For many of you, up until this point, your career has been like climbing a ladder. You’ve successfully climbed rung after rung — stellar high school career, get recruited by top programs, ball out at the college level — in order to get to your final destination: the NBA. Now you’re on the very brink of a goal that almost every kid who has ever picked up a basketball has desired. Don’t take that accomplishment lightly, because a very select few ever make it to this point.
But the honest truth, which you probably already know, is that a lot of guys don’t make it much further. Everyone is aware of how difficult it is to thrive in the NBA, but actually experiencing it is something that’s nearly impossible to prepare for.
Here’s my advice.
Right now, you probably feel like The Man. Everyone around you is talking about the waves you’re going to make in the league. That’s all good and fun, but I recommend that you mentally prepare yourself to be humbled. That ladder you’ve been climbing? You haven’t reached the top — you’ve just been sent back down to the bottom.
Even if you did things the right way — stayed in college, made it far in the NCAA tournament and got your degree — you’re probably going to be passed up by some young guys who haven’t done anything yet. Everyone talks about how they want basketball players to get their education, but how often do guys who stay in school slowly see their draft stock slip, only to be picked behind younger players who scouts and analysts think have more “potential”? You’re not going to get the respect you think you deserve. That slight you feel shouldn’t discourage you — it should be your motivation. That’s the ammo you need to be successful. Don’t waste it.
If you’re a young guy one year out of college with all the physical talent in the world, prepare yourself to be especially humbled. This is a man’s game, and you’re going to discover just how quickly those same analysts can go from raving about your potential to claiming that you’re a bust. Always remember that there are players with more talent than you who have found themselves out of the league within a year.
Be ready for the very real possibility that you won’t catch on right away. Don’t be discouraged by it, because there are a number of ways it can happen, whether it be because of injuries, lack of playing time or a franchise suddenly deciding you aren’t in their future plans. But take a moment to scan any NBA roster. More likely than not, you’re going to stumble across at least a few players who have either done significant time in the D-League or overseas. Remember that it doesn’t matter how you get to the NBA. It’s how you stay there.
In order to stick, you’ll probably have to change your game in some capacity. One of the toughest things for a competitor to do is to take a back seat. If you’ve made it to this point, it’s likely that you’ve always been the guy who gets the ball when the game is on the line. But if you want to make it at the next level, you need to be prepared to change yourself and the way you play for the greater good of a team.
My sophomore year at Kentucky, Jodie Meeks and I formed one of the best scoring tandems in college basketball. It was something I was comfortable with because I had shared the spotlight with O.J. Mayo in high school. But in my junior year, John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins joined the team, and I went from averaging 18 points and 9 rebounds to averaging 14 and 7.
Playing on that team was a great preparation for the NBA because I learned how to tailor my game when I was surrounded by big-time talent. That was my wake-up call, and I’m thankful it happened while I was still in college. Don’t look at your teammates as competition. If you can make them better, you’ll improve as a player and everything else will fall into place. At Kentucky, I was put in a situation where I had to sacrifice shots and put more focus on other areas of my game. In the NBA, I was asked to do the same thing.
Nobody dreams of being a role player, but those are the guys who manage to have decade-long careers.
The thing I can’t preach enough is patience. I’ll tell you right now that you’re not going to get as much playing time as you think you should. If you’re drafted high and you don’t get that playing time, you tend to get mad at the world. You may work hard for a period of time, but it won’t last. You’ll lose that focus and ultimately that mindset that made you successful enough to make it to the NBA.
You might think you’re too good to be sitting on anybody’s bench, but try to get that ego in check. Otherwise, you’ll stop showing effort in practice, which will lead to even less playing time. Then, when you actually are put in game situations, you won’t feel prepared because you haven’t been practicing at the highest level. Finally, when your first contract is up and you haven’t proven anything, no other team is going to want you. This is the cycle so many young guys fall into.
And while all this might seem daunting, some of the biggest challenges you face might very well occur off the court.
When I first put my name in the draft, I started having a lot of new people introduced into my life. Agents, financial advisors, personal assistants — the works. I met one financial advisor who I was friends with before I entered the draft. We never talked business, he just happened to work in that field and we knew each other. After I entered my name in the draft, we began discussing the possibility of him representing me. Because we already had a relationship, I felt like he was someone I could safely confide in. I trusted him, but ultimately, we couldn’t figure out the numbers to make it work, so I decided to go another route.
About three or four years later, I got a call from a friend asking if I still spoke with that guy. I told him no, we gradually lost touch over time. And then my friend told me that the guy was being investigated for embezzling money from his clients. He apparently stole six-figures from a guy I personally knew.
That hit me hard just because of how close I had been to trusting this guy and being burned. You need to realize that to many people in this world, you’re now a walking stack of money. If you don’t make an effort to be aware of what’s going on with your cash, those kinds of people will take notice. Blind trust is not a luxury you can enjoy anymore.
And that leads me to the most important piece of advice I can give you: Learn how to say no.
Don’t rely on your family to say no for you. It’s on you to set up boundaries. It’s a difficult responsibility, but the earlier you take it on, the easier it will be to control your money. Your fear of alienating the people around you right now should not outweigh your desire to have a financially secure future.
If you have a tight-knit family, it’s easy to fall into the habit of letting them make some decisions for you. This can lead to trouble. Don’t be afraid to say no to the people closest to you. If their intentions are true, this shouldn’t affect your relationship with them.
You’re entering a phase in your life in which you need to be willing to take on more responsibility. Early in my career, I was always inclined to place blame on everyone except myself in most situations. Doing that is an easy comfort but it’s never going to help you grow. You’re in charge of your own destiny, so take some responsibility for it. When I declared for the draft, I felt like I had done my part proving myself in college and deserved a successful career in the NBA. But what I learned is that everything in this business is earned and there are many more dreamers than there are contracts. The most successful players in this league are never content with what they’ve accomplished.
You’re about to embark on the greatest journey of your life. It’s a tough road ahead, but if you continually work hard and keep a positive mindset, you’ll end up in the right situation.
See you next year,