Yogi Ferrell sat and watched as names flew off the board at the 2016 NBA Draft. The former Indiana Hoosier, whose stats at the school rank right up there with those of Isiah Thomas, saw players with far less pedigree and résumés being plucked off the board while he waited.
Teams at the back end of the second round called to offer D-League opportunities, but Ferrell and his agent turned them down. Once Tyrone Wallace’s name was called at No. 60, Ferrell sat without a team while the future of his career hung in the balance.
“That night I was pretty sad because after 11 of my 16 pre-draft workouts, I felt like I could really say that I impressed the organizations and I felt like one team wanted to pick me up in the draft,” says Ferrell, who was in Indianapolis before heading back to Dallas for offseason workouts, when we spoke. “That was a tough night. But I stayed with it—I used it as another chip on my shoulder.”
The draft night snub was a surprise to those who have known Yogi since he was a child. Ever since he touched the hardwood, Ferrell had been a star. His father, Kevin Sr, used to take him to play pickup with grown men at the YMCA or Lifetime Fitness, and Junior held his own. When he was in the fifth grade, he was ranked as the top player in the nation, but his parents intervened and pulled him from AAU ball later on in middle school. Kevin Sr wanted his son to “get rid of the noise,” as Yogi puts it, and not lose out on his childhood.
Still, Yogi’s brief hiatus from the summer circuit—he returned in high school—did not stop his rise and development. A McDonald’s All-American in 2012, Ferrell committed to the hometown Indiana Hoosiers and went on to start all 137 games he played in.
The 6-0 point guard finished his senior year with averages of 17.6 points, 5.6 assists and 3.8 rebounds per game as IU won the Big Ten Championship outright and advanced to the Sweet 16. He finished first in career assists, second in career three-pointers made, played and started in the most career games and ranks sixth in career scoring at the blue blood school.
Beloved in his hometown and by the university, Ferrell’s draft night experience was a sobering one to say the least.
Yogi eventually signed a Summer League deal with the Brooklyn Nets, then bounced around between the Nets and their D-League affiliate in Long Island. He appeared in 10 NBA games with Brooklyn while he and his agent entertained overseas deals.
During his brief stay in Brooklyn, the 24-year-old learned under Jeremy Lin, not knowing at the time that his career path was headed for a similar trajectory.
“I talked to Jeremy a lot and he told me that he felt like I was an NBA player and to stick with it and go out there and just kill,” says Yogi. “He said, ‘Someone is going to notice you, someone is always in the stands. The best thing you can do is go out there and give it your all.’”
Lin’s words proved to be a foreshadowing of what was to come.
While Ferrell toiled away with the Long Island Nets, the struggling Dallas Mavericks were in need of a playmaker. They gave Yogi a call in late January and offered a 10-day contract. The down-but-not-out baller was on his way to Texas almost as soon as he hung up the phone.
“I was with the Nets’ D-League team and we were getting ready to play a game in Erie, PA—random city, don’t ever go there,” Ferrell remembers. “My agent called me about four hours before the game and said the Mavs wanted to sign me to a 10-day. I went straight to the airport in Erie and flew to Dallas and the next day I was the first guy out there because I needed to learn the offense.
“Rick Carlisle came up to me and was like, You’re starting tomorrow against the Spurs,” he continues. “In my mind, I’m like, Wow, I’m starting my first game against Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Manu and the Spurs. Someone within the Mavs organization told me that what he sees a lot of times with guys on a 10-day contract is they try to come in and fit the system. You can’t really do that. He told me to come in and play my game and everything else will come with it.”
Ferrell took the advice and ran with it, helping the Mavs to a 105-101 win in his first career start. With Yogi handling starting point duties, the Mavs then went on a four-game winning streak that culminated with a 108-104 dub over the Blazers, during which Yogi hit a rookie-high nine three-pointers and finished with 32 points.
Yogi, who had watched 60 players get selected ahead of him just eight months prior, was suddenly one of the most exciting stories in the NBA.
During his career-best night, the rook was noticeably confident and played with a swagger not often seen from an undrafted player on a 10-day. This wasn’t a coincidence—he had been offered a two-year contract with the Mavs hours before tip-off, putting his mind at ease and allowing him to play loose.
“A few hours before the game, my agent actually told me that they wanted to sign me to a two-year deal,” Yogi says. “I felt like a huge burden was lifted from my shoulders. I felt like I could go out there and play free and not worry about mistakes. I actually signed the contract on the plane before we landed.”
The Mavs organization has a long history of being a place where veteran players find a second-life and a spot where young players get their careers off on the right foot. In Yogi Ferrell, it looks like Dallas has found another piece to help them rebound from a rare missed postseason berth. And Ferrell is surrounded by experienced NBAers like JJ Barea, Dirk Nowitzki and Devin Harris, a solid group of vets to shown him the ropes.
“Devin and JJ have really helped me out a lot,” he says. “Devin would always tell me, ‘Attack, attack, attack.’ JJ is so deceptive. If I’m on the bench, I’m watching him and how he gets into the lane. I’ve been trying to study him because he throws a lot of great lobs to the bigs. I’ve been trying to soak in as much knowledge as possible from these guys.”
With an offseason of workouts ahead, Yogi is already thinking about the ways he can help the Mavs rack up wins next season.
“I’m the type of player to go out there and bring my energy to the court,” he says proudly. “I bring my all defensively and offensively and do my all to win. I just let my game do the talking.”
Peter Walsh is a Senior Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter at @Peter_M_Walsh.
Action photos via Getty Images. Portrait via Kamel Lahmadi, styled by Grungy Gentleman.
Video by BLUELINE.