The Chicago Bulls were on the clock. It was Nov. 18, 2020, and as the drama of the NBA draft was unfolding, Doug Neustadt was at his house in Rockville, pacing between his office and the family room.
Normally, Neustadt, an agent for NBA players, would be at the draft, huddled with his clients in the greenroom as they waited for their names to be called. But last year’s draft was virtual, leaving Neustadt to work his phone from home while his 16-year-old son monitored Twitter and his wife and 11-year-old daughter watched it on TV. They all munched nervously on charcuterie that a friend had dropped off.
Neustadt thought there was a chance that his star player, 19-year-old Israeli phenom Deni Avdija, would be selected by Chicago with the fourth pick in the first round, but the Bulls took Patrick Williams, a forward from Florida State. Cleveland, Atlanta, Detroit and New York held the next four picks.
“Earlier that day I was talking to Detroit and I found out that they had somebody ahead of him,” Neustadt, 49, says. “So about an hour or two before the draft I called Deni and said, ‘Here’s where we’re at. If Chicago doesn’t draft you, and Cleveland doesn’t draft you, there’s a heck of a chance you’re going to go to Washington at nine.’ ”
An NBA agent’s primary responsibility is to negotiate their client’s contract with the team that holds the player’s rights, land them endorsement deals, and manage their career. But as Neustadt has learned throughout his 25 years in the business, the job encompasses much more. When a player wants to blow off steam about a coach they don’t like or a teammate who’s hogging the ball, Neustadt listens. When a client calls him to ask for a restaurant recommendation near the team hotel in, say, Denver, he’s supposed to have a place in mind. He’s tracked down a PlayStation for a player and booked another’s honeymoon to Greece.
“Especially with his European clients, he might get calls in the middle of the night, and he just wakes up and deals with them,” says his wife, Shelly Simon, who’s an attorney and owner of Gemini Title & Escrow in Rockville. “When it’s not COVID, he’s traveling all the time. Constant phone calls talking to teams and potential clients. He’s on 24/7.”
Neustadt was born and raised in the Cleveland area before his family moved to Pennsylvania when he was 11. Growing up, he was a die-hard Ohio State University fan. “When Ohio State lost the 1980 Rose Bowl, I threw a lamp across the room,” he says, “and I wasn’t at my house.” Neustadt majored in finance at OSU and worked as a manager for the men’s basketball team. (Although he’s 6-foot-5, Neustadt was never a serious player himself.) After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, he knew he wanted to stay in the world of basketball, so he contacted then-OSU coach Randy Ayers, who helped him land an internship at Advantage International, a major sports agency that’s now called Octagon. He stayed there until 2005, when he founded The Neustadt Group, a “boutique” agency that has three other employees. “I felt I had learned enough on the NBA side, on the international side, on the shoe and marketing side, that I kind of wanted to be the captain of my own ship,” he says.
Neustadt’s first major client was Boris Diaw, who played 14 years in the NBA and won a championship with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014. Neustadt, who’s still close with Diaw, has always been selective about who he signs. “We do deep dives on players,” he says. “Are they good people? Are they coachable? Do they love basketball? Because if you don’t love it, the work that you’re going to need to put in to maximize your potential is just not going to happen. Finally, we ask what are their expectations. They can have all of these qualities, but you’re destined to fail if everyone’s expectations are different than reality.”
Straightforwardness, he says, is a key to successful long-term relationships with players.
“To pump someone up with a pipe dream is the wrong move,” he says. “You say to someone, ‘Look, you didn’t have a good year. I’m going to give you best-case, likely-case, and worst-case scenarios. Let’s go through them.’ If they don’t like what they hear and they want different answers, well, we can’t provide that. And we won’t.”
Neustadt’s roster of clients includes Darius Miller of the Oklahoma City Thunder and veteran C.J. Miles, currently a free agent. Neustadt focuses much of his efforts on signing European players, working with agents in Israel, Spain and France. It was through one of those partnerships that he came to know Avdija, now 20, a star player with Maccabi Tel Aviv.
“Deni is very bright, very perceptive,” says Neustadt, who met Avdija in 2018. “He picks up on things easily, both basketball-wise and off the floor. He spent three months in Atlanta training for the draft. We put him through strength and agility training, and he would have two basketball workouts a day. Then his idea of a really good time at night would be either going outside to eat at a nice restaurant or having game night. I have played more Monopoly in the last six months, you have no idea.”
The time and effort both men invested paid off. On draft night, with the clock ticking on Washington’s allotted five minutes, Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard called Neustadt and told him the team was taking Avdija. It was Neustadt’s third career top-10 pick. Later, when another of Neustadt’s clients, French guard Theo Maledon, was selected in the second round by the Philadelphia 76ers (then traded to Oklahoma City), the Neustadts celebrated with a Champagne toast. Around midnight, Avdija—who signed a reported four-year, $20.34 million contract—called Neustadt from Israel. It was close to 7 a.m. in Tel Aviv, and the two rehashed the night and laughed at the fact that they were going to be neighbors.
“I think people get into this industry for various reasons,” Neustadt says. “For me, it wasn’t because I wanted to hang out with superstars or I want the red-carpet treatment. I did it because I truly love the basketball side of it. It allows me, someone who always looked at the NBA from a distance, to be involved in the game. I like helping players make big decisions. I like talking to a general manager about my player. I like a heavy-duty negotiation. Those are the moments I cherish.”