As the NBA becomes more competitive and the shelf life of professional basketball players decreases, those wishing to extend their pro careers have started to seek their dreams elsewhere.
Three former Minnesota players will play professional basketball in Spain, Finland and France this season to give the European play and lifestyle a shot.
“There’s different rules,” said former Gophers forward Trevor Mbakwe. “You’re playing against more skilled and talented players on a daily basis, smarter players. They’re definitely smarter and play basketball a little better and the court’s a little more open.”
Mbakwe recently signed a contract with Unicaja CB, a team based out of Malaga, Andalusia, Spain, to play his fourth season of professional basketball. The Unicaja team plays partially within the Euroleague.
The growing Euroleague consists of 16 teams that represent nine different countries. The league is an option for many players out of college who may seek a different atmosphere than the NBA or do not make NBA rosters.
Mbakwe, a St. Paul native, played his first professional season in Italy. He made the transition to the Euroleague during the 2014-15 season, when he played with the Brose Baskets and won a German Championship.
Mbakwe played last season with Maccabi Tel Aviv in a three-year contract but left the team to join Unicaja.
Former Gophers guard Austin Hollins recently signed with the Korisliiga team Kauhajoki Karhu. The Korisliiga is the top basketball league in Finland and not part of the Euroleague.
Hollins played in the ProB French league last season, where he averaged 12.5 points per game. He enters his third year of professional basketball this season.
Andre Hollins, another former Minnesota guard, signed with the French team Chorale-de-Roanne-Basket in the ProB league for his second year of professional basketball. He played last season with the Leuven Bears out of the Basketball League Belgium.
“Andre is typically the combo I was looking for, able to play on the 2 positions in the back with the same efficiency,” said Laurent Pluvy, Chorale-de-Roanne-Basket’s trainer. “He is a young player with strong offensive potential, already accustomed to the responsibilities since it was one of the major strengths at the University of Minnesota where he shone, as well as Leuven in Belgium.”
All three alumni played for the Gophers during the 2012-13 season, the last for former head coach Tubby Smith, who coached and recruited the trio.
The three come from a more illustrious Gophers era. Minnesota has not made the NCAA tournament since the three were with Minnesota.
Mbakwe said his collegiate career and time at Minnesota prepared him well for the adjustment to European basketball.
“[College] definitely helped me mentally, and I motivated myself to get to this point in my career that I’m in right now,” he said.