First of all, welcome to the club. I wish I could say it was a more exclusive one.
Every year, I’ll usually tweet you guys some words of encouragement, but this year I wanted to do a little more than that.
For some of you, I’m sure this past draft night was a big disappointment, hearing name after name get called without any of them belonging to you.
But for many more of you, I bet last Thursday night went … pretty much how you expected. I know that was the case for me in 2008. I didn’t even stay awake for the whole draft. I fell asleep on a couch at Georgia Tech surrounded by a few friends and when I woke up, I said out loud, “I didn’t get drafted?” Everyone nodded. And that was that.
Just like you, my biggest question at that point was, “What now?”
I’m about to enter my ninth year in the NBA, which I don’t think I would have guessed would be the case when I was drooling on that couch all those years ago. Right now, you might be searching for some guidance about how you can make it. Here’s what I got for you.
First things first, be thankful. You’re in good company. You and pretty much everyone you know – your best friend, your girl, your momma — are undrafted free agents. There’s no shame in your situation. You can get into the dramatics of writing down the name of every guy drafted ahead of you, but what the hell are you going to do with that? It ain’t their fault you weren’t picked.
The most positive thing you can do right now is hit the gym. I mean the gym, the court that has personal meaning to you. The place you can describe down to the very last detail with your eyes closed. For me, it was this raggedy old practice court at Georgia Tech. Worn out floor, dirty windows and battered rims. One of my favorite places on earth. Even though the school has brand new facilities, I still go back to that gym to train every off-season because that’s where I really became a professional basketball player. Regardless of what your next step is, you need to get used to putting in extra work. Every moment you spend bitching about deserving better? You’re wasting time you could be spending getting shots up.
If you get consumed by your insecurity over not getting drafted, you really don’t stand a chance, because there’s no sense of security even if you do make it. If you’re not a superstar, playing in the NBA is all about not knowing what the hell is going to happen tomorrow. You could get traded, you could get waived, you could get benched and you could get booed. In some ways, you’re lucky that you went undrafted, because that means that you’ll have a head start on dealing with adversity. If you stay in this line of work, that shit’s coming for you regardless.
My next piece of advice is to alter your expectations.
Your goal shouldn’t be to make it to the NBA. Instead, your focus right now should be to find a place that will pay you to play basketball for at least the next year. Don’t put all that pressure on yourself by thinking too far ahead. Hell, I was almost playing in Ukraine right out of college — and I was hyped! I knew it was freezing out there but I didn’t give a shit. I’d bring a jacket. They were offering me $80,000 a year. Out of college. To play basketball. They even gave me a $10,000 signing bonus. I had a daughter on the way and I was ready for her to grow up Ukrainian. I wasn’t even sure what the language looked or sounded like, but I was ready to pledge my allegiance, man. If you have an overseas opportunity available to you, be excited about it. A lot of great players make in a league before they make it in the league.
The team in Ukraine gave me an NBA out-clause (meaning I could get out of the contract if I signed with an NBA team), so my agent arranged for me to play in a summer league with the Golden State Warriors. Summer league is an interesting situation because the general vibe is relaxed, but you’re surrounded by guys playing for their lives. Of course, your natural instinct might be to do everything in order to stand out, but by now you’ve been playing ball long enough to know what happens when you force things. I played in three different summer leagues. One with the Miami Heat in Orlando, then two with the Warriors, in Vegas and Utah. In Vegas, I only averaged 20 minutes per game, but I shot better than 70%. Then in the Utah summer league, I won MVP. On the final day, I got a knock on my door. It was the Warriors offering me a contract. When I called my mom, she almost fainted. I was so happy, but I also had to pay back some of that $10,000 Ukrainian signing bonus, which kind of sucked.
Bonus advice: Don’t spend your signing bonus all at once.
Yeah, I made it to the NBA. So what? You just watched 60 guys do that. The truth is, at some point, plenty of great players sign an NBA contract. But not many of them get to sign another one. That’s what actually matters.
When you’re undrafted, the only thing that will keep you around is being better than whatever other options are available to the team at a certain moment. It also means that you don’t have the luxury of being just a professional basketball player. Now you’re a professional at a lot of things. When a teammate is struggling and needs some love, you’re a professional motivational speaker. When the coach needs someone to use up fouls by hacking another player, you’re a professional fouler. And when Russ Westbrook and Cameron Payne are doing their crazy, elaborate handshakes before a game, you’re their professional bodyguard (this was a newer gig for me).
Someone on Twitter once said to me, “You get paid a lot of money to be a professional cheerleader.”
I said, “You’re damn right.”
I’d recommend you always pack some essentials, because you’re going be changing — most likely a lot. Guys in our situation usually don’t get the really long contracts, regardless of how well we play. You always have to prove it. You need to learn to fill a number of roles because you’re not only playing for one team, but you’re also always trying out for 29 other organizations. You always need only one team out there that thinks you’re worth a roster spot. Earn it.
The first time I moved teams, the Nets signed me as a restricted free agent. I figured the Warriors would match, but as soon as they didn’t, I had to be on my way to Jersey for a press conference. I was in Vegas at the time and didn’t even have a suit, so I had to get on that Men’s Wearhouse grind before heading to East Rutherford. I played in Jersey for two seasons, and then moved to four different teams in the next five years.
I’ve never felt any bitterness over that. It’s just the business. And I’ve gone out of my way to maintain the good relationships that I made at every single stop. I’d recommend you do the same. When we played against the Warriors in the playoffs, there were so many employees at the arena coming up to me to catch up. A lot of people I hadn’t seen in years. We didn’t make small talk about basketball. Instead they asked me about my daughter and my momma. We talked like old friends, because we were.
Get to really know the franchise you’re playing for beyond just the players and coaches. Never act like you’re above talking to anyone. Ask the security guys how their day is going. Let the team’s chefs know how much you enjoyed a pregame meal. Tell the team’s p.r. guy that you’ll be happy to make whatever public appearances the team needs to take stuff off the other guys’ plates. I remember how much it would have meant to me to have a member of the Hornets visit my neighborhood in Charlotte when I was growing up. Now that’s a gift you can give to the community you’re playing in. Your guidance can mean a lot to a young kid. Don’t take that for granted.
Throughout your professional journey, treat every single person you encounter within an organization like a coworker because the reality is that they have more job security than you do, and those people also help shape your reputation in this league. If you have a rep for being a good guy — honestly — it might not necessarily help you get a contract, but it absolutely won’t hurt.
Finally, my most important piece of advice to you is to keep that passion you have for basketball. Yes, this is your job now, but try not to make it feel like work. You’ll have plenty of coaches give you instructions on how to change your game. You’re going to feel more pressure to perform at a high level than ever before. And there are going to be times when you’re scared that it might be all over for you. But just remember: This is what you love to do. Let all the nonsense stay on the bench. When you’re on the floor, play with joy. If you grew up celebrating after every dunk, then celebrate after every dunk. There are a lot of things related to your job that are completely out of your hands. But your feelings toward the game of basketball are completely within your control. As long as you have that spark, you can still make it.
So, good luck to you, fellas. Keep grindin’. Lock yourself in the gym. And no matter what, just keep doing your thing.
If you need any more advice, hit me up on Twitter: @MrAnthonyMorrow.
Hopefully I’ll see you soon,