By Tim Casey
Shortly after Ta'Quan Zimmerman finished his basketball season at Canada's Thompson Rivers University in February, he met with coach Scott Clark and pledged he would return. Zimmerman, a 6-foot-2 guard, had attended four colleges in four years but still had two years of eligibility remaining. He wanted some stability.
A few weeks later, Zimmerman called Clark with stunning news. He had decided to leave school, return home to Connecticut and declare for the NBA draft.
"It was out of the blue," Clark said.
To Zimmerman and his family, the choice made sense. To others, it was another example of a kid receiving bad advice and overestimating his worth. Every year, when the NBA releases its list of early draft entrants, the math doesn't add up.
There are always sure-fire lottery picks such as Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker, but there are also little-known players such as Zimmerman who have no chance of getting selected. This year, 44 underclassmen gave up their amateur status. Around half of them could become one of the 30 first round selections and receive guaranteed contracts. The rest are hoping to be picked in the second round, join an NBA summer league team or sign to play overseas.
None, arguably, are as big of a long shot or have as fascinating a career path as Zimmerman. In his lone season at Thompson Rivers, he averaged nearly 20 points per game and made 44% of his three-pointers for a team that Clark compared with NAIA Division 1 schools. Still, no NBA franchises invited Zimmerman to work out for them. He realizes he won't hear his name called during Thursday's draft, yet he remains positive and without regrets. The rejections won't keep him from pursuing his professional dreams.
"I knew everything was going to be a grind, everything was going to be an uphill battle," Zimmerman said. "I'm coming from a small school in Canada. I'm going to earn and work for everything I get. It's nothing new. I've been doing it my whole life."
For the past five years, since graduating from Holy Cross High School in Waterbury, Conn., nothing seemingly has gone as Zimmerman had planned. After not receiving any scholarship offers, he enrolled at Putnam Science Academy, an all-boys boarding school in northeast Connecticut 90 minutes from home. Facing tough competition against New England prep schools, Zimmerman excelled. He set the school record with 24 points per game and attracted interest from several mid-major Division 1 colleges.
"He's the one that really put us on the map," Putnam coach Tom Espinosa said. "I definitely think he could have played in the Atlantic-10, for sure."
Instead, Zimmerman didn't qualify academically, limiting his options. In the fall of 2010, he headed to Long Island University, where he had to pay his own tuition, room and board. He worked out with the team and planned on playing on scholarship the next year. During a scrimmage, while performing a jab step to get past his defender, Zimmerman felt his left knee buckle. At first, he didn't think much of it, so he finished the practice.
At 5 o'clock the next morning, as Zimmerman rose from his bed, he fell to the floor. He was tired and thought he was dreaming. He tried to get out of bed again, but he collapsed for a second time. When he visited the team trainer, he was told he had a minor sprain in his medal collateral ligament. Zimmerman then underwent an MRI that revealed he had torn his left meniscus, a much more serious injury than anyone had predicted. He spent a few more weeks on campus before returning home and undergoing surgery.
"I was sitting there with no ball and stuff like that and was kind of depressed," Zimmerman said. "I kind of lost interest in the school."
Zimmerman's next stop was at Southeastern Community College in West Burlington, Iowa. He only lasted a few months. Ten players were dismissed from school in December 2011 after getting caught breaking into an on-campus store. Two others were declared academically ineligible. Zimmerman and another player were the only ones not involved in either situation. With a depleted roster, the team had to forfeit the final 12 games of the season. Zimmerman soon left Iowa.
"That was a waste of a year for me," he said.
The following summer, Zimmerman received a call from Jerry Burns, the coach at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York. Burns had heard about Zimmerman through a coaching friend at American International College. Burns drove to Connecticut to watch Zimmerman play, saw him workout in New York City with a few other Monroe players and offered him a spot on the team.
At Monroe, Zimmerman started at shooting guard, averaged 10.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game and shot 39.7% from the floor and 25.6% on three-pointers. Monroe finished 32-4 and fifth in the nation among Division 2 community colleges. Zimmerman made the second-team All-Region squad and left a positive impression.
"I loved having him around -- he was a pleasure to coach," Burns said. "The thing about him that I always felt was good was he understood what a basketball player for our program had to deal with like showing up for class, showing up on time, being in the weight room, lifting. You never had to worry about him not being there or all of that other stuff that some kids cause grief."
During the season, several NCAA Division 1 schools contacted Zimmerman, but they backed off after he again failed to meet the academic qualifying standards. Burns and others at Monroe tried to help Zimmerman petition the NCAA and gain an extra year of eligibility to make him more attractive to schools. They received documentation stating he wasn't involved in the break-in at Southeastern Community College and argued that that year should not have counted against his four years of eligibility. The request was denied.
"I was very, very, very, very frustrated," Zimmerman said. "It was like heartbreaking news because I thought my dream was finally here."
Unsure of his next move, Zimmerman was home one day last summer when coaches at Thompson Rivers contacted him. They had seen videos of him on YouTube, but they had never watched him play in person. Zimmerman, who had never heard of the school, visited the campus in Kamloops, British Columbia and soon committed.
It didn't take him long to adjust to a new country, the team's modified Princeton offense or the FIBA rules used in Canadian colleges such as a 24-second shot clock and three-point line that is a foot longer than in the NCAA. He finished second in the 16-team Canada West conference in scoring (19.6 points per game) and three-point percentage (44.9%). Thompson Rivers went 13-9 and advanced to the postseason for the first time in its history.
Canadian rules differ from NCAA regulations, so Zimmerman could have played for two more years at Thompson Rivers. He planned on returning but changed his mind after speaking with his family, including his oldest brother, Tyrell, a former minor league football player who now runs the non-profit Zimmnation Foundation for youths. He was already 22 years old and didn't want to risk injuring himself while playing in college. He figured he could always finish his degree online, as well.
"I felt like I'm good enough to start getting paid to play basketball," Zimmerman said. "I felt like I got the most out of playing in Canada. I wasn't going to get too much better playing out there."
Clark, Thompson Rivers' coach, had nothing but good things to say about Zimmerman's work ethic or demeanor. However, he said he contacted some agents to gauge Zimmerman's professional prospects and about representing Zimmerman. None were interested. When Zimmerman asked Clark for advice, he told him he should come back to school for at least one more year so he could be closer to graduating.
"I don't hold his decision against him at all," Clark said. "I hope he doesn't hold what my views are on what I think he should or shouldn't do. I said to him, 'If I was your Dad or mother or your family member, this is what I would do.' But different circumstances for different people. It's not for me to judge."
Since leaving Thompson Rivers, Zimmerman has been busy trying to catch the attention of teams. On March 24, he uploaded a 5 minutes and 26 second video on YouTube showing highlights from last season. The title: Ta'Quan Zimmerman "Why Not Me."
In late May, he flew to Los Angeles where he spent time in the gym with noted basketball trainer Rob McClanaghan, whose clients include Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Stephen Curry and Derrick Rose. Ryan Gomes, Zimmerman's cousin and an eight-year NBA veteran, has worked out with McClanaghan for more than a decade.
When Zimmerman was in California, McClanaghan trained former UConn star Shabazz Napier and Dante Exum, an 18 year-old from Australia. Unlike Napier and Exum, both of whom are projected first round picks, Zimmerman understands he won't get drafted on Thursday.
Jonathan Tilly, an agent representing Zimmerman, said he sent game film and biographical information to every franchise. Representatives from the Warriors, Spurs, Magic and Hornets contacted Clark and asked about coaching Zimmerman. Clark raved about Zimmerman's character, but the organizations didn't ask much about his basketball skills. No teams worked him out.
Zimmerman is still hoping to join an NBA summer league team, although that seems unlikely. He's also willing to go overseas and claims to have a contract offer in China. Still, Clark worries about Zimmerman's chances. He said leagues outside of the United States typically only have slots for two or three Americans per team, and there are usually more opportunities for players 6-foot-9 or taller. The pay varies widely among the leagues, too. Sometimes, teams cut players without warning and withhold their money. There are also challenges associated with living in a foreign country and assimilating to a different culture.
"It can be a difficult situation," Clark said.
Zimmerman isn't discouraged, though. He's not sure if he'll watch the draft, but he's certain he'll continue to do all he can to play professional basketball. He knows no other way.
"My ultimate goal is the NBA, but I've been hitting road blocks my whole life," Zimmerman said. "I'm not really afraid of a road block anymore."