Zylan Cheatham Is the NBA Draft's Hidden Gem

Kaelen Jones

It’s a busy Friday afternoon in June, and Zylan Cheatham is in a state of disbelief. Aspirations are not expectations, so while the Arizona State forward has dreamt of one day becoming an NBA player, he wasn’t expectant of it. Now, he’s a day away from possibly seeing that dream realized at the 2019 draft. And while it’s not a given, he’s simply grateful for the chance.

Cheatham, listed 6'8" and 220 pounds, has spent the past month fully entrenched in the customary minutiae draft hopefuls engage in ahead of the big day. He’s flown all over the country. He's worked out for potential suitors. He's met with general managers and high-ranking officials from teams. He's taken heed of feedback. He's worked tirelessly. A phone call detailing it all has argaubly been the least overwhelming moment of his week so far.

“I’d say my head’s spinning right now,” Cheatham told Sports Illustrated. “Everything’s just moving so fast. I’ve been in a different city pretty much everyday, it seems like.”

In pro sports, it’s not uncommon for players to take unconventional paths to the league. Some even ride it to stardom. But perhaps if there is a diamond-in-the-rough case following any player in the 2019 class, then Cheatham has a strong one for not only living it, but enduring it to this point. The south Phoenix native hails from an area not recognized much, if at all, for producing premier athletic talent. He grew up in a place where kids easily end up in gangs, but he fortunately managed to avoid it. When Cheatham was in junior high, his best friend, Darvish Fletcher, convinced the football-loving Cheatham to give basketball a try. That's when Cheatham began taking basketball seriously for the first time. The two spent countless hours together in gyms competing to the point where Cheatham thinks basketball eventually consumed his life.

“It was almost like a safe haven,” he said.

It didn’t take Cheatham long to understand he had potential. In eighth grade, he helped his junior high school win a championship and was named co-player of the year. Club teams and high schools recruited him for his services. “That was something that was much different for me because growing up,” Cheatham said. “I wasn’t like a big-time recruit or anything like that. Once I finally started kind of getting my hand out there and kind of getting on the scene a little bit and getting some attention, [I thought] maybe get to a college out of this. Once I realized that, I haven’t looked back since.”

As Cheatham entered high school, the path his journey took didn't grow increasingly clear. He played at South Mountain (Ariz.) for two seasons before transferring to the now-closed Westwind Prep Academy his junior year. Cheatham transferred back to South Mountain upon learning that the NCAA wouldn't recognize any of the classes he took his junior year at Westwind. He took his senior year courses in addition to making up for his junior year workload. Despite the noise, he developed into a four-star prospect, drawing interest from a handful of universities.

Cheatham earned a scholarship to San Diego State, in lieu of complications surrounding eligibility. But shortly after arriving on campus, he broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot. He had never broken a bone or suffered an injury necessitating surgery prior, then suddenly found himself sitting out as a redshirt. “That was an adjustment in itself,” Cheatham said.

(Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

When he finally took the court, he did so with intent. Cheatham started a majority of his games for the Aztecs, averaging 8.4 points and 5.8 rebounds across 69 games (48 starts). But after failing to reach the NCAA tournament through seasons, he decided it was time to move on.

Cheatham transferred to Arizona State, sitting out a season due to NCAA rules before finally getting an opportunity to play. He spent the idle year being anything but. He worked hard in practice, often garnering praise from head coach Bobby Hurley and teammates commending his worth ethic.

Cheatham's anticipation grew as the calendar flipped to 2018. Before the campaign started, he and Hurley had a conversation about approaching it with intent, the same way Hurley, considered a legendary college point guard, approached his final year at Duke. Hurley spent the interval between his junior and senior seasons working out with the football team, envisioning what adjustments he could make and how he could be more of a vocal leader on the floor. Hurley improved in several statistical categories, including making a marked jump from 12 points per game to 17.

The conversation resonated with Cheatham. He immediately emerged as an impact player, posing a double-double threat every night. On Dec. 1 against Texas Southern, he recorded the second triple-double in Arizona State history. A few weeks later, he helped the Sun Devils take down the nation's No. 1 team for the first time ever when it toppled Kansas.

(Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Things appeared to be coming together, but on Dec. 29, life took another unexpected turn. The Sun Devils were facing Princeton at home and expected to win. They lost by one point in devastating fashion. Cheatham drove home that night already disappointed from the game. But as he pulled into his driveway, his phone rang. It was father, who shared grim news. His brother, Wanyaa Stewart, had been shot.

"It’s something that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy," Cheatham said.

At least four hours passed as Cheatham waited in the hospital before learning that his brother had died. The feeling is still indescribable. "To go from such a low in losing to Princeton, to go as low as it possibly gets in losing my little brother, I was an emotional wreck," Cheatham said. "My thoughts were all over the place. I didn’t know how to think, I didn’t know what to expect, how to feel about anything that was going on."

Cheatham leaned on his immediate support system of family, coaches and teammates following his brother's death. He received an outpour of support from fans, too. 

Losing his brother was the toughest moment of Cheatham's life. He used it as fuel to ensure he made the most of the final chapter of his college basketball career. He twice grabbed 20 rebounds in a single game, becoming just the ninth player in school history to do so, and the first is 21 years. He helped ASU advance to the NCAA tournament and earn its first victory at the Big Dance since 2014. Despite only playing one season, he became a clear fan favorite. In reflection, he said he made the right decision to see out his final year with the Sun Devils.

"It was almost like a fairy-tale ending to my story, to end back home where I���m from," Cheatham said. "Looking back, it was a great journey, but it wasn’t always as easy as it seems."

(Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images)

Cheatham is proving to himself that he can not only play at the next level, but belongs there. For him, it starts with putting in the work to reach that point. In "the real world," he's learned that coaches no longer prod to get practice in. He can sit and be lazy, if he chooses. But being so close to his dream, he's putting his best foot forward and staying true to himself. And, in spite of the curveballs thrown at him through this point in his career, if there's anything he's learned playing basketball, it's that his best work comes when his back is against the wall.

"I’ve been counted out," he said. "I’ve been in situations where it seemed like there was no light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve hit rock bottom mentally, physically, and emotionally. But one thing about me is that I always get back up in some way, shape or form. Whether it’s immediately or whether it takes time for me to get back on my feet and get back on, at some point I’m going to do it. No matter what. My heart, my passion, my desire for this game is stronger than anything that could come in-between that."

It all still doesn’t seem real to Cheatham. Every pre-draft trip has left him starry-eyed, considering that where he comes from "stuff like this just doesn’t happen." In having his journey come full-circle, he doesn't take his present standing for granted; it's a dream coming true.

And there's tangible reason for Cheatham to feel such a way. At least eight teams have met with him leading up to draft day, including the Dallas Mavericks and his hometown Phoenix Suns. It's possible that one of those clubs, or another, chooses him.

“To say that eight, nine years ago, I had seen this very vision of me getting in this position happening,” Cheatham said. “It took a lot longer than I thought, but this is something I’ve had in mind and something I’ve really wanted to accomplish. To see it coming into reality and this is actually something that’s really possible now, I don’t even know how to put it into words.”