Hammonds living dream as pro basketball player

Leyton Hammonds

Leyton Hammonds celebrates with fans after a game against Oklahoma.

As Leyton Hammonds navigated around a Helsinki airport, he was glad the signs had pictures.

Hammonds, a former Oklahoma State basketball player, was out of the United States for the first time. As he found his way to the baggage claim, Hammonds grabbed his suitcases filled with basketball shoes, his PlayStation, every hoodie and jacket he owned, and other necessities for his eight-month stay in Finland as a member of BC Nokia, a basketball team that plays in Finland’s Korisliiga.

About nine hours earlier, Hammonds boarded a plane in Chicago and thought to himself: “OK, this is the real deal. You’re really doing this.”

Only 1.1 percent of the 18,684 NCAA men’s basketball players make it to the NBA, according to the NCAA. That percentage jumps to 19.1 for men’s basketball players who play professionally, meaning 18 percent of NCAA basketball players find opportunities outside of the NBA to continue their athletic careers.

Four Cowboys from this past season’s team could be searching for opportunities to continue their basketball careers. Jeffrey Carroll and Kendall Smith were each seniors this past season, and Tavarius Shine and Yankuba Sima announced they will forgo their remaining eligibility for a chance to play pro ball.

It isn’t likely all four will have a chance to initially play in the NBA, leaving the NBA’s developmental G League and playing overseas as options.

“You gotta ask yourself if you’re doing it for the right reasons,” Hammonds said. “If you’re doing it for money, and that’s the sole purpose of it, then I say you shouldn’t do it. It’s not about the money out here, it should be about just loving the game. 

“The second-most important thing is keep an open mind. If you come out here and are like, ‘I’m not gonna eat any of the food, I’m just gonna eat a burger every day,’ then you’re gonna be miserable. If you’re close-minded, it’s gonna be hard for you. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it but at least give it a chance.”

Hammonds is doing well with BC Nokia, averaging 14 points and seven rebounds a game in his first year of professional basketball.

Off the court, Hammonds said overseas basketball involves a lot of alone time because, unlike in college, not everyone has the same daily schedules. Some players have other jobs or families.

Before deciding to play overseas, Hammonds asked former OSU player Le’Bryan Nash, who has played in Japan, Mexico and South Korea, for advice.

“Le’Bryan was like, ‘Honestly, you’re just gonna play video games and watch Netflix, dog,’” Hammonds said. “‘You’re gonna play video games, watch Netflix and hoop.’”

Hammonds said he wasn’t the biggest explorer when he got to Finland, but rather than sitting in his room all day, he has embraced the Finnish culture. He said he loves the country’s seafood and he sometimes gets on the train and goes to explore new cities. Hammonds and his fiancée, Bailey Shurbet, who has visited Hammonds, went to see the Northern Lights.

When Hammonds is missing home, he's able to communicate with his friends on his PlayStation.

“That’s how I communicate with my friends back home is through the little microphone on my PlayStation,” Hammonds said. “It’s like being back in the room with all my boys again just talking trash. It’s like my news. I get to hear what’s going on back home and hear about new music. My news channel is my PlayStation.”

Carroll is one of those friends. After the 2016-17 season, Carroll explored possible NBA opportunities without signing an agent, making him eligible for his senior season.

Carroll’s numbers fell this season, but he said he wants to become a professional player.

“I'm not naïve,” Carroll said in March. “It’s going to be tough to make it. I don’t know where I even am on people’s draft boards. Just trusting in God’s plan. If that’s what it takes is going overseas to make money, then I’ll be a pro. In my book, I’d still be a pro.”

An NBA scout said this season hurt Carroll’s NBA Draft stock, but he could still be a second-round pick.

“The second round is always a crapshoot,” the scout said. “(This season) hurt (his draft stock), but his workouts could really help him. He didn’t have much talent around him.”

The scout said Carroll’s upside revolved around his athleticism and his shooting ability.

“He doesn’t use that athleticism as much as he could,” the scout said. “He needs to become a more consistent defender, and he needs to be able to create off the dribble. Right now, he is one-dimensional as a shooter. He needs to be able to do more that way on nights when his shot isn’t falling, he can contribute.”

Hammonds said he spoke with Carroll at the beginning of Carroll's senior season and told him the importance to enjoy his senior year.

“I just told him, ‘This is your senior year and at the end, you’re never gonna get to come back and put that jersey on again,’” Hammonds said. “‘Whatever it is, whatever worries you have, whatever goals you have, in the back of your mind remember that you’re gonna have fun.’ 

“Whatever happens with his professional basketball career, I just told him, ‘Don’t change. Always have that pride and that effort and that attitude.’ I think he’ll be fine. Wherever he plays next year, whether it’s the NBA or whatever, I think he’ll be a great player.”

Carroll averaged 15 points, a team-high, and six rebounds a game this season.

Hammonds said the overseas’ game is different from being in college. He said he has found that the game is more strategic and relies less on pure athleticism.

“Don’t get me wrong, you gotta think the game through, but I think a lot of (college) just had to do with physical ability and just talent level,” Hammonds said. “It’s not like, ‘OK, I’m gonna break my man down and go get a bucket,’ it’s ‘OK, this guy’s gonna help, this guy’s gonna do this and this guy’s gonna do that. He’s gonna take away my right hand and my jump shot, so what do I gotta do?’

“We got a guy on our team, he’s our center, and I could promise you, you couldn’t even slide a credit card under his shoes when he jumps, but he’s gonna get you 35 a night just because he knows the game well. It’s very different here.” 

Hammonds said it isn’t about the money, but the money is better than he expected. 

Hammonds signed with his agency, Inception Sports, shortly after his senior season. The agency put out his film and, last May, Hammonds signed with BC Nokia.

“If I was doing this for the money, I would just gone and done something else with my life instead of trying to play basketball overseas,” Hammonds said. “I still love to play the game, I’m still able to play the game and the pay is good, so I don’t see why I wouldn’t do it as long as my body is up for it and as long as I still feel the same way about the game as I do now. If I’m going to drag my fiancée all over the world for a sport, I better love it. 

“It’s exciting for me to think where I could end up next year, or in three or five years. All of the places that me and my wife will have been in this world will be pretty cool.”

Hammonds’ contract is for only this season, after which BC Nokia could re-sign him or he could continue his dream elsewhere.

“I’ve enjoyed my time here,” Hammonds said. “The basketball aspect has been great. This is something I’ve dreamed of doing, playing professional basketball. I never thought I was going to be in Finland playing, but at the same time, it’s competitive and this is what I live for.”

sports.ed@ocolly.com