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Former top NBA prospect prepping for MMA debut

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At 6’8” and now around 260 lbs Royce White was the 16th pick in the 2012 NBA draft, but after a complicated battle with the league over mental health protocols and the NBA’s unrelenting travel schedule, he’s moving away from pro hoops and over to MMA.

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From the sound of things, Royce White and the NBA got off on the wrong foot from the get go. Diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder as a teen, by the time White declared for the NBA draft, scouts and media were already wondering how much leeway he’d get with things like a fear of flying in the ‘League.’ The answer was, not much.

A recent profile from Sports Illustrated examined White’s shortlived NBA career – just three games – as well as his battles with NBA executives to push forward policy for improved mental health protocols. Drafted in 2012, White spent the bulk of his time in pro hoops playing D-League, Summer League, and NBL Canada ball.

Still only 28-year-old, much of the physical tools that made him a top prospect after just a year of college ball seemingly haven’t diminished, though. And the fact that the 6’8” 260 lb former power forward is turning those physical tools to MMA makes him a fascinating prospect all over again.

White is currently training out of the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy in Minneapolis, under the guidance of Greg Nelson, the man who played a principal factor in Brock Lesnar’s transition from pro wrestling to MMA.

“It’s not just that level,” Nelson told SI, speaking of White’s elite athleticism. “It’s the work ethic that goes with it. When you’ve been a professional athlete, you know what it means to train. And Royce is putting in the work.”

Aside from the increasingly long odds of ever restarting an NBA career, White spoke to Sports Illustrated about why he decided to move to MMA, highlighting the high emphasis that mixed martial arts places on the “competitive ethos.”

“As a basketball player, I watched the deterioration of the competitive ethos, the erosion of the value of competition. The entertainment and the dollars [subsumed] competition on so many levels,” White said. “Mixed martial arts, it’s not ‘just business.’ It’s entertaining but not entertainment. It’s the highest level of competition. And the purest.”

Reportedly, whenever White is able to finally make his pro debut, he’s already on the UFC’s radar. The promotion’s Contender Series program was instrumental in bringing Greg Hardy to the Octagon just three fights after his pro debut. If White can show that kind of early promise, he may find his path to the UFC shorter than most.

White also wrote a book about his journey from the NBA to combat sports, MMA x NBA: A Critique of Modern Sport in America, in which he further explained some of his decision making, while also examining the many other cultural factors at work to shape the landscape of pro athletics in the US.

“In the mind of a competitive team sport athlete like myself,” White writes, “The green pastures of individual sport and the open access to them lies there like a utopian dream providing all the solutions to your current concerns. And so naturally this whole process in me toward Mixed Martial Arts has been in part or in full motivated by that gatekeeperless mystique of individual sports. In individual sports you’re not drafted, nor are you hired or fired by a coach or general manager. In that wild west, libertarian sportscape of individual sports, you’re on your own. Does not the true competitor long for just that?, the opportunity to be exulted or condemned solely on their own merits or demerits?

Just where that dream will take White remains to be seen. Heavyweight, as a division, is built largely on absurd toughness and knockout power. Many former pro (or nearly) level athletes have tried to make the switch over the years, and found the path from regional success to elite competition an exceptionally hard one to walk.

As White’s own coach put it, “We’ll see what happens when he takes a big shot. That’s when you learn a lot about someone and you learn a lot about yourself.”