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Australia Emerges as the New Front in the College Recruiting Wars

This all began in April, when Ferguson, a McDonald’s all-American, played in the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, Ore. After the game, he said, his mother, Rachelle Holdman, delivered some unexpected news: A representative from an Australian team wanted to meet with them over dinner.

At the time, neither Ferguson nor his mother knew that Australia even had a professional league. But over breadsticks at Olive Garden, Ferguson learned about the 36ers and about the potential benefits of spending a season, and earning a paycheck, overseas.

Since 2006, the N.B.A. draft rules have required players to be 19 and at least one year removed from high school. Those rules ended the era of stars like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Kevin Garnett — as well as a few notable busts — who bypassed college for the N.B.A. The age rule is unlikely to change when the league finalizes its new collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union.

Thus, the quandary for high-caliber players like Ferguson: a year of college or a season abroad? To some, the choice is simple.

“No businessman would sit out a year of earning,” said Joey Wright, the coach of the 36ers. “So why would a basketball player? The N.C.A.A. will preach the value of a college education. Well, if you want an education, go play in the N.B.A. and then study in the off-season. You can pay for it yourself.”

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Ferguson in Brooklyn in 2015. “Education is obviously important,” he said. “But what are you really getting out of it if you only go for one year?”

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Gregory Payan/Associated Press

As Ferguson mulled his decision, he reached out to Emmanuel Mudiay, a friend and former teammate who had opted to play in China before the Denver Nuggets made him the No. 7 overall selection in the 2015 draft. Ferguson said that Mudiay expressed some discomfort about his experience in China — most of it related to the language barrier.

“He had no one to talk to,” Ferguson said, “especially on his down days.”

That, in part, was why Australia had been so appealing to Ferguson — and why the National Basketball League could attract more young American players.

“He had more than just this opportunity to go overseas, but this was just the most logical because of the language and the culture not being so different,” said Holdman, who moved to Adelaide to be with her son until the season ends in February.

“It’s just so new that I think a lot of kids don’t know about this option,” she said. “But I’m already hearing from other parents.”

Mudiay’s decision to sign with the Guangdong Southern Tigers had stemmed partly from accreditation concerns related to his high school, Prime Prep Academy, the now-shuttered Dallas-area charter school founded by the former N.F.L. star Deion Sanders. Ferguson had also attended Prime Prep, but transferred to Advanced Preparatory International, another charter school in Dallas that has drawn similar scrutiny from the N.C.A.A.

Reports circulated in the spring that Ferguson’s eligibility at Arizona was in question, but Ferguson said he would have been able to play as a freshman. Holdman said that her son had largely been home-schooled and that he had taken only electives at Advanced Preparatory International, although it issued him a diploma.

In the end, none of that mattered. Ferguson did not seem to regret missing out on college, and he added his voice to a growing chorus of critics who see the N.C.A.A. as a bastion of obsolete concepts of amateurism.

“The schools make a lot from you,” Ferguson said. “The coaches make a lot from you. But you’re really getting nothing from it — just the basketball experience, the college experience. Education is obviously important. But what are you really getting out of it if you only go for one year?”

Ferguson’s agent, Happy Walters of Catalyst Sports and Media, said the one-and-done route made little sense for the handful of players each year who are skilled enough to make a quick transition to the N.B.A.

“If a kid can start making 500 grand at age 18, that’s a year that you can’t get back if you decide to go to school,” Walters said. “For Terrance, he’s practicing and developing and taking advantages of opportunities that he wouldn’t have otherwise gotten in college.”

Wright, the Adelaide coach, said Ferguson’s maturity had impressed him. He works hard. He does not complain.

Wright often summons Ferguson to the gym for late-night workouts. “And I know Terrance will show up,” he said.

Ferguson was averaging 7.3 points per game off the bench as of Friday. His production may sound modest, but his coaches have been pleased with his progress. He is, after all, playing against grown men, and the 36ers did not sign him with the expectation that he would dominate the league. Instead, they hoped that he would be a consistent contributor, create some buzz and cement Adelaide as a destination for other American players with similar goals.

“To have a guy like that here, our fans can always say that he was a 36er when he’s off playing in the N.B.A.,” Wright said. “That’s big for people here. It connects them to the N.B.A., and it’s important for our marketing. Our logo was on ESPN. That’s not going to happen very often.”

Wright said he had already been approached by rival teams wanting to know how the 36ers had landed Ferguson.

“I told them, ‘No, I ain’t doing that,” said Wright, a former player at the University of Texas. “They said, ‘What do you mean?’ And I was like, ‘We ain’t that close!’”

For the 36ers, signing a player like Ferguson became feasible only when the National Basketball League made a significant rule change ahead of this season, increasing the permitted number of foreign-born players, or “imports,” on each team from two to three.

In past seasons, Wright needed to know that his two imports could be effective players right from the start — seasoned professionals, in other words. It would have been too much to expect an 18-year-old, even one as talented as Ferguson, to step in and assume that sort of role.

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