How Gonzaga’s Drew Timme made the call to turn down the NBA, return to school

How Gonzaga’s Drew Timme made the call to turn down the NBA, return to school

Drew Timme meandered in from the game room, where he’d spent a few hours playing mindless video games with his brother. He found his parents sitting on the sofa in the family room. With all of the fanfare that one might request a glass of milk, Timme said, “I think I’m going to go back.” His mother, Megan, returned his nonchalance with his own. “Are you sure?” When he assured her he was, she told him to call his coach, then his agent and figure out how he wanted to share his decision on social media. Timme made the calls, pulled out his phone and, at 11:14 pm, 46 minutes before the June 13 deadline, typed, “I’m back,” on his Twitter account.

“And then he went back in the game room and played FIFA,” Megan says.

The chill is vintage Timme. But don’t let the casualness fool you. Timme did not come to his decision to return to Gonzaga easily, taking it up to the very edge of the deadline not because he wanted to be a diva but because, “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. It was that hard.” (His mother will tell you that he also stinks at making decisions. “The kid you give $20 to in the toy store. Two hours later, ‘Please pick a toy.’ So painful.”) He also made the very big decision about his own future amid the very new backdrop of college sports, asked to weigh his basketball abilities alongside his collegiate marketability. NIL is a game changer, not just in luring athletes to colleges, but in keeping them there longer than what might otherwise have been their shelf lives. “I’m not sure I would come back without it per se,” he says. “It definitely made coming back more attractive.” In the future there will be far more Drew Timmes than Chet Holmgrens, players whose draft statuses are more ambiguous than certain, and who will double back to campus to capitalize on their appeal.

But it is not a clean either/or scenario, and navigating NIL is not as simple as signing a name to a contract. It’s all complicated, the decision to stay or go still a life-changing one, and NIL filled with nuances that no college kid can anticipate. That makes Timme a rather interesting case study. Not a how-to guide, necessarily. No one in the Timme household would be so presumptuous as to say they now have all of, or even most of, the answers. More a really good reality check on what it’s like for a college basketball player to suddenly find himself on the precipice of becoming a true professional or, a hybrid — a new college basketball-playing businessman. “It was uh, definitely funky,” Megan Timme says. “Good and bad, we’ve learned a lot.”

Twenty-six years ago, Jermaine O’Neal declared for the NBA as a 17-year-old high school senior, chased by more critics than fans who were convinced that, with his thin frame and age (he was the youngest player in draft history at the time), he’d never survive. He didn’t have much of a choice. That year, the NCAA moved to a sliding scale for eligibility, and O’Neal’s SAT score required a grade point average he simply couldn’t achieve. Besides, the money was too good to pass up, and there was no recourse to make money in college. Portland selected O’Neal with the 17th pick, but the Trail Blazers shoved the big man behind Rasheed Wallace, Arvydas Sabonis and Clifford Robinson. After just 18 starts in four years, O’Neal was shipped to Indiana. By his second year with the Pacers, he earned NBA Most Improved Player, the start to a career that would see him selected six times as an All-Star, and pocket some $100 million in his time with Indiana (and $167 million in career earnings ).

He considers himself fortunate, if not downright wounded, to have avoided the pratfalls that might have come to a wide-eyed teenager thrown into the deep end. He knows others aren’t so lucky. “Everybody knows what it looks like when everyone is hugging and kissing on you, and applauding you, but the biggest thing is when they’re not,” he says. “What does it look like when the phone calls stop? When the hugs and kisses are not so frequent? I’ve seen that happen to guys.” Two years ago, his playing days long behind him, he read the landscape and realized that, with NIL, while athletes seemed poised to finally assert their independence, they were, in a lot of ways as vulnerable — if not more so — to expensive mistakes and bad decisions as he was more than two decades ago. “These kids standing outside a restaurant holding a chicken sandwich call it a partnership deal,” he says. ‘That’s not a partnership deal. People are out there chasing money. What’s it doing for you long term?” He partnered with NBA buddy Tracy McGrady to form Seven1 Sports and Entertainment Group, a soup-to-nuts agency that covers everything from contract negotiation to social media savvy.

Timme was among his first clients, an easy marriage on both sides. In high school, Timme played for O’Neal’s Dallas-based Drive Nation travel team. Both sides knew how the other operated and easily slide into a perfectly orchestrated, symbiotic relationship, with Megan — “my kick-ass mom,” as Timme calls her — as the liaison between her college son and the professionals who guide him. Together they’ve formed a sort of Team Timme, but the CEO of Team Timme is a 21-year-old who is still anxiously awaiting the new Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II to drop. “It was hard for him to understand that he had to direct all of these grown men with experience to do what he wanted; that they worked for him,” Megan says. “That’s just weird. He’s been in a space his whole life where he respects adults, and Jermaine and Tracy, they’re not just ordinary adults. They’re NBA All-Stars. But he had to realize this was his life. We could guide him, but he had to make the decisions.”

And they were really big decisions — even before the NBA Draft decision compounded all of it. O’Neal figures he fielded more than 50 offers for the Timmes to consider. Megan made her son read every contract and consider every offer, requiring ownership to the partnerships they created. They forced him to consider time commitments. Having a podcast may sound like fun, but producing and finding guests for a podcast is a lot of work. Is it better to constantly produce content on Instagram or spend one day shooting a commercial? “Not all money is good money,” says Megan, parroting a favorite Seven1 saying. They keyed in on deals that felt authentic instead (a series of commercials with Northern Quest Resort & Casino took more takes than Timme cares to count, but merit a Google search and wouldn’t leave him embarrassed 10 years down the line).

Together they also figured out how to navigate the trickier waters of Gonzaga’s collective, Friends of Spike. They made sure that even the collective, set up to benefit all Zag student-athletes, did not ink deals that included Timme without Timme’s final stamp of approval.

Most importantly, they walked the still fuzzy fine line of NCAA standards, making sure the coaching staff was learned without breaking NCAA rules by involving the coaches directly. “The reality is, the more simplicity and transparency there is, the easier it is for everybody, but we’re not there yet,” Megan says. “Gonzaga is so good about following the rules, that we weren’t even going to touch our toe to that line. But as a parent, I don’t know where those lines are, and when you can’t talk to the coaches without crossing it, it makes it really difficult. These are the people you trust the most on campus. That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Yet even as he helped him sign deals with Boost Mobile and Dallas Shave Club, O’Neal regularly cautioned Timme about the singular most important thing: his basketball. “These athletes have to make sure they don’t steep across dollars to get to pennies,” he says. “What I mean by that is, you have to understand where your value is. Don’t devalue yourself to get a few dollars in your pocket. Ultimately the big picture is life-changing, bloodline-changing money. The NIL is a quick fix. You have to stay locked in.” Underscoring that message, when Timme called for this story, he’d just left the gym. Asked how many hours he’s spending there in the preseason, he laughed. “Always?” he said.

Timme worked out for Golden State two days before the draft withdrawal deadline. He came back to his family’s home in Texas, hoping to disconnect a little bit. He was exhausted mentally. Told his family not to talk to him about any of it. Let him queue up the Xbox with his brother, Walker. Maybe, he thought, if he stopped thinking about a decision, he’d be able to make one.

They’d already talked it through ad nauseam — the chance to be a pro versus the realities of being a pro. What would happen, Megan cautioned, when everyone else went home to their wives and families? Are you ready to transition fully from something you’ve always done for joy to something you have to do for work?

The tussle was simple: He dreamed of being in the NBA, but he loved college basketball. He believed he would be drafted, but he didn’t know if he could improve his position with one more year in college. O’Neal, even his own mother, stayed out of it. This was his CEO moment, his decision. The only thing O’Neal reminded him was that “the NBA cares about product and outcome. What do you represent as far as a return?” Timme thought about that, about the pennies on the dollar. He could cash in on NIL money, have a lousy year and ruin everything. The NBA had things they wanted him to improve on — guarding the ball on switches, stretching the floor and knocking down 3s even more than he did at the combine (he sunk five in two days) — and if he came back to Gonzaga, he knew he’d have to actually improve on them. But if he left, would those weaknesses hold him back?

There was no moment of clarity, no words of wisdom. Even the return of his teammates, Rasir Bolton and Julian Strawther, didn’t nudge him. He just sat in the game room, playing FIFA, thinking without admitting he was thinking. Ultimately he decided that there was more he could show the NBA and that it would be easier to work on his game, to improve, while in the teaching world of college, instead of the doing world of the NBA.

He watched the draft resolve that he could have been selected, but without a hint of remorse. “I know I made the right decision for me,” he says. “I don’t regret it one bit.”

So Timme is back, and in some ways, bigger than ever. Already a two-time All-American, he has spent 30 of the 69 weeks of his college career ranked No. 1 in the nation. He could very well start there again, a run of excellence that, partnered with Gonzaga’s still unredeemed quest to win a national title, makes for a nice little storyline. He’s also among a host of returning big men—Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, the 2021 national player of the year; North Carolina’s Armando Bacot; Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson; Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis — that gives a thematic flavor to the season. All nice, marketable nuggets for a player who, with his Drew Manchu and happy-go-lucky energy, already is very marketable.

But if Timme could share one piece of advice for the people who will maneuver the same path in the future, it is this: don’t let the money, or the potential for it, distract you. If you’re good, it will always be there. “Everyone says college is the best years of your life, right?” he says. “I know I’m living my best life up here. The one thing I learned from all of this is, first and foremost, you have to do what makes you happy without the money. I love Gonzaga. This makes me happy.”

(Top photo: Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)


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