International Student-Athlete to the NCAA – A Personal Account

For me, basketball started as a way to reduce stress, get away from all the commotion of the world going on around me, and really to have a lot of fun. Like most kids, when I first began playing basketball, I thought that I was destined to play in the NBA. I thought that it was going to be a relatively easy road for me. A college coach was going to see one of my highlight videos (which weren’t all that impressive, looking back on them) and email me or call me to award me with a full scholarship. I would excel and eventually make it to the draft. Looking back on my mindset, work ethic, training techniques, and competition, it’s quite comical. A lot of that comes with maturity, but the majority is due to the fact that I essentially grew up in a bubble.

Let me explain…

I was born in 1997 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Both of my parents were international teachers who loved to travel, play sports, and have an overall fun time. I was fortunate enough to enjoy all three of these attributes, but the thing that I never truly got was the ‘American experience’,  mainly the American education system and American-style sports.

When I was less than a year old, my parents moved to Tokyo, Japan where I spent the remainder of my childhood and adolescence. Basketball didn’t become a passion of mine until I was in 6th grade because soccer was the most popular sport at the school I attended in Japan. I’m glad my athletic career worked out the way it did because soccer taught me quite a lot about basketball in the long run. In soccer, I never wanted to be the one to score. Rather, I wanted to impress people with how well I passed and how well I could set my teammates up to score. There’s just something that attracts me to that aspect of the game and how simple it becomes when good passing takes place, when teamwork actually takes place. This mindset carried over to my basketball career for quite some time.

My school didn’t offer organized basketball games until 7th grade, which differs greatly from the U.S. Up until that point, I had only played pickup with friends and family, but I was eager to finally start my competitive career when the time came. Throughout middle school and most of high school, I wasn’t the best on the team. I, again, would always pride myself on making my teammates look good; throwing a nice pass on a backdoor cut or skipping the ball to a wide-open corner three. However, this style of play for me unfortunately didn’t last my whole career. 

I was fortunate enough, the summer of my sophomore year, to experience a painful, yet significant seven-inch growth spurt. I went from playing point guard my freshmen year to being able to play any position I wanted my sophomore year. From that point on, I found myself passing less and scoring more. I don’t necessarily think that the growth spurt itself caused my change in play, but rather it sparked an increase in confidence, which affected my outlook on the game.

Every summer, my family would return to the U.S. to spend time with family, during this time I took advantage of practically any opportunity I could find to attend camps and join tournaments. The summer before my senior year, I was fortunate enough to attend the Global Squad Summer Academy, which was by far the most eye-opening experience for me. It made me realize just how small of a bubble I had grown up in and was incredibly humbling. Kids I went to high school with would talk about athletes at our small school in Japan as if they were going to a high major division one school simply because they were the best at our school or in our league. Don’t get me wrong, a few athletes from my high school have gone on to play D-I sports, but that mindset was detrimental to my career from the start.

Attending Global Squad and playing against the best players in the United States made me realize that I had been competing against the wrong kids both mentally and physically my whole life. I was so focused on becoming the best athlete in my league in Japan, that I completely underestimated the level of play in the U.S. The camps I’d attended every summer were a decent help, but none of them were at the same level of training or against the talented competition that the athletes face at the Summer Academy.

Brandon shaking his college coach's hand

That short middle school kid who had goals of playing in the NBA became a much more realistic, humble, and dedicated athlete after that month of training.

My senior season I scored over 500 points, won team MVP, and was recruited to play at fourteen D-III schools, the level that I knew I was meant for and would have fun playing at. 

My first year in college I played a total of 90 minutes and scored 13 points. Yes, that’s 13 points in the whole season. There was a huge learning curve for me because the knowledge of the game and the small tactics that make a huge difference were never taught to me growing up. I didn’t know how to read screens properly. I didn’t know how to handle that type of pressure. I didn’t know how fast the game would be because I didn’t consistently play against that higher level. One summer was awakening for me, but it still didn’t make up for 18 years of fast-paced competition.

After that adjustment year, I started to catch things I hadn’t before and acclimated to the new pace and style. The following three years, I started every game (besides those returning from injury) and had a very fulfilling career. I can say with confidence that I am satisfied I played at the D-III level because it was where I was meant to be. 

It’s awesome to see all these international athletes that I now coach saying they want to play at high major schools and eventually the NBA because it’s always important to dream big. However, there’s a few pieces of advice that I would have loved to receive back when I was a little middle schooler or even earlier.

  1. If you want to reach such a high level of play, regardless of sport, your competitive focus shouldn’t be who you play in league games or in practice, it’s the best athletes you have access to. If you want to become a D-I athlete, you need to train, study, and compete with other future D-I athletes (or even current D-I athletes) for as long as you can. My whole career I was playing against future D-III athletes and look what level I played at. This method, however, isn’t absolute. Simply playing against great basketball players doesn’t automatically make you one, but doing so will definitely become obvious for your game in the long term.
  2. Reaching such a high degree of skill takes an incredible mix of natural talent, hard work, and mental toughness. Not everyone is given or able to acquire all three of these essential attributes, and that’s fine. Realizing one’s true potential comes with maturity. When one door closes, another one opens up; you just can’t be so disappointed the first one closed that you miss the second one opening.

    (i.e. My athletic career ended in March of 2019. I wish I could have gone on to play professionally, but as that door closed for me, I was fortunate enough to receive a position at Global Squad, allowing me to run camps around the world, giving young athletes advice and training I wasn’t able to receive as a player)
  3. Regardless of what division you end up at, continue to dream big and work hard. I have met former D-III athletes that are now professional players and I’ve met former D-I athletes that have retired, but are still involved in athletics. You never know what doors may open in your future.

Although my experience might be quite unique with regard to the location and journey I went through, I hope you can take some of what I’ve learned along the way and apply it to your life, mindset, and training to help you achieve your future aspirations. There were plenty of obstacles to overcome in my athletic career, which will most likely be the same for you too, but the process itself will certainly help prepare you for what’s up next in your life.

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