COLUMBIA — This summer, three years after leaving the Missouri basketball program, Marcus Denmon is coming off his best professional season. He led his Turkish league team, Tofas, with 13.9 points per game and made the Turkish all-star game.
In turn, Tofas expressed interest in a long-term deal with Denmon. "I could find a three-year deal," Denmon said about playing in Europe. But he has turned down all offers so far.
"My first goal is to get back in the NBA," Denmon said.
Although he never played in the NBA, Denmon is keeping the NBA dream alive in spite of a European career that appears to be blossoming. No NBA teams have come calling for three-year deals. Not yet, anyway.
But the San Antonio Spurs also have a part in keeping Denmon's NBA dream afloat — this summer is his third in the NBA Summer League, all with the Spurs, the team that drafted him out of Missouri in 2012.
The Summer League appears to be Denmon's best shot at making it back into the NBA. There, he will play in front of NBA coaches and general managers among some of the world's best basketball talent. But the Summer League doesn't pay the bills. It isn't a place to develop or refine skills. That's where Denmon's time in Europe comes in — as it does for a number of Missouri alumni.
Only two former Missouri players had a significant role on an NBA team last season — DeMarre Carroll with the Atlanta Hawks and Phil Pressey with the Boston Celtics. Fellow former Tiger Kim English appeared in 41 games for the Detroit Pistons in 2012-13.
Meanwhile, seven Missouri players since 2011 played internationally during the 2013-14 season. Three of Denmon's teammates from the 2011-12 Missouri squad played overseas last season: Kim English in France, Matt Pressey in England and Ricardo Ratliffe in South Korea. In addition, Laurence Bowers played a full season in Israel, Keion Bell found playing time in Italy and Alex Oriakhi played eight games in Israel and France before moving to the NBA D-League.
Six former Missouri players are playing in one of the NBA Summer Leagues this July — Denmon, English and Oriakhi, along with Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown and Phil Pressey — but only Denmon and English have made the journey back to basketball in the U.S. after significant time overseas.
Clarkson and Brown both left Missouri after their junior season in 2014. Clarkson was a second-round draft pick by the Lakers, while Brown was unselected.
For Denmon, the Vegas Summer League could be his opportunity to make it to the NBA. "That's why I'm here," he said.
Like Denmon, Bowers said his goal is also to make it to the NBA. In his first professional season, with Hapoel Holon in Israel, Bowers started 31 of 33 games for Holon and scored 12.9 points per game, the second highest on the team. Still, Bowers didn't land on a Summer League team this year. His NBA dream is on life support.
"If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen," Bowers said. "I'm a realist; getting into the NBA is hard. I'm not going to get down on myself if it doesn't work out."
Missouri assistant coach Tim Fuller, who has been with the team since 2011, said a player's NBA fate isn't always determined by talent alone.
He mentioned Carroll, who just completed his seventh NBA season. The 2013-14 season was Carroll's most productive to date: 73 starts, an average of 32 minutes, 11.1 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, all career highs. Fuller said Carroll's abundance of energy and athleticism give him a unique skill set that fit within the Hawk's roster.
Fuller, a former Nike representative who worked around the NBA, estimates that 10 percent of American players who play in Europe ever come back to play in the NBA. The chances of making it back after playing in the NBA D-League are better, but at a cost.
According to Fuller, D-League salaries rarely break $25,000 or $30,000 per year. The salaries in Europe are much better: $75,000 for most players, depending on the country, said Fuller. Denmon said the disparity in salary prevented him from considering a spell in the D-League.
At the same time, the allure of the NBA prevents him from pursuing a stable career in Europe. He insisted on a one-year deal last offseason for the chance to play in this year's Summer League.
The most important thing for Bowers — and for the many Tigers playing professionally outside the U.S. — is a career in basketball.
"I don't think it's by choice," he said about his and his former Missouri teammates' European careers. "I guess for Mizzou, it just worked out that way.
"It's not a first priority, but we're all basketball players at the end of the day. If going to Europe is our opportunity to keep playing, that's what we're going to do."
If you'd like to see where MU Tigers are playing in the U.S. and abroad, check out the map below.
Supervising editor is Mark Selig.