College basketball isn’t for everyone.
Talented high school prospect Phillip Wheeler first had that thought at the beginning of the summer — prior to R.J. Hampton announcing that he had signed a contract with the New Zealand Breakers instead of choosing to play collegiately in America.
But when Wheeler first approached his mother, Marissa, with the idea of bypassing his senior year of high school to play overseas, she brushed the proposal off.
Sure, her 6-foot-7, 190-pound rising senior is talented enough to earn a spot on the Puerto Rican Under-19 National Team and gather interest from Big East programs, but he played in the shadows of both Scottie Lewis (Florida) and Bryan Antoine (Villanova) at Ranney School in New Jersey, isn’t on any top 100 lists and is considered by many college coaches to be an academic risk due to eligibility issues.
Wheeler continued to press his parents, even putting together a full-fledged presentation in hopes of persuading them to allow him to play his senior season of high school in another country.
Two months later, the 17-year-old Wheeler — who turns 18 on April 23 — inked a three-year contract to play at the Stella Azzurra Basketball Academy in Rome, Italy. He’ll finish up high school this year at the academy in Rome and then focus solely on basketball for the final two years.
“It’s a high-level academy, and is one of the best development programs you can find overseas,” said overseas agent Mario Scotti, who will represent Wheeler.
“Kids study and work on their game all day and the goals are clear: Turn a kid into a man, turn a player into a pro. This opportunity is perfect for Phillip. He’ll be able to work on his game in an environment where the main goal is to create players, and not necessarily win games. It’s the opposite of college basketball in a way. The NBA is the ultimate aspiration for Phillip, and with him and his family we thought this is his path to get there.”
College hoops wasn’t the right path for Wheeler due to a combination of reasons, including the fact that Wheeler has struggled with anxiety, depression and ADHD.
He was previously placed into the Individualized Education Program (IEP) at Ranney, which is developed for public school kids who are in need of special education, but wasn’t given the help that he needed to succeed during his first two years of high school at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High and at Ranney, according to Wheeler’s mother.
Marissa Wheeler told Stadium that she was confident her son could have qualified to play Division 1 college basketball, and another college coach agreed that Wheeler could have been cleared if he had had a strong senior year academically.
But Wheeler struggles in the classroom and, admittedly, doesn’t love school.
“Academics definitely played a part in my decision,” Wheeler said. “And now I won’t have as many distractions. This is all about development. I want to improve on the court, and I feel like this is the best way for me to do that.”
Marissa Wheeler won’t lie. She’s nervous about her son moving to Italy by himself, but Phillip made a strong case for basketball overseas, and she won’t stand in the way of his dreams.
“The NBA is something he has talked about since he was three. That’s his dream,” she said. “Now he wants this so bad. He’s so passionate about it, and I think it will help him both on and off the court.
“But it still hasn’t really hit me,” she added. “To me, he’s still my little boy.”
Her boy also happens to be the prototype “high-upside” player on the hardwood.
His giant frame and impressive athleticism would have resulted in offers from multiple A-10 programs and legitimate interest from some Big East schools.
“He’s a fringe Big East player,” one college basketball coach told me. “He’s a terrific athlete, but he needs to work on his skill level. His shooting, his handle. But he has a high ceiling.”
Former Louisville star Taquan Dean, who changed his name to Taqwa Pinero, has been playing overseas for the past 14 years after leaving Louisville with his degree. He also hails from the same area of New Jersey as Wheeler, and their fathers were teammates back in high school, which led to Pinero putting Wheeler in touch with his agent, Scotti, after hearing his story.
“I loved college,” Pinero said. “It was the best time of my life, but it’s not for everyone.
“Some kids just aren’t built for school. That doesn’t mean they are bad kids. I think going overseas will give Phil the best chance to succeed. I don’t want him to be a statistic. I’ve seen the way they develop players over there for the last 14 years.”