On his right wrist, Terrance Ferguson wears a band featuring the phrase LOW LIFE with a red balloon printed across it. Above the band, there's a tattoo featuring the same balloon, rising along his forearm to the same phrase.
Ferguson isn't making a statement about his character. For him, "low life" is an acronym, standing for "Lack Of Worries, Living In Fearless Efforts." And the balloon? It symbolizes letting go of all of the negativity in your life.
The same attitude led Ferguson, a prospect in the upcoming NBA Draft, to take the road less traveled last summer: instead of attending the University of Arizona, the bouncy, 6-foot-7 forward turned pro out of high school and signed a contract to play in Australia for the Adelaide 36ers.
In doing so, Ferguson followed in the footsteps of current NBA point guards Brandon Jennings and Emmanuel Mudiay—the former went to Italy and played with Lottomatica Roma in 2008, while the latter played in China in 2015.
Ferguson and Mudiay are close. They both grew up in Dallas, and played together at Prime Prep. When Ferguson decided to turn pro last summer following a MVP performance at the Nike Hoop Summit in April of 2016—unlike Jennings and Mudiay, his grades weren't a potential issue; he simply wanted to financially support his family—he knew it was doable.
He also had a better idea of what kind of environment would work for him.
"I considered China," Ferguson said at the NBA Draft Combine. "But I knew the language barrier was going to kill me. So Australia was perfect for me."
Looking back, Ferguson says he has no regrets about his time abroad. He ate meat pies (liked them), had an experience with vegemite ("if you put too much on, it'll ruin your day"), and went to see an Australian football match ("they tried to explain it to me and I was just sitting there wondering 'when can I leave?'") He loved the beach, and had his mother accompany him for support.
Best of all, Ferguson said, the experience forced him to mature more quickly off the court.
"(The most important things) were just learning the basics of being a professional," he said. "The recovery, taking care of your body, the food you put in, and taking care of your money."
While Jennings and Mudiay were lottery selections, Ferguson's NBA Draft stock is iffier. A number of league executives at the draft combine told VICE Sports that they didn't think Ferguson was worth a first-round pick, even in a wing-starved league desperate for the 3-and-D archetype he embodies.
In Australia, Ferguson looked the part: he was a low usage, catch-and-shoot perimeter defender who couldn't really handle the ball or get all the way to the rim. He says he's comfortable with that role, and can fit on any NBA team due to his ability to shoot and defend.
Question is, how well can he do either? In high school, Ferguson made his name on long-range shooting, and it ought to be his most transferable skill. But in Australia, he connected on just 31.3 percent of his three-point attempts, and posted a relatively low 50.0 effective field goal percentage on catch-and-shoot jumpers—a number that placed him in the 35th percentile of NBL players who took at least 40 attempts. Ferguson's shooting off the dribble was even worse, as his 30.0 effective field goal percentage placed him the 17th percentile.
When you watch tape, it's easy to see why Ferguson's jumper is so tantalizing—and also somewhat unreliable. He has tremendous touch, and gets great elevation. However, he has a small hitch at the top of his shooting motion that often flattens out the arc of his shot. And he tends to put himself in positions where's he's off-balance—either due to loose footwork before catching a pass, or indecision afterward—which in turn causes him to miss left-to-right as he tries to compensate.
When Ferguson is balanced, his shot is pure. When he's not, things get dicey. His flaws are eminently fixable, but they may make him unplayable early in his NBA career. The same applies to his defense. Ferguson has intriguing tools: his quick feet allow him to cut off penetration and stay in front of opponents, and his effort level is uncommonly high for a player his age.
On the other hand, Ferguson's frame is quite narrow, and he doesn't look like he'll fill out a whole lot: he weighed just 184 pounds at the combine, only a pound heavier than he did in the summer of 2015. He has good height for a wing, but his under 6-foot-9 wingspan is unremarkable. He projects as a defender who can switch on the perimeter but will get pushed around in the post, something that isn't ideal in modern NBA schemes.
It's hard to tell how good Ferguson could be based on his performance for Adelaide. He averaged 4.6 points and shot 38 percent from the field in just 15 minutes per game, and checked few other statistical boxes. His combined assist and defensive rebounding rates barely exceeded 10—one of the lowest marks for a wing prospect that I've ever seen.
That said, Ferguson is only 19 years old. He has plenty of room for growth, especially if he's drafted by a team that's willing to put him in the D-League. Three-and-D wings are a coveted commodity, and Ferguson is better than plenty have been at the same age. He also has the right mindset about what is role will be. If he can make his jumper more consistent, gain a better understanding of defensive principles, and become an adequate passer, he will be able to provide NBA value.
Ferguson could still end up as a first-round pick. To stick in the league, however, he'll have to show more—and do more—than he managed in Australia. Was going overseas the right move? Ferguson said that a few high school players have reached out to him, asking about his experience. He's happy with his choice, and believes it will benefit him in the long run—so much so that he thinks other players should follow the same route, provided they have the right mindset.
"I definitely would [go pro again]," Ferguson said. "When you go to college, some people actually [want to] go to school. But if you want to be a ballplayer, and just focus on basketball, school's definitely going to weigh you down most days. I definitely would advise it for them. I understood that about myself."
Skipping the established NCAA-to-NBA pipeline is risky. At the combine, Ferguson acknowledged that he could be selected anywhere in the draft; we won't know for years whether playing in Australia was savvy, self-sabotaging, or somewhere in between. For now, Ferguson insists, he's not worried. No negativity. No doubts. He has let those go, like the balloon tattooed on his arm.