The Thompson twins and Overtime Elite's unproven path to the NBA

From relative obscurity to projected 2023 lottery picks, Amen and Ausar Thompson are a test of the viability of Overtime Elite, the newest alternative path to the NBA. Courtesy Overtime Elite

TIM FULLER WAS one of dozens of scouts filling a Louisville gym in late April 2021 to assess some basketball talent.

Among the players on the former Power 5 assistant coach's list: Amen and Ausar Thompson, from unsponsored AAU team Florida Pro HSA, who initially hadn't been on his radar but came recommended by a friend.

"Amen picks the ball up full court and he's dogging this kid," Fuller recalls of the game against the higher-ranked Meanstreets EYBL team from Chicago. "Dogging him, dogging him, dogging him to the point where the kid has now got his back turned to Amen and doesn't even want to dribble.

"So I watch Amen timing his dribble. As the ball leaves the kid's hand, Amen dives at the ball with his left hand. ... He knocks the ball loose, and, as he's falling to the ground, wraps it around his body with his left hand and just throws it behind his head."

The unusual level of defensive intensity at the opening tip of an AAU game immediately caught Fuller's attention.

"From the baseline, Ausar comes darting up the lane," Fuller says. "I have no idea how he knew Amen was getting this steal, but he comes darting up the lane, picks the ball off in midair with one hand, drops it down with that hand, takes one more dribble and two steps and he's flying at the basket with a tomahawk dunk. The whole place erupted."

Before the buzz could subside, Meanstreets inbounded the basketball.

But then, another steal. Another dunk. This time with Ausar pressing and Amen finishing.

"I'm like, 'Hold on a second,'" Fuller says. "Did I just experience a "Matrix"-like deal here? What's happening? It's like a glitch."

A few more minutes and Fuller had seen enough. He stepped away, not to ring his buddy and thank him for the nudge, but to call his employer and gush about the twins, insisting they would be a critical addition to the program he'd been hired to help launch.

His employer? Overtime Elite, a new alternative path set to launch in the fall for basketball prospects entering their senior year of high school to reach their professional goals. Amen and Ausar Thompson shouldn't just be on his organization's radar, Fuller thought. They were the kind of talents who would provide immediate legitimacy to an organization still quite literally in its building phase.

The Thompson twins would sign with Fuller and the Atlanta-based OTE in May, bypassing their senior year of high school to become two of the program's first four commitments. The pair had managed relative anonymity in basketball circles until then. This choice would temporarily maintain that pattern, keeping them away from the high-profile world of college basketball.

It would create an entirely different type of pressure, however. Amen and Ausar would effectively become the first real test case for OTE's ambitions.

If the Thompsons succeed in their dream -- to become NBA stars -- future prospects can look to an alternative, novel path to professional preparedness on the domestic side. If they fail, OTE could be criticized for pulling young, promising talent away from the more established, traditional college hoops path.

For a couple of teenagers who've never sought the spotlight, it feels like a heavy ask.

But Amen and Ausar are identical twins, with identical 6-foot-7 frames and wingspans a touch under 7 feet (for now). They commit just as much on defense as on offense, displaying defensive instincts beyond their years. They glide like the best wings, handle and pass like guards and play aggressively at the rim.

Both are projected lottery picks in the 2023 NBA draft. By the time June comes around, they'll have played their second full schedule against fellow OTE talent and taken advantage of the freedom the program allows by playing professionals in different settings -- including open runs with NBA pros, and a brief European tour that begins Wednesday.

The buzz around them has grown since the Louisville AAU tournament. Fuller believes it still doesn't match their actual ability.

"I don't think people are going to really know who these kids are and what they are capable of until they probably hit NBA summer league next year and take the world by storm," he says. "I truly believe they're going to come into the NBA, the first set of twins to be that generational talent where people are clamoring to come watch their games."

What the twins are clamoring for at this moment is a hearty lunch.

After briefly trying to decide which combination of plates at this Fort Lauderdale waterfront restaurant would offer the most bang for the buck, the 19-year-olds order the salmon.

Seated at a round table with their father, Troy, and high school coach Ike Smith, Amen is wearing a UCLA T-shirt. Ausar has done a very thankful few the favor of wearing earrings, the small diamond studs distinguishing him from his brother.

Rudy Gobert has just been traded to Minnesota, sending the twins to their phones for real-time reactions, while Troy tries to figure out how the move would affect Kevin Durant's then-trade request out of Brooklyn.

Basketball dominates the conversation, including how the twins studied Dwyane Wade's Euro step, particularly a nasty one-two against Kevin Garnett as a Celtic, as well as the best inside-out dribble, which belongs to Jordan Poole, according to Ausar -- "he kind of just throws it."

Style of play sparks a small disagreement. Dad wanted them to play like Russell Westbrook, the twins say. "I did not want them to play like Westbrook," Troy clarifies. "I wanted them to hustle like Westbrook."

This is normal. Basketball is written in the family code.

Troy is one of four brothers, three of them hoopers. The fourth, Mark Thompson, was an Olympic 400-meter hurdler for Jamaica in 1992. The twins' older brother, Troy Jr., was a guard at Prairie View A&M before making a few professional stops.

The elder Troy, 52, is by far the most energetic body at this lunch. He recalls stories of raising his boys with wife, Maya, in San Leandro, California, a permanent smile on his face and his left leg regularly sticking out from under the table and tapping at a quick pace.

Mom ruled out football for the boys, so by the time Amen and Ausar were 7, they were running basketball drills Dad developed with Troy Jr. years before.

"I would drop them off [at their elementary school's court] like an hour early," Troy said. "When they were little, they'd always want to play one-on-one. But the one-on-one would result in fights and arguing and all that nonsense.

"I was like, 'OK guys, you can do your one-on-one. But you got to do these drills first. And then I'd drive away, like I was going away. But I'd watch. And they did it. They did the drills every day before one-on-one."

By the time they were 9, despite not being especially tall for their age, the twins started speaking their NBA dreams into the universe.

Sometimes, they even wrote them down.

"We made this dream board," Troy said.

It was called "Amen and Ausar's Basketball Dream," and it was exactly what you'd expect.

"Become the greatest basketball player of all time," it read, along with drawings of money and a Nike foamposite, and 10 daily must-dos in order to reach that dream.

"Their 6-foot-9 NBA dream," Troy specified, referring to height of the twins' basketball idol, LeBron James.

The family would support those dreams, including homeschooling the twins for a couple of years to build in as much training time as possible. Then, as they were entering eighth grade, they received an opportunity to play at a private school in Fort Lauderdale.

Pine Crest had a basketball program most recently known for producing former Kentucky Wildcat and NBA guard Brandon Knight, but it was hardly a powerhouse. It was, however, a highly regarded academic school. Add in the opportunity to compete against more physical South Florida athletes, and Troy was convinced the family should move across the country.

Maya wasn't. She worked for the city of Berkeley and had family in Oakland. Ball isn't actually life, after all.

It left the twins having to choose between time with their mother and a cross-country trek based largely on their father's instincts.

Ausar was willing to go, but Amen didn't have the same vision.

"Amen could see my stress, and he actually said, 'Mom, I will stay with you if it makes you feel better,'" Maya says. "That was my tipping point. There is no way I could possibly separate these kids from their dream because of how I'm feeling.

"When Amen was willing to walk away from his brother, I said, 'No, thank you.'"

She couldn't possibly have known Amen was (mostly) bluffing.

"I've never been willing to just, like, leave Ausar, for real," Amen says. Off they went.

By their junior year, the twins had grown to near their current 6-7 frames. Their stifling, relentless defense and ever-expanding offensive game even carried Pine Crest to a state title.

Yet, until this point, the twins had largely played on teams that weren't stacked with talent and relied far too much on them. Bad News Bears-type teams, their mom would call them, Pine Crest included. Eventually it didn't feel like a very productive path for the pair set on reaching the NBA.

Troy and the twins began looking for another location to complete high school and prepare for the college basketball experience. It is, after all, the primary path to the pros.

"We are a very college-educated and focused family, on both sides. So that was the natural progression," Maya says. "So to miss out on that was a big gamble."

It wasn't until the twins began their AAU season, after winning the state championship, that the Thompsons realized they'd be asked to take the gamble.

Fuller had seen just one portion of one half of one game of Amen and Ausar's. If the background research provided no red flags, the director of recruitment at OTE figured they were an ideal pair for the program.

"They're at a high academic school, and not one of these academies that just pops up," Fuller says. "They have a different type of makeup. They have been in a consistent environment for consecutive years. So they probably have strong work ethic on and off the court. That's what I started to gather."

As the family considered moving to Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix for the twins' final year of high school, Fuller finally tracked down Troy, after weeks of attempts, and persuaded the family to hear his risky pitch over lunch.

His selling point: around-the-clock access to a gym, trainers, videos, high-tech training systems, professional players and coaches, along with a personalized academic regimen and media training. OTE players are also paid a minimum of $100,000 -- which can now also be withheld, as a "scholarship" option, to help maintain college eligibility.

Skipping college has been an option for decades for NBA hopefuls. There's the G League Ignite, which produced the 2021 No. 2 overall pick Jalen Green, and also playing overseas, the way LaMelo Ball did before being drafted third overall in 2020.

Even one-and-done college players often treat their single undergraduate year as a period of professional training. OTE -- which is a part of Overtime, a social media content company that reportedly generates 2 billion video views a month to its more than 75 million-plus followers -- launched on the similar idea of cutting out unnecessary restrictions and enhancing career training.

Amen and Ausar, however, weren't being asked to sign with a proven organization that would definitively give them their best shot at NBA stardom right away.

They were being asked to join a program that could maybe do that.

It was unproven. Heck, the state-of-the-art gym wasn't even complete. The gamble came with no visible safety net.

And the Thompsons would be the biggest names signing on.

Just as with the Pine Crest decision, Ausar was on board. He'd never really considered college basketball as anything more than a necessary step, despite the appeal of the NCAA tournament.

Amen, again, didn't share his brother's opinion.

"I didn't want to go [with OTE]," he says. "I didn't want to be, like, the first to do it. My mom and dad wanted me to go, and Ausar was kind of considering it. He was 50-50. I was ... stern on my 'no.'"

It was the appeal of the nonstop training and future high-tech facility that finally swayed him. "Our goal was always to be, like, the best NBA players ever. So, college or not, it really didn't affect that," he says.

A huge get for OTE, but only truly terrific if the Thompsons actually fulfilled the destiny they so clearly drew out for themselves on their vision board.

When the gym doors eventually opened, Amen knew he'd made the right decision.

"I just saw the improvement my game had made in short spans -- in like a month up there," Amen says. "I felt like I was one of the best players coming in. But a month in, I started really going into a different category."

Fast-forward a few months, and the OTE experience was in full force. But there were still questions about the level of competition the program's players faced. With rosters that only went so deep, and a schedule that didn't include college teams, critics suggested the twins would not be properly tested. Despite the raw talent in the facility, and playing against elite talent in what would have been their senior year of high school, Ausar and Amen were essentially facing the same set of 18- and 19-year-olds, not a variety of more experienced NCAA players and systems.

This is where the freedom of OTE comes in handy.

In March 2022, The Basketball Tournament -- the annual, nationally televised open tournament for former players with a $1 million prize for the winner -- announced it would allow draft-eligible players to participate for the first time since its inception in 2014.

OTE registered a team of its players and professionals, including the Thompsons. All of a sudden, the twins who had skipped college were on a college campus, about to play in a packed arena in a win-or-go-home scenario.

In addition to them being easily the most intriguing players ever to play in this tournament, their game against the Omaha Blue Crew, on the Creighton campus, in a filled-to-capacity 2,500-seat gym, would also be televised.

The game started off almost as expected: a bit sloppy on both ends. An alley-oop from Amen to Ausar was broken up on OTE's first possession, while Blue Crew started with an and-1 layup to get the crowd in an early frenzy.

The opponents were clearly amped to take on a pair of hyped-up NBA prospects, particularly Ronnie Harrell -- a 26-year-old former Creighton Blue Jay who now plays in the Bundesliga, and primarily pressured either twin.

He wasn't shy about it.

"'You're f---ing weak,'" Amen says, recalling the intimidation attempts. "'Y'all little boys,' stuff like that.

"I think they were really just trying to check us to see how we would react. They were only saying this in the first quarter, though."

Because the twins eventually settled in. It wasn't as if they'd explode with a ton of scoring. TBT is not the NBA, and neither are its officials. The play, with $1 million at stake, can get quite physical -- and didn't play into the hands of the twins, who each check in at about 200 pounds.

But if you were watching the Thompsons just for their scoring, you'd be missing most of what makes them special.

After Amen blessed the gym with a monster half-court drive-and-dunk, the pair were more in their element.

On the following possession, Ausar missed a pair of free throws but immediately forced a turnover. He had a putback slam in traffic a few moments later. A two-handed block off the backboard soon after. None of it with flair or celebration.

While the OTE offense was effectively a series of isolations at the top of the circle, not great for the twins given how the Blue Crew packed the paint defensively, the Thompsons were absolutely terrorizing defensively and making strong impressions.

Former NBA Rookie of the Year, two-time champion and now sports agent Mike Miller had just watched the twins somewhat struggle offensively for one half of a basketball game. He still had nothing but glowing reviews.

"The word is elite," says Miller, who got to know the twins during a workout in Memphis with Penny Hardaway a month earlier. "They're elite kids, they're elite workers, elite competitors, obviously elite athletes. They can have everything they want. They're hard workers, they're grinders, and you know me, I love the grinders.

"They're playing against guys who've played basketball their entire lives, and they've got them scared to put the ball on the floor."

Major praise from a friend and former teammate of The King himself.

Yet much of the excitement about the twins from NBA scouts is tempered by their inconsistent jump shots. During their first season at OTE, Amen shot 22% from 3-point range and 55.8% from the foul line, while Ausar, the more fluid shooter, went 23.6% and 65.2%, respectively.

"They're very, very talented, and they've got a lot of upside. But they've got a lot of work to do as well," says one Western Conference scout who has seen the twins multiple times. "They both need skill development in terms of handling the ball, and both of them really need to spend a lot of time on shooting the basketball in terms of catching and shooting, rhythm-dribble pullups. They got to try to add that to their game. The sooner, the better."

But after totaling 6 assists, 11 rebounds, 4 blocks and 3 steals and generating highlights that impressed even the Omaha fans, the twins' jump shots were hardly at the forefront.

Amen and Ausar lamented a handful of missed free throws early in what would be a close game (OTE lost 74-70). But mostly they were disappointed they wouldn't have another shot against what they considered the most physical competition they'd ever played.

"They could just, like, hold you," Amen says.

Over the next 10 days, the twins will face a different test of physicality: They'll be a part of an OTE team of draft-eligible players playing a series of exhibition games against professional teams in Serbia and Spain.

"You could tell a European basketball player versus an American basketball player, so I kind of just want to see how they're taught," Ausar says. "It's not the same. Point guards aren't the same as American point guards. I'm trying to see how those guards dribble like that and can never get ripped."

"I heard the crowd is ridiculous, and I love playing in front of a crazy crowd," Amen says. "If I see a flare, first off, do you know how cold the Instagram pic would be with the flare in the background? But I heard it's hard to breathe when the flares come out."

They'll be far from home, but Amen and Ausar will still carry an element that grounds them: a home button. They both still sport iPhone 7s despite plenty of opportunities to upgrade.

"I'm sticking with my guy!" Ausar likes to joke.

The twins didn't go down this particular career path just to bury their heads in their smartphones. They'd rather watch videos that will help them improve their game.

Kevin Ollie, a 13-year NBA veteran and former college coach at UConn, is now the head coach and director of player development at OTE. He has experienced the twins' work ethic firsthand.

Their respective jump shots have been the focus of countless hours of work, he says, whether it's working on form or using the Noah Shooting System in the OTE gym, which gives real time feedback for a shot's arc, depth and left-and-right movement.

"Their shots have gone from night to day from the first time we saw them to now," Ollie says.

Still, it's the skills they showed up with on day one that still awe Ollie -- "I've never seen anybody at this age able to do this," he says -- and is already drawing more eyes to OTE.

In July, Overtime Elite announced its latest round of signings, including top guards Tremayne Parker and Kanaan Carlyle from the Class of 2023. A couple of months earlier, the No. 1-ranked player from the 2024 class, Naasir Cunningham, signed.

Amen and Ausar did their part in recruitment by simply existing in the OTE arena and catching the attention of one of Cunningham's trusted advisers.

"He came to our first two practices and he was like, 'I need Naas playing against them every single day next year.' And that's what started the ball rolling," Fuller, who also recruited Cunningham, says. "He said if Naas can play against them every single day in practice, he's going to be one of the best players in the NBA."

Being a selling point for a year-old alternative like OTE only adds to the early legacy of the Thompsons.

Yet it's nowhere near the most intriguing part about these identical twins.

"He's my best friend," Ausar says of Amen, who is older by a minute. "Sometimes I feel happier for him than I feel for myself. When I'm watching the game, I'm always cheering for him... His shot has gotten so much better. Growing up, I remember there was a point my older brother tried to make him left-handed. He used to get super frustrated."

These days, Amen is only a little frustrated that he tends to flick his shooting hand to the right after his release ("I have no idea why I do that"). But he's seen so much improvement in his jumper, so he's only thinking positively about it.

He's become the more vocal of the two when it comes to media -- something he attributes to Ausar.

"It makes it so much easier to move into something knowing somebody, especially someone you've known your whole life," he says. "[Ausar] also is one of my biggest motivators. If I'm tired, I got to get up. There's no question he's going to make me get up to work out. And I'm going to be the same way toward him."

Ausar recently participated in an open run with Anthony Edwards, OG Anunoby and Collin Sexton without Amen, who tested positive for COVID-19 days earlier. Still, Ausar did everything possible to keep Amen sharp during the brief stretch he was unable to be on the court.

"Anything I learn, I try to teach him. We take videos of each other just to show each other," Amen says.

Inevitably, the twins are compared to each other. They don't particularly mind. They agree Ausar has the better jumper currently, while Amen bested Ausar by 1 inch in the vertical leap. Ausar insists his brother merely has "perfected the art of jumping," and isn't necessarily a better athlete.

"I didn't dunk until I was in 10th grade because I was afraid to hang on the rim," he says.

They have slightly different handles but prefer the other's.

"His is more twitchy," Ausar says. "More powerful, like he pounds it a lot harder. Mine is more like finesse, trying to size you up type and stuff."

By the time they actually enter the draft, some of those minor details could change. They aren't finished products, after all.

Perhaps there'll be more of a distinction between the two and the way their careers project in the NBA. It's happened to just about every pair of twins who've played in the NBA, from Dick and Tom Van Arsdale in the 1970s to Brook and Robin Lopez currently.

What won't change about Amen and Ausar is their immense desire to make it in the NBA. Given their uncommon path and the extra weight they're carrying for Overtime Elite, the sense of satisfaction might be just as great.

"They stay in their lane and they're just locked in," Ollie says. "I don't think they're going to let anything get in their pathway."