The old medieval proverb says "All roads lead to Rome". Phillip Wheeler actually hopes his unusual path to the Italian capital will lead him to bigger and better things, starting at the Euroleague Basketball Adidas Next Generation Tournament Munich.
Wheeler is one of the few players from the United States of America who has played at the ANGT and his intriguing skillset has been on display as he averaged 8.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 1.0 blocks in U18 Stellazzurra Rome's run to the first-place game at the ANGT Munich.
"When I first got here I just figured, 'Okay I will see how it goes.' I was kind of nervous because it’s my first time being in Europe. The first game I started kind of rusty. The second game I started to get the groove and the third game was just one of the best experiences I had. I had so much fun," said Wheeler, who will hope to help Stellazzurra past reigning continental champion U18 Real Madrid and earn a ticket to the ANGT Finals at the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four.
The 2.04-meter athletic forward is not your usual American in Europe. Wheeler is still three months shy of his 18th birthday and he is the latest example of young Americans looking for other roads to their promised land. Wheeler decided to forego his senior year of high school at Ranney School in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, and sign with Stellazzurra with the hopes that the reputable Roman organization could give him the development needed to take the next step.
"Sticking to one style is not always going to work."
"It was competition, basically. That was the main thing. We just wanted me to get better to get to the highest level. I decided for here because I thought I could build on my game, learn different things, learn different styles. Sticking to one style is not always going to work," Wheeler said.
There is a growing list of Americans who have elected other ways to continue their basketball education than the common high school-college route in the U.S. Brandon Jennings was one of the first who decided against college and came to Italy to play for Lottomatica Roma before heading to the NBA Draft. Emmanuel Mudiay played in China instead of the NCAA while Terrance Ferguson in 2016 spent a season in Australia instead of facing players of his same age group. And right now, two big names are in the Australian NBL league: LaMelo Ball with Illawarra Hawks (though his season was just declared over with an injury) and R.J. Hampton with New Zealand Breakers. Ball was not eligible to go to college, but Hampton also decided against the NCAA route.
"I was seeing how they were out there doing their thing. I saw they started to get better and were working on their games and it was different, different styles of play. I thought I could try this out and see how it is," Wheller explained.
Wheeler took his step a year earlier than the likes of Jennings, Mudiay and Hampton in that he could still be playing high school basketball in the United States. His junior season at Ranney was wildly successful; the team won its first New Jersey state title thanks also to two standout players in Scottie Lewis and Bryan Antoine, who both earned the distinguished McDonald’s All-American honor and have moved onto high-level college programs at Florida and Villanova, respectively.
Because of the dominance of Lewis and Antoine, Wheeler received less attention from colleges though he already had interest from some programs. But Wheeler had already started thinking about professional basketball as an option.
"It started junior year mid-season. It was just a thought," he said. "It wasn’t like this is gonna happen, this is 100 percent. It was just let's see at the end of the season what my recruiting is like."
Towards the end of the season, Wheeler was thinking that the 2019-20 season would not be as good for Ranney with the departures of Lewis and Antoine and he wanted to step up his competition level.
Enter Taqwa Pinero, who played in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague under the name Taquan Dean for Dynamo Moscow, Unicaja Malaga and Caja Laboral. Pinero, who played last season with French club Pau Orthez at 36 years old, played high school basketball with Wheeler’s father and he talked on the phone to Wheeler and his parents about what he could expect if he made the move to Italy.
"He said this is gonna get you better. If you want to improve and not play against kids and want to play against grown men and step your game up this is what you got to do," Wheeler recalled. Wheeler was ready to go but his mom and dad needed some more convincing.
"My parents were skeptical because my mom is very protective. She didn't want to send her kid all the way over there, a different country with her not being there. I said, mom, I need to grow up one day, and she said, Alright, I’m letting you take it. I'm giving you the wheel," he said.
And Wheeler has been having a great time.
"I have loved it. It's helped me build. When I started looking into it, everybody thought it would be a good idea. I felt learning different things, learning a new language everything, would be good."
Giacomo Rossi, the general manager at Stellazzurra said Wheeler’s adjustment to being in Italy has been getting better.
"It was not easy. It's a totally different environment and final goals. In high school, they played mainly only-one-on and there is no team basketball with a global picture. For him, it was hard at the beginning to understand that basketball can be other things. But he’s a good guy. He knows that he needs to change. But he cannot do it fast," Rossi said.
"The value of every single action in Europe is very different than in the USA."
"The value of every single action in Europe is very different than in the USA. So one mistake in Europe is two or three more times important than in the USA. He needs to understand these kinds of things."
Understanding the Italian language has been a bit easier for Wheeler than other young Americans since he took Spanish classes in the US school system for four years.
The ANGT Munich is also not the first time Wheeler has been on the big stage. In the summer of 2018, he traveled to Argentina to play in the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2018 with the Puerto Rico national team. He averaged 4.0 points and 3.0 rebounds as the central Americans sensationally won the bronze medal: arguably the biggest accomplishment for Puerto Rican basketball on the international level - youth or senior.
"It was amazing. Once we got back to Puerto Rico everybody was ecstatic and happy for us. We just took it all in. We worked and prepared for it. We went out there and had a goal and we got there - just like here with these guys," said Wheeler, who was a year younger than the rest of the competition in Argentina.
When asked what was the biggest thing he learned from the U17 World Cup, Wheeler said: "Never, ever say you can't, because there is always a way."
Just like there is always a road leading to Rome.