Yogi Ferrell’s Unconventional Journey to NBA
Thumb through the pages of Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell’s fairy-tale basketball story, and you’ll eventually find the feel-good, climactic chapter, in which the undrafted, unheralded G-Leaguer capitalizes on a 10-day contract to become an overnight phenomenon the likes of which the NBA has rarely seen.
But the 6-foot guard has never been one to cut corners, so to fully understand his winding, unpredictable journey, you need to experience all of the ups and downs, and twists and turns, that led him from being the No. 1 ranked player in the nation at age 10 to on the verge of flying 5,000 miles across the world for a chance to play professional basketball a decade later.
And how one phone call, at the most opportune time, changed everything.
“Dreams come true,” Ferrell said. “As a kid, I always thought about myself being in the NBA, so being here now is something special for me.”
A prodigy from the day his father, Kevin Ferrell Sr., put a Spalding in his hands, Yogi remembers tossing a basketball into the Little Tikes hoop in his driveway as a three-year-old, and joining a YMCA league just two years later. Before he was even a teenager, he’d hold his own against grown men twice his size across Indianapolis, Ind. gymnasiums.
Around the same time, Ferrell sat in the bleachers at high school games featuring future NBA stars Mike Conley Jr., George Hill and Jeff Teague, and watched the likes of Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant on TV – “those gritty guys who go out on the court and do whatever it takes” – dreaming of one day being in their shoes.
By the time he was a fourth-grader, Hoop Scoop, a prep basketball recruiting service, touted him as the best player in his class. As the young floor general headlined frontpage stories of local newspapers, he became the primary target of opposing middle-school players and coaches tasked with slowing down the top prospect.
Ferrell Sr., sensing that the blinding spotlight and nonstop travel schedule were doing more harm than good, made a nearly-unprecedented decision to pull his son from the AAU circuit beginning in seventh grade.
For two years, Ferrell enjoyed a more typical childhood, consumed by video games, bike rides and table tennis. He didn’t cut his favorite sport out of his life entirely, but instead focused on fundamentals in pick-up games – far away from the inescapable pressure of living up to his No. 1 ranking.
“I’d been playing so much basketball at that time, that I never was able to just kind of be a kid, just work on my craft, work on my game and get better in school,” he said. “I didn't know my dad was right back then, but I know that now.”
The hiatus taught Ferrell to never take his passion for basketball for granted – a life lesson he hasn’t forgotten to this day.
At Indiana University, the Second-Team All-American didn’t miss a beat with his now more-polished game, complete with slick passes to open teammates and nearly-unguardable step-back jumpers. The four-year guard cemented his name in the cream-and-crimson record books, starting more games (137) and dishing more assists (633) than any player in program annals and finishing his career as one of only two players in Big Ten history with over 1,800 points (1,986), 400 rebounds (438) and 600 assists.
Yet, when the 2016 NBA Draft aired in late June, Ferrell sat on his couch and watched in disbelief as the names of 60 other players, many with bigger physical statures but far fewer accomplishments, were announced at the podium.
“That was a tough night, but I knew I had to go and prove (myself),” he said. “There have been a lot of short guys in the League who have made it and paved the way, so it gave me the same confidence.”
Ferrell soon inked a non-guaranteed deal with the rebuilding Nets, but once the regular season tipped-off, he routinely shuttled back and forth between Brooklyn and the team’s G-League affiliate in Long Island, oftentimes twice in the same day.
In early December, after only 10 NBA appearances, Ferrell was surprisingly waived from the Brooklyn roster. Unfazed by yet another setback, he found himself back in Long Island, committed to separating himself from the pack in a G-League circuit overstocked with one-time Lottery picks and veterans desperate for another shot as the pros.
“I had a great coach in Ronald Nored, who taught me to treat myself as if I was in the NBA,” Ferrell said. “The travel and food probably won’t be the same, but if you treat your body well and get the same work in, you’re going to get there one day. I believed what he told me.”
But when his 18.6 points, 5.8 assists and 2.1 steals in the G-League, combined with a record-setting collegiate résumé, still drew scant attention from NBA scouts and executives, the Indiana native begrudgingly decided to renew his passport.
Once Ferrell gave his agent the go-ahead to pursue overseas offers, the phone buzzed with calls from EuroLeague clubs, including Turkey and Russia, offering lucrative contracts and a chance to return to the U.S. in time to crack another Summer League roster.
On Jan. 28, 2017, the then-23-year-old was mulling over his basketball future in a near-empty G-League locker room in Erie, Pa., six hours before tip-off.
The money in Europe would allow him to continue playing professional basketball, while traveling on commercial trans-Atlantic flights rather than buses across U.S. suburbs; hundreds of players had carved out exceptional careers that way.
On the other hand, he knew all too well that his already-slimming odds of making it back to the NBA could diminish, and he wasn’t ready, not in the least, to give up on his long-standing dream.
That’s when he received another call from his agent, this time with brilliantly-timed, unexpected news: the Dallas Mavericks were offering him to a 10-day contract.
“It was crazy how that kind of switched up, and how that all happened,” Ferrell said. “It was literally the day after my agent had called me and said (Russia) was going to offer me a big (contract)!”
As the story goes, the injury-riddled Mavericks were debating between three guards, and owner Mark Cuban, an Indiana graduate, broke the tie by choosing a player from his alma mater.
Had that fateful call come, say, 24 or 48 hours later, Ferrell might’ve already stuffed an oversized suitcase with long-johns and winter coats, bracing himself for knee-deep snow and frigid wind gusts in Moscow. Instead, he boarded the first flight to Texas, and woke up early the next morning for a meeting with Head Coach Rick Carlisle at Dallas’ training facility.
Most players on non-guaranteed deals play just a handful minutes off the bench, usually once games are long decided, only to be relegated back to the G-League when their short-term contracts expire. But Ferrell isn’t most players.
Six hours after cramming the entire playbook and learning complex offensive and defensive schemes, he was named the starting point guard. His first assignment? Squaring off against four-time champion Tony Parker and the Spurs.
Ferrell notched nine points and seven assists opposite his All-Star counterpart, and in his second start, dropped 19 points on 15 shots to outduel Kyrie Irving (18 points on 21 shots) in a win over the defending-champion Cavaliers.
Four nights later, “Yogi Mania” was in full swing. Ferrell drilled a rookie record-tying nine three-pointers en route to 32 points in a victory at Portland, becoming just the third undrafted rookie in NBA history – the first since Anthony Morrow in 2008 – to reach 30 points within his first 15 games.
“When I was out there, I was thinking, ‘They’re human just like me,’” Ferrell said. “I was always motivated to prove I belong. They know that I’m here now, and I’m definitely here to stay.”
Once the standout guard put the finishing touches on one of the greatest stretches by an undrafted rookie in recent memory – 17.2 points, 5.0 assists, and 1.8 steals, while helping lead Dallas to a 4-1 record – his 10-day contract quickly morphed into a two-year deal.
“I was pretty much ecstatic,” he said. “It just showed that I stayed with the grind and all my hard work paid off.”
Ferrell earned Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors in February, and after ending his first-year campaign with averages of 11.3 points, 4.3 assists, and 1.1 steals in 36 games for Dallas, was the only undrafted player named to the 2016-17 All-Rookie Second Team.
The same qualities that elevated him from an unknown minor-leaguer to a full-time NBA starter – an explosive first step, a lethal outside shot, and the ability to either play off the ball or initiate the offense – make him an ideal fit in Sacramento’s up-tempo system.
“It’s definitely the fastest team in the NBA that I’ve played on, so that definitely suits my nature,” he said. “I feel like I could add a little bit of my experience with the Nets and Dallas and try to bring those same aspects to the Kings.”
Utilizing his speed to get to the rim against nearly any defender, No. 3 averaged 8.9 drives per game as a rookie, per NBA.com, a mark that would’ve outpaced De’Aaron Fox (8.4) for tops on the Kings last season.
In 2017-18, Ferrell played the majority of his minutes at shooting guard (63 percent), and even occasionally shifted to small forward (15 percent), according to basketball-reference.com. As a result, while his assists dipped from 3.7 to 2.5 per outing and he attacked the rim less frequently (5.0 drives), he developed into one of the best mid-range scorers (47.7 percent) at his position.
When he’s stepped behind the arc, Ferrell has connected on 37.5 percent from deep in the NBA and 39.9 percent in the G-League, thriving in catch-and-shoot situations while also frequently racing up the court to pull up from long range.
At the same time, he has consistently placed in the upper echelon with the ball in pick-and-roll situations; his 0.91 points per possession (76th percentile) last season tied him with James Harden and Jimmy Butler for 17th in the League among all players with at least 250 possessions.
“That (versatility) makes me a dual threat on the court,” Ferrell said. “They have to honor me in all different aspects on the court, so for me to be able to switch positions like that, it’s definitely going to help us.”
So far, Ferrell has delivered on that promise in Sacramento. He showcased his penchant for lighting up the scoreboard with 26 points on 14 shots in his preseason debut on Oct. 1 against the Suns, and has chipped in with 5.9 points in 15.2 minutes per game in 10 games (two starts) during the regular season.
In 22 minutes of shared court-time, a small-ball lineup featuring No. 3 alongside Fox and Buddy Hield has recorded a 124.0 offensive rating and outscored opponents by 28 points per 100 possessions.
Despite the limited sample size with the Kings, his impact is no fluke. Ferrell played the second-most minutes for the Mavericks last season, and paced the team with a plus-7.9 points on-off court net rating among all regulars.
“The main thing that I bring is energy on the court, whether it’s defensive or offensive,” he said. “I just want to be a spark coming off the bench and give the team whatever they need in order to help us win games.”
Ferrell’s remarkable tale is clearly still being written, but considering what he’s already overcome and proven at every stage, there’s no doubt it will have a happy ending.
“It’s been a fun journey, to say the least,” he said. “I’m blessed to be in the position I’m in now. I’ve worked hard to be here, my entire life, my entire career. No matter what it is, I’m definitely going to leave it out on the court so that I have no regrets.”