ROSELLE, N.J. — On a recent Friday evening, Naasir Cunningham was back home in New Jersey doing what he does best: flying up and down a basketball court, deftly floating in baskets and hitting an array of jump shots from various angles.
Five months earlier, Cunningham had left his home in West Orange, N.J., and his friends at the Gill St. Bernard’s high school in Gladstone, to join the quasi-professional Overtime Elite league based in Atlanta. His parents moved to be near their son.
Cunningham, 17, a 6-foot-7 small forward, was now performing in a showcase at Roselle Catholic High School before a curious and wide-ranging crowd of several hundred that included N.B.A. agents, professional scouts, college coaches, casual local fans and 13-year-old boys seeking his autograph. The game was also live streamed for the hoop heads who couldn’t attend it.
In a move that speaks to both the appetite for live programming and the appeal of rising basketball stars like Cunningham, Overtime Elite has entered an agreement with Amazon Prime Video, Amazon’s streaming service, giving Prime Video exclusive streaming rights in the United States to 20 live games per season for the next three years.
Officials for the companies declined to disclose the terms of the deal, which was announced Wednesday. But the companies said that Amazon had also made an investment in Overtime as part of a recent funding round. “It looks a lot like a sports league does,” Dan Porter, chief executive of Overtime, said in an interview ahead of the announcement.
Live sports are “the only thing that hold a linear television bundle together and they’re super valuable,” Porter said. “Look at the success that Amazon is having with Thursday Night Football and Apple is going to have with Major League Baseball. I think that that’s the future and we want to participate in that.”
Amazon, which claims it has more than 200 million subscribers to Amazon Prime, already owns the rights to numerous live sporting events, including in football, baseball, soccer and tennis, and has signaled interest in the N.B.A.
And as it targets an increasingly younger audience, Amazon is adding Overtime Elite, a six-team basketball league featuring top 16- to 20-year-old male players from around the world. The league counts Amazon founder Jeff Bezos among its investors.
Many of the league’s players hope they will wind up in the N.B.A., just like Dominick Barlow, a 6-foot-10 forward from Dumont, N.J., who played for Overtime Elite last season and is now with the San Antonio Spurs. Among the league’s current players are the 19-year-old twins Ausar and Amen Thompson, who are both projected to be lottery picks in next year’s N.B.A. draft.
When the Thompsons signed with the league for its inaugural season in 2021, they and the other players agreed to contracts worth at least $100,000 each. That, in turn, made them ineligible for college basketball.
Ahead of the league’s second season, Overtime changed course by allowing what it calls a scholarship option, whereby players do not get paid but retain their college eligibility while still being able to earn income through endorsement deals, the same way college athletes have been able to do through so-called name, image and likeness deals.
Cunningham, in consultation with his father, chose that option and is still being recruited by a slew of major men’s college programs, including Duke, Kansas, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas and Seton Hall.
Cunningham, speaking in an interview while nursing a sore ankle and eating a slice of pizza after a game, said he has more time to devote to his craft than he would have had at a traditional high school. In that way, Overtime functions similar to the European training academies that feed professional club teams.
“The skill development, being able to play against top players every day, it’s like there’s no room for slacking, there’s no room to goof off,” Cunningham said. “You’re always going to be working, you’re always getting better.”
Still, Overtime isn’t for everyone.
A year ago, Efton Reid, a center rated as a five-star recruit, turned down a six-figure offer in favor of attending Louisiana State because the new professional league planned to play against prep school opponents.
Reid’s mother, Maria, said in an interview at the time that he had already done that while at IMG Academy in Florida “and did not want to repeat another year playing against prep schools.” She added: “He wants to play against the next level college ball.”
Reid has since transferred to Gonzaga.
In August, the Michigan State commit Jeremy Fears reversed his original plan to play for Overtime and instead will spend his senior season playing at Joliet West High in Illinois with his brother.
Back in New York and New Jersey, some coaches of high-profile prospects expressed concern about letting their players compete against the Overtime Elite teams, fearing they might be recruited to join the league and thus leave their high school teams. Of course, nothing was stopping the league from reaching out to those players anyway.
Simeon Wilcher, a 6-foot-5 senior point guard at Roselle Catholic and an honors student, turned down what his father said was a high-six-figure offer from Overtime Elite in August 2021 because he preferred the more traditional high school experience, including playing high school basketball. Last year, he helped lead the Lions to their fourth New Jersey Tournament of Champions title, beating D.J. Wagner, the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2023, and Camden High School in the final. (They also beat Cunningham and his Gill St. Bernard’s team along the way.)
Wilcher also wanted other benefits from high school, like staying with his friends and attending the big events.
“You always gotta love the regular high school stuff, like prom, graduation,” he said. “All of that is needed, that’s memories that you’ll never be able to get back.”
Still, Wilcher, who committed to North Carolina last fall, is earning endorsement money, his father, Sergio Wilcher, said, through various deals. It is increasingly common for high-profile high school basketball players to have agents representing them for name, image and likeness deals, but Wilcher doesn’t have one, his father said.
Jonathan Givony, an N.B.A. draft expert for ESPN, sat in the stands at Roselle Catholic taking notes on each player on a spreadsheet to prepare for future N.B.A. mock drafts.
He said there is a benefit to Overtime Elite in that players who want to be future pros like Cunningham can devote themselves to their craft and find themselves playing in front of more fans more quickly.
“There is no comparison between a public school and what O.T.E. has to offer in terms of the platform that they offer, the national exposure, the competition that they play, the schedule,” he said.
Ross Perlstein and Owen Burns, 13-year-old fans from Livingston, N.J., didn’t really care which players competed for Overtime Elite or the high school teams at Roselle Catholic. Burns wore a North Carolina jersey autographed by Roy Williams, its former coach, and asked Wilcher, Cunningham and several other players to add their signatures.
“I feel like a lot of these guys are going to play overseas or in the N.B.A.,” Perlstein said, “so I feel like we’re watching what they’re becoming.”