Transferring to Power 5 schools is a path to the pros for HBCU basketball players
Plus the benefit of different social and athletic experiences at different universities
On Thursday night, the NBA draft in New York City will be highlighted by top-name talent from some of the most historically dominant athletic programs in the country.
DeAndre Ayton from the University of Arizona, Marvin Bagley III from Duke and Trae Young from Oklahoma, among others, will likely be among the top 10 players selected in the draft. While these players exhibit extraordinary talent, they also played at Power 5 conference schools that were vital in raising their draft stock.
That’s a platform that many players at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) aspire to and dream of. Some HBCU players have already taken matters into their own hands by leaving their squads and becoming contributors at bigger schools.
NCAA eligibility rules allow players with bachelor’s degrees to compete as graduate students at a different Division I school as long as they meet certain criteria. These players are known as grad transfers, and some HBCU basketball stars have taken advantage of them. They do so to pursue professional basketball careers and further their academic careers on a larger stage.
Besides the grad transfer rule, the NCAA committee recently incorporated a new transfer rule that will give Division I student-athletes the ability to transfer to different schools and receive a scholarship without asking their current school for permission. The new rule that is set to be implemented on Oct. 15 states that the athlete would have the ability to notify the school of the wish to transfer and then requires the current school to enter the athlete’s name into a national transfer database that allows other coaches to contact that individual.
Not many Power 5 conference athletes can say they’ve experienced a “GHOE” (North Carolina A&T’s self-proclaimed Greatest Homecoming on Earth) or been on The Yard during one of Howard’s lit homecomings, but for these grad transfers life is a little different. These HBCU basketball standouts are looking to get their culture and their paycheck.
Femi Olujobi just finished his last season at North Carolina A&T averaging 16.3 points and 7.7 rebounds per game while shooting 53 percent from the field. The 6-foot-8 forward will leave North Carolina A&T to join the DePaul Blue Demons next season in the Big East Conference.
“I want to play in the NBA, and I feel like just being here [at DePaul], I know what I have to do because there are no days off,” said Olujobi. “At times at A&T, I could not put my best foot forward and still get away with it. That’s not going to happen here. This is the Big East. This is Big Boy Basketball.“
Olujobi is not alone in this sentiment. Other players such as Sam Hunt and James Daniel III, who have been in the same position as Olujobi, have also commented that changing conferences provides an opportunity to play against better competition that is not present in the smaller HBCU conferences, such as the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
They might have a point.
In 2018, both of these conferences received only one bid into the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Yet, bigger conferences such as the Big East, ACC and SEC each received six or more bids into the big dance.
Hunt, another former North Carolina A&T basketball standout, left the Aggies to finish his career as a grad transfer for North Carolina State. He says that there are significant differences between Power 5 athletes and HBCU athletes.
“The athleticism, the speed, the strength and just how hard they work … everybody on the [Power 5] team wants to be a pro. We all have aspirations of playing at the next level and being paid to do what we love. That’s one thing that kind of separates it from an HBCU,“ said Hunt.
“Every game you are playing against two or three NBA players. You are going against lottery picks like Marvin Bagley III and Gary Trent Jr., who will probably be a first-rounder. Every day it’s a battle. You can’t take a day off, even in practice,” said Hunt.
Others also point to a difference in hype surrounding Power 5 and HBCU teams. Daniel, who at one time led the NCAA in scoring at Howard University, recently finished his career as a grad transfer for the University of Tennessee. He said exposure is one of the biggest reasons that athletes are electing to leave their respective HBCUs.
“At the Power 5 level, you just have more exposure. You are on TV. You are in front of cameras, and your name is just out there so much more,” said Daniel. “At the Power 5 level, it’s a different experience.”
Olujobi and Hunt agreed that grad transfers from HBCUs can expect new social experiences at Power 5 schools as well.
“It’s a big difference from A&T. It’s like you enjoy the community love and you enjoy being around African-Americans. It’s kind of like a family feeling,” said Hunt. “You are just having a good time with your people. The slang is the same, you can kind of joke the same, and it’s a big difference. … Some of those classmates that I had I will never forget. “
Olujobi echoed Hunt and described the decision to attend DePaul as strictly business-related.
“From the experiences that have happened at an HBCU, [DePaul] is not going to amount to that. That is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,“ said Olujobi.
Hunt mentioned that some of his teammates at N.C. State wanted a taste of the HBCU experience. He said many players asked him to take them down to N.C. A&T for the weekend so they can “see how it is.”
“I’ve been there for four years and I have seen it. It’s nothing new to me, but they kind of miss that side of the world because they are used to being at a PWI [predominantly white institution],” said Hunt.
Although he’s satisfied with his decision to leave North Carolina A&T, Hunt is still adjusting to the life of a Power 5 conference athlete.
“At N.C. State, they are more of fans. We think we are regular people, but to them, we are like superstars. I never got used to it; I’m still not used to it,” remarked Hunt. “Like when people ask me for my autograph or ask to take a picture with me … I’m like, I’m just Sam. Why do you want my picture?“
Daniel has also had to grow accustomed to the social dynamic that came with attending Tennessee.
“You have to be one with the people. In Knoxville, everyone knows who you are, especially if you play sports. I wouldn’t say you are a celebrity, but people do admire you,” said Daniel. “More so at Howard, with it being an academic school, and a smaller school, and in the city, you don’t necessarily have that target on you at all times.”
While HBCUs and Power 5 PWIs typically offer unique athletic and social experiences, Olujobi, Daniel and Hunt agreed that both types of schools provide benefits to their students. They’d advise athletes like themselves to select the school that works best for them.
“I can split it both ways,” said Hunt.” If I’m going to school for academics, I would easily say A&T. It’s a different feeling over there, and I will always be connected with them because it is more of a family feeling. But as far as basketball and athletics is concerned, because of the resources that N.C. State has, I would prefer that level of basketball.”
Daniel and Hunt have been working out feverishly in expectation of the draft and hope that they will be given an opportunity by an NBA team. Olujobi is preparing for competition in the Big East that could substantially raise his draft stock for next year.
There are only two players from HBCUs who are currently on an NBA roster (Kyle O’Quinn of the New York Knicks and Robert Covington from the Philadelphia 76ers). To put into perspective how small that number is, the Phoenix Suns had the worst record in the NBA last season (21-61) and they had 10 players who attended Power 5 schools.
“You have to follow your heart; everybody has different paths. From what I’ve been told from scouts, you can make pro from an [HBCU],“ said Olujobi. “But at the end of the day, you have to do what’s best for you because at the end of the day, you are the one that has to live with your future. You don’t want to be looking back on the past thinking about what could have been. “