A couple months after I hit the biggest shot of my life, and maybe in Kansas basketball history — a three-pointer that tied the score in final seconds of the 2008 national championship game — that moment already felt like a long time ago. It was June and I was in NYC for the NBA draft. It wasn’t all the fanfare you’d imagine. I didn’t get an invite to the green room, but I wanted to go to the draft regardless. I dressed to impress and sat in the stands at MSG with my family.
My agent kept updating me after each name was called. I guess it was a good lesson for me at that age not to believe the hype, but that night as I watched, my stomach sank with each name that was called.
Thirty-three names were called before I heard mine.
When I got drafted by the Timberwolves, in the second round with the 34th pick — I was eventually traded to Miami — I felt ready to prove to the other 29 teams in the league that they had been wrong about me. (A handful of them had been wrong, twice, too.) I had a chip on my shoulder because of how the draft had gone — teams had told me at my draft workouts that I’d go much higher. To see so many guys go in front of me was tough. I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder, I think, so I guess it makes sense that I had another one there when my career began.
I remember my first game with the Heat. It was at MSG. Everyone knows how confident I am, and I was going against someone I already knew, Jamal Crawford. I had watched him when I was growing up, and played against him out in the Seattle area. So it was a great experience. I felt at ease. Pro basketball was the same sport I had always known.
I enjoyed that first year a lot, and learned that I had a place in the league. But just because I wasn’t fazed by the big stage didn’t mean that I wasn’t in awe of the guys I was facing. Going against A.I. when he was in Detroit, playing against Bron — those are great memories. And playing against KD when we were both young dudes was cool. (When I was at KU, we beat his Texas team twice. Just saying.) T-Mac was one of my all-time favorite players growing up and I got to play against him, too. As a rookie I had to make sure not to get caught watching too much.
But I never felt intimidated by it. I ended up with averages of 10.0 points, 4.9 assists and 2.0 steals. I’m most proud that I was able to start all 82 games.
Not a bad rookie season for a second-round pick.
That off-season, I had to adjust my game to fit the role that the coaches wanted me to play in Miami. I tried my best to focus on being a lockdown defender. We ended up having one of the best defensive backcourts in basketball. I’ve always been proud of that.
I entered my second year in the NBA as a player who’d already gotten 82 games — plus a playoff series — under his belt. I felt like things were getting back on track. The sting I had felt on draft night was getting less painful.
But it wasn’t all good. We lost a lot more than I was used to. Dwyane Wade was as good as ever, but Shaq was gone by then and we were struggling just to stay above .500. For me, I had always been part of a winning team or program, all the way back to high school. The losing thing was new to me.
Then, midway through my second year, I tore a ligament in my left thumb. I was only out for a month, but that’s when I realized how much an injury can change things. It was a reminder how fragile my career was.
After that season, LeBron and Chris came to Miami. Ya’ll might remember that.
Everyone remembers the NBA Finals against the Mavericks — we should have won that series. We were the better team. In the Finals, you want to leave everything that you have on the court. The last time I had played in that kind of atmosphere, of so much energy and pressure, I was wearing a Jayhawks uniform. That time we walked off into the sunset as winners. But the reality is, you can’t do that every time. Losing in the Finals that first year with Bron and D Wade left an impression on me. It was fuel for me, and I wanted to use every drop of it going forward.
In the years that followed, I came to understand what it was like to be a contributor on a world champion. I didn’t just learn how to win games, I also learned what it was like to hold up my end of a winning culture. Playing with guys like D Wade and Bron, who had both been to the Finals in previous seasons, you didn’t want to be the guy they looked at and said, “We lost ’cause of him.” Those two guys looked at me like a little brother, so all those times you saw them yelling at me, that was brotherly love, man. (But it was also real yelling!)
Those early years made me learn that a big part of the secret to success in the NBA is getting into the right situation. What I loved about Memphis after I was traded there in November 2015 was that I could come in as the sixth man and still be able to run the team while having the freedom to play how I like to play. You might think it was a step down for me to come off the bench, but I jelled with the Grizzlies’ second unit right away. Watching Vince Carter, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, I picked up a lot of little things. They had a lot of respect for my experience, too. They asked me all the time about the championships that I won in Miami and how it felt to win it all. They even asked me to bring in my rings so they could have a good look at them.
In my third game with Memphis, I scored 29 in a win over Oklahoma City — and I went toe-to-toe with Russell Westbrook the whole way.
But then, on March 9, 2016, I tore my Achilles. I knew that people like Kobe had come back from that injury and resumed their careers. If he could do it, I knew I could do it, too. So I never let doubt take over.
But for a while, early in the rehab process, it was slow going.
I couldn’t do anything, and I wasn’t supposed to. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t walk. I had a little scooter that I got around on. My mom, my dad or my older sister, Roneka — basically whoever was around — took me where I needed to go. Besides bingeing through the end of Narcos, I used all the time I had on my hands to learn about the Achilles — how I tore it and what it was going to take to rehab it. I just wanted to do a lot of research and figure it out for myself. At the time, I didn’t know what I was up against. Knowing myself, that was a good thing.
Once I was able to start playing again, my main focus was getting my speed back. That was the main thing that I thought I was lacking after my injury — that and jumping ability. I just wanted to get back to my normal form, and quickness has always been a big part of my game. Rehab was so intense. It was every day. And progress was excruciatingly slow. There are no automatic breakthroughs. I had to learn how to run again — how to accelerate and then be able to stop on a dime. I’m confident that I’ll be able to showcase my progress this year.
All in all, I wasn’t allowed to do any basketball work for five months after my surgery last spring. That was the longest I’d ever been without basketball, by far. But that was also the time when I realized that I wasn’t done. I want to get back to the Finals. Once you know what it takes to get there, you can’t play any other way.
So what’s next?
Be ready for a comeback. It’s coming soon.