isaiah Canaan, Pierre Jackson, and Tony Wroten (who will likely be limited to start the year due to injury). There are a lot of bodies there to potentially make it harder to make the team, but there's also a lot of mediocrity there that could open up some playing time if he's able to make the team.
"I think it's going to be a healthy competition for all of us," Wilbekin said. "It's going to be a fun training camp. I know what I'm good at, and that's just knocking down shots, playing good defense, and playing hard."
That hard work has finally got him a shot in the NBA a year after going undrafted. Now we get to see if he can make the most of it.