NATCHITOCHES – Zeek Woodley stayed as close to home as possible to play college basketball, a 38-mile drive from Pelican in DeSoto Parish down to Natchitoches and Northwestern State.
Now, he’s going global. Thursday, Woodley signed a contract to play professionally 5,600 miles away, across the Atlantic Ocean for Sigal Prishtina in Kosovo. In addition to domestic league play in Kosovo, the club will be playing in the Champions League, which has teams in 15 different European countries including France, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Hungary, Poland and Romania.
Woodley’s last three appearances in Prather Coliseum have been noteworthy. He claimed his college diploma on stage in the arena May 12, complete with pyrotechnics, pomp and circumstance. Thursday, in a brief ceremony in the foyer of the coliseum joined by friends, coaches and his NSU point guard, Jalan West, Woodley put his signature on a contract sending him into one of the world’s best pro hoops circuits.
“Only about five percent of players overseas make it to the Champions League,” said Woodley’s agent, New Orleans attorney Jason Elam. “There were only two rookies there last year. It’s an opportunity most guys play an entire career but never attain. It’s a big step from Pelican to Natchitoches to Kosovo, and he’s making it.
“It’s the pathway to developing a career, not just playing domestically in a national league, but at the international level. You can go from making good money to making NBA money in Europe,” said Elam. “It’s a testament to what he did here at Northwestern and what the coaches here did to further his development and provide such a great opportunity.”
Woodley got his passport on the afternoon he graduated from NSU, anticipating playing overseas. The reality struck home this week.
“It’s very shocking. My family is still going crazy about it, but this is going to be all right,” said the soft-spoken star. “I’m still playing basketball.”
That was in doubt, at least in his mind, after he fractured a bone in his right (shooting) wrist Dec. 19 in a game against Rice, requiring surgery and resulting in eight weeks on the sideline as he watched 15 games.
“When I got hurt, I thought I might not be able to play as good as I had been. There were doubts, but I overcame them, thank God,” said Woodley, who averaged 23.3 points in NSU’s final four games of the season, leading the Demons to a 3-1 record, including triumphs over league champion New Orleans and runner-up Stephen F. Austin, snapping the Lumberjacks’ five-year homecourt Southland Conference winning streak.
His new team regularly packs a 4,000-seat arena. He’ll travel to venues that will draw crowds of 20-25,000 and more during an eight-month schedule with three games weekly around Europe.
“It’s basketball, it’s what I love doing, so I’m confident and excited,” said Woodley. “I’ve played in front of big crowds in big arenas and that’s nothing new. I might be a little nervous, but not too much. I’ve never been over there and it will be interesting.”
His college coach, Mike McConathy, is confident Woodley will be well received by his new team, where he will play the shooting guard position and be expected to pour in 20-25 points a game.
“He is truly the most unselfish scorer I’ve ever been around. Scorers tend to take high volume of shots, but he never did that,” said McConathy, who also scored 2,033 points in his college career from 1973-77 at Louisiana Tech, then briefly played in Europe. “He will fit better, faster, with players at the professional level because they’ll find he will get them the ball.
“Anything is an adjustment, but he’s made those with every step. More will be expected night in and night out, and it’s a greater task,” said McConathy. “But when we played the Power 5 schools, a level of competition that’s pretty high, I continually saw him rise to that level and excel throughout his career.”
Away from the court, the transition will be more extreme, but Elam said there’s a strong support system in place. There are typically 2-4 Americans on each team.
“All the Champions League teams devote a lot of resources to supporting their players off the court. All the coaches speak English, to some degree, and they provide translators at all times. They have staff who do anything that he’ll need,” he said. “When these guys walk around town, everyone knows who they are. They get treated like royalty.”
Contemplating beginning his first great adventure in a few weeks, after training in New Orleans, Woodley smiled at the thought of adjusting to life far from home in a completely different culture.
“I’m not the kind of person who worries about a lot of things,” he said, “so I’ll just let it come to me and go with the flow. I’ve got to work hard, try to make it to the NBA, and if that doesn’t work out, just keep playing over there in Europe. From everything I’ve heard, it’s a great lifestyle and it’s great basketball.”
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