Naasir Cunningham, the No. 1 basketball prospect in ESPN’s Class of 2024, is signing with Overtime Elite (OTE), he told ESPN on Monday.
“This is best place for me to develop as a player, while getting the right education to fall back on at the same time,” Cunningham said. “Overtime built a relationship with my family and I, which was a big factor in trusting them with my future. I want to be the best basketball player I can, an NBA draft lottery pick and hopefully one of the best in the league. Overtime is going to put me in position to become the best player I can.”
Cunningham is the highest-ranked recruit to sign with the upstart league and is considered a prospect with significant upside for the NBA ranks. He is 6-foot-7 with a 6-11 wingspan, impressive fluidity and dynamic perimeter shooting ability.
Cunningham will be the first player to forgo being paid a salary by OTE, which should preserve his eligibility to play college basketball after graduating from high school. He will still be eligible to make money off his name, image and likeness in high school, providing him with additional earning potential over the next two years without jeopardizing his amateur status.
“Being able to keep my eligibility for college was important as that gives me more options when I’m done with high school and ready to decide my next move,” Cunningham said. “At Overtime you still get the same academics as a regular high school, but not every school has the same equipment and facilities they do, which are top of the line, as well as the best trainers, coaching staff and other elite players. Competing against the best and working with the best there is, that’s what will help me reach my goals.”
Cunningham, from West Orange, New Jersey, has spent his first two years of high school at Gill St. Bernard. He broke out as the No. 1 player in his class at last summer’s Nike EYBL 16U division, where he averaged 15.4 points and 5.8 rebounds in 28 minutes per game for the New York Rens. He reconfirmed that at the prestigious Hoophall Classic in Springfield in January, exploding for 23 points (5-for-7 from 3-point range), 11 rebounds and 3 assists in a win over 2022 No. 1 recruit Dereck Lively and Westtown School. Cunningham, 17, at 164 pounds, will have to add strength to his lanky frame.
Overtime, a sports media company which lists Jeff Bezos, Kevin Durant and Trae Young among its investors, announced the OTE initiative as an academy-style alternative pathway for elite 16- to 18-year-old prospects to prepare for the NBA draft just over a year ago. Its first season concluded in Atlanta in March, with projected 2023 top-10 pick Ausar Thompson being named MVP of its finals (over twin brother Amen, also a projected top-10 pick).
The venture initially offered players six-figure salaries, an educational component, state-of-the-art facilities and considerable resources in terms of coaching, front-office and support staffs as incentive to forgo their college eligibility. The organization will now also allow players a “scholarship” option and the ability to eschew a salary in order to not close the door on the NCAA route, which could be a game-changer for OTE’s recruiting efforts.
In 2024, Cunningham could elect to conduct his NBA draft-eligible gap year following high school with OTE, similar to what projected first-round pick Jean Montero did this year, as well as projected second-rounder Dominick Barlow. Or he may decide to enroll in college.
Cunningham said he has already received scholarship offers from the likes of Duke, Kansas, UCLA, LSU, Maryland, Texas Tech, Creighton, UConn, Rutgers, St. John’s and many others.
Tim Nevius, an attorney and former NCAA compliance officer and investigator who has been publicly named as an adviser for Overtime, helped craft the OTE scholarship to ensure it meets NCAA compliance rules. The company said it has communicated with the NCAA to share its plans and ensure it is following amateurism guidelines and will hire a full-time compliance staff member who will act as a liaison.
Overtime said it has previously signed NIL deals with high school and college players, such as UCLA’s Jada Williams, South Carolina’s Zia Cooke and Duke commit Jared McCain. And OTE scholarship players such as Cunningham will be eligible for NIL deals as well, including from other third-party companies. Overtime has a massive online following of 65 million followers on different social media platforms. Its main account has more followers on TikTok than the official NBA league account as well as all 30 NBA teams combined.
Cunningham said he has been in conversations with OTE for the past three months, especially with its director of scouting and recruiting, Tim Fuller, who played a major role in landing his signature.
“Our model from the beginning has been to empower players and families with options,” said Fuller, a former college assistant. “When we launched the program, it was by providing the opportunity to turn pro and get high-level development. Our player development model is the best in the country for players 19 years old and under. When we first started recruiting Cunningham, we didn’t have the scholarship option. Now it’s up to each family to evaluate what path they want to take. Having options made it easier to pull the trigger at an earlier age.”
After some back and forth, OTE was approved by the NBA last year as a permitted scouting platform for teams to send representatives to evaluate pro prospects. The league hosted several pro days, which were well attended, as well as a few dozen games at OTE’s arena in Atlanta. In Year 2, OTE is targeting games against junior colleges, European clubs, national teams and possibly the G League Ignite or NBA academies as potential scheduling opportunities, in addition to elite prep schools.
OTE is slated to return 21 of the 26 players from its inaugural recruiting class, with the rest matriculating out to the pro ranks after a postgraduate year. The league plans on having around 30 players next season on its three teams and will begin to unveil the rest of its signings in the near future.