Home or Abroad?

The game is the same, though the circumstances are drastically different. Basketball as a business. Zach Graham is learning as he goes.

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Strange? Not really. This time last year, he was preparing for his senior season at Ole Miss. His summer days were filled with shoot-arounds and meetings and mid-day trips to a fast-food joint of choice off Jackson Avenue.

Not some much anymore. Instead, Graham is back home in Atlanta, Ga., waiting out what could potentially be a lengthy NBA lockout. His professional career hasn't started yet, though he is preparing every day as if it has.

"I think I've handled it well. I've taken a serious, business approach to it, ‘cause now it's a business. That's how I'm approaching it every day," Graham said. "I'm just working hard every day and staying focused. This is something that I've wanted and something that, you know, everyone is working towards -- getting to that next level."

The routine is, well, routine. He wakes up early in the morning for a run. Then a workout. Some hours later he'll head home for a break, to chill. It's back to work after that, toiling away at his agency-provided facilities with other pro-ball hopefuls.

"We get seven or eight games in, then I'll go to the fitness center later on at night and get a light workout in," he said.

Each day is a grind. It has to be, really. The immediate future of the NBA is depressing, like a State of the Union address interrupting a new episode of the Office. Even some of the NBA's biggest stars have entertained opportunities to play overseas.

Deron Williams, a two-time All-Star point guard for the New Jersey Nets, appears headed to the Turkish club Besiktas, and other stars are considering following his lead. Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, for example, is being recruited heavily to take his talents across the Atlantic.

"It's been pretty tough," Graham said of the lockout and its repercussions. "You just have to keep that mindset of staying ready, staying prepared so when that opportunity does come, you're ready to take advantage of it.

"It's just reality. It's pretty much a sign that this lockout is real. It makes you really have to consider going overseas, 'cause with this lockout, you don't know how long it's going to be."

"Obviously with the NBA situation and the lockout, which eliminated a lot of the summer opportunities for kids to come in and get on summer league teams and make rosters, obviously that's going to change his outlook," Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said. "My hope is that he'll take advantage of any opportunity that comes, even if it's a chance to continue on and play abroad."

Graham has been in contact with clubs across Western Europe. Actually, he has a couple of offers. But he isn't ready to concede the NBA season, an opportunity to make a roster.

Zach Graham
Bruce Newman
Prior to the NBA draft in June, Graham impressed in mini-camp with the Atlanta Hawks, the hometown team and one of Graham's childhood favorites.

He left such an impression the Hawks expressed interest in brining Graham into training camp, which is tentatively set for October.

However, clubs can no longer contact players, a byproduct of the lockout.

"They felt like I had a great chance at making the team, as far as the two-guard, three-guard position. They really don't have a lot of depth at that position," Graham said. "That's kind of where I am right now, as far as making decisions. I could take an offer to play overseas or just stay and wait the lockout out.

"It'd just be a dream come true to play in my city. I love Atlanta; the Hawks have always been one of my favorite teams. I've followed them since I was a little kid. To be doing what I love and playing in my city, I couldn't ask for any more than that."

Graham admitted he has to make a decision soon, whether to wait out the lockout, however many months it takes, or begin his professional career overseas. Chris Warren, a former teammate of Graham at Ole Miss who also went undrafted, recently signed with the Adelaide 36ers of Australia's National Basketball League.

"The reality is, I do believe the lockout could extend deep into the upcoming season, so there will not be a training camp," Kennedy said. "It's very much like Chris. He could've stayed and waited to see how things work out, but obviously a lot of high-name guys are taking opportunities abroad because they're obviously convinced that there's going to be a work stoppage that extends into next season.

"Guys need to -- especially guys like Zach and Chris who are coming out of college -- they need to continue to get that first experience as a professional."

Whatever Graham decides, wherever he ends up, he'll still keep tabs on Ole Miss, where he starred for four seasons and became the 22nd player in school history to reach 1,200 points in his career.

"I want to see them in the NCAA tournament," he said. "I feel like they have a great chance. I have a lot of confidence in them. With only me and Chris leaving, I think they have a great group of guys on the team that can step up.

"I feel like Terrance (Henry), this is his year. He has to step up and fill that leadership role. I feel like he's ready to take that position and Reggie (Buckner) as well. Reggie's matured every single year. He's gotten better every single year, and I think this season he's going to be even better. They're kind of like the veterans of the team now. They have to take that responsibility. Dundrecous (Nelson) playing with Chris last year, he learned a lot. He grew from the beginning to the end of the season. He showed us flashes of what he can really do. Jelan (Kendrick), he's a great addition. He'll be versatile for us. And Nick (Williams) was almost like a veteran to me. I played with Nick for a while. He'll be somebody that's mature and can help the team. They have a great core, and with Murphy (Holloway) coming back, we already know what he can bring to the court. I think it's going to be a big year for Ole Miss."

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