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Jacobs: NC State’s Costner finds basketball life after college, even without NBA

By Barry Jacobs - correspondent
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Ethan Hyman - 2006 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO
Forward Brandon Costner drives to the basket against Virginia in his days as a member of the Wolfpack. Costner is currently playing in the Chinese Basketball League after spending three years with the Lakers’ affiliate in the NBA Development League.

There is basketball life after leaving college early and not being selected in the NBA draft, as Brandon Costner, the former N.C. State forward, can attest. But the road to the big-time also may be long and winding, as Costner has discovered. This month, five years after he decided to leave Raleigh, he begins play for Jiangsu Tongxi in the Chinese Basketball League, his aspirations to play in the NBA both unrequited and unabated.

“I don’t know what’s next,” the 6-9 lefty said by text as he traveled near Hefei, formerly Luchow, in eastern China. “Jiangsu Tongxi is an opportunity to play and be seen, as well as to make money.”

Similar, if loftier, dreams led 40 underclassmen from four-year colleges to declare for the 2014 NBA draft with eligibility remaining, down from more than 60 when Costner went in 2009. Approximately, one-sixth of this year’s early departures come from the ACC – Clemson’s K.J. McDaniels, Duke’s Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker, North Carolina’s James Michael McAdoo, N.C. State’s T.J. Warren, and Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant.

That doesn’t count UNC’s P.J. Hairston, who left school under a cloud and played in the NBA Development League, or Chane Behanan of Louisville, kicked off his team in December. Only the Pac-12 loses more front-rank talents this spring (eight) than the ACC. In all, 31 players burned eligibility to turn pro from the five major collegiate conferences. That talent drain is often cited by power conference coaches as a key to fostering parity in Division I basketball.

“The problem is the kid who actually discovers that things are less positive than they thought,” said Paul Haagan, the Duke law professor who for 25 years has led the Student-Athlete Counseling Committee that guides the school’s potential pro players. “There are a lot of people who are similar. You can’t say to a kid, you’re not getting drafted or you’re not an NBA player. A lot of these guys could be.”

Complicating the decision-making process, since 2012 undergrads declaring for the draft have little time to reconsider. Thanks to an NCAA rule spawned by ACC coaches, players have virtually no chance to test their prospects before deciding in mid-April whether to keep their names in the draft pool or return to school and retain their eligibility. Forget the workouts once a familiar part of the pre-draft landscape; college coaches want to minimize uncertainty and gain time to recruit replacement players.

So much for representing athletes’ best interests. “It’s a scandal,” Duke’s Haagan said.

Shaky chemistry

Costner said he “had no indication of being drafted” when he left N.C. State with a year of eligibility remaining. Still, he wasn’t interested in testing the market before taking the plunge. “I feel I and a few of my teammates were more than talented enough to be drafted,” Costner said. “But some circumstances may have prevented us from being more successful and giving us the best opportunity to be drafted. The NBA does not take these things into account, nor should it.”

The McDonald’s All-American from New Jersey was red-shirted as a freshman in 2005-06 with a stress fracture of his femur (thigh). During the summer of 2007, prior to his sophomore playing season, he incurred a knee injury that didn’t have time to heal properly. He largely kept the problem to himself.

J.J. Hickson, an outstanding forward, became an instant freshman starter in 2008 and took some of Costner’s playing time. Perhaps most significantly, Herb Sendek, the coach who recruited Costner, left after the 2006 season, to be replaced by Sidney Lowe.

Costner led Lowe’s first N.C. State squad in scoring (16.8 points per game), rebounding (7.3) and 3-point accuracy (.379), and formed a potent tandem with fellow forward Ben McCauley. At the 2007 ACC tournament at Tampa, Costner made the all-tournament squad after lifting the 10th-seeded Wolfpack to the finals with 90 combined points, a four-game record for the event. But Costner’s stats dipped in 2008, then improved markedly in 2009 once Hickson went pro.

There was much talk of shaky team chemistry. The poker-faced Costner, a popular target for criticism, admitted “when you’re an 18-year-old kid and constantly hearing you or your team is lazy, you or your team suck, crazy rumors, or you are constantly criticized, it doesn’t help anything.” Yet he insisted what he called at the time the “grumbling on campus” had little to do with his decision to leave.

“I would make the same decision every time if I could go back!” Costner said from China. “I had graduated. I felt as though my game, and as a player, I never really fit what Coach (Lowe) was looking for. I felt it was time to move on. I had given all I could to the school. It was ultimately my decision and something I needed to do for myself.”

On track to NBA

Like other recent ACC standouts – Virginia’s Sylvan Landesberg in 2010, Maryland’s Terrell Stoglin in 2012 and N.C. State’s C.J. Leslie in 2013 – Costner was passed over by the NBA after coming out early. He played briefly in Belgium, where he developed another stress fracture, this one in his tibia (shin).

He spent three of the past four seasons with the NBA D-League squad owned by the L.A. Lakers. His best season with the L.A. D-Fenders was 2011-12, when he was voted league player of the month and made the all-star squad. “He was on track to go to the NBA,” said Costner’s agent, Glenn Schwartzman, who also represented Tony Costner, Brandon’s father, a 12-year veteran of overseas play. “Then he got hurt at the end of that season.”

Costner twice endured surgeries on his leg since leaving college, the second to correct the first operation. He skipped the ’13 season, and worked back into shape last year, starting for the D-Fenders alongside fellow Wolfpack alum C.J. Williams. “If he hadn’t gotten hurt, we feel at that point he would have been in the NBA or he would have been at the high level internationally,” Schwartzman said. “The best thing for him to do was to prove to people that he could stay healthy, which he did; put up big numbers again, which he did; and be in a position to be called up to the NBA, which didn’t happen, or to get a lucrative, high-level international opportunity, which he has now received.”

The D-League’s official website says it has served as a waystation for 149 current NBA players. Costner, 26, is determined to add to that number, or to keep competing internationally in the game he loves. More than anything, the married father wants “to show my resilience to my daughter.” Noemie is nearly three.

“There have been times like in anyone’s life where things have not gone my way,” Costner said. “I have had some pretty bad breaks (no pun) over the years and have had my share of good moments. But what I want to show her is that no matter what your current situation or how long or tough a journey may lie ahead of you: Fight. Accept the challenge because you will do nothing but learn and grow every step of the way.”

Even if that journey takes you literally halfway around the world.

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