A few years ago, when I was going back and forth about whether to make the jump to the NBA after one season at Duke, I took a walk over to Coach K’s office.
I didn’t know what to expect when I got there.
One of the things I knew about Coach from back in the day was that he wasn’t a fan of the whole one-and-done thing. He wanted players to come to Duke and stay — ideally for a full four years. Then, when I got to campus in the fall of 2017, I talked to some guys who’d played at Duke before I got there and they told me about how Coach K would be fuming whenever players would leave early. So all that was the backdrop.
Anyway, I walk in, and sit down, and….
It was like I was talking to a totally different person from the guy in those stories.
The first thing out of Coach’s mouth was how he thought I’d had a great season. He told me I’d performed really well, and that he was proud of me for how consistent I’d been all year long. It was one of the nicest conversations I’ve ever had, especially because it was coming from someone I have so much respect and admiration for.
When I mentioned what was on my mind, Coach K told me that he felt like I would make a great pro, and gave a few reasons why. At one point he just said, “I’d obviously love to have you back, but I think you gotta go for it.”
Coach knew that I was someone who took academics very seriously, and he made it a point to say Duke University wasn’t going anywhere. “You’ll be able to come back and get your degree later,” he told me. “You will always be welcome here. But this is your time to show what you can do against the best in the world.”
Coach K … he encouraged me to leave.
At a time when I was on the fence as to what I was going to do, it was actually Coach K who convinced me to make the leap.
And that right there showed me so much about Coach. It shows he’s adapted. He gets it. He understands that times change. And you know what? On that day he gave me some of the best professional advice I’ve ever received.
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With the 2020 draft coming up, and the deadline for underclassmen to declare right on the horizon, I felt like I wanted to try to pay it forward a bit by sharing some advice with those who are currently going through the decision-making process. And my very first tip has to do with that story I told above. It’s this: Rely heavily on the people you respect and trust most, and those who you know have your best interests in mind. Coach K was definitely one of those people for me. You need to find your inner circle and stick with those folks.
Beyond that, you have to think about your family’s economic situation, about whether your game would benefit from more college ball, and about the one thing everyone always mentions: the risk of injury. As for the rest of my thoughts and tips on the decision to leave school early, check them out below.
- The 2020 draft is going to be unlike any other in history: Have to mention this one pretty high up, right? I mean, we’re living through unprecedented times right now. Obviously basketball stuff isn’t anywhere near the most important issue at this point, right in the middle of the coronavirus crisis, but what’s going on has meant that current draft prospects are in a tough situation that players like me didn’t have to deal with. No individual workouts? No combine? No predraft camps? No in-person meetings? Basically your game tape is going to have to be good enough. So if you’re someone who maybe didn’t put up huge numbers last season, but who kills it when it comes to measurables and workouts, this honestly might not be your year.
- Don’t let something that just happened, or your emotions, dictate your decision: After we lost to Kansas in the 2018 NCAA tournament, I remember my mom and a few of my aunties came to campus to see me. We started talking about my decision, and at that point … I was totally ready to come back. I wanted to play for my school again. And win a title. But, I mean, that was literally one day after being bounced from the tourney. That was my competitive side taking over, my emotional side. You can’t make a good decision that way.
- You have to be cool with a lot of downtime: College and the NBA couldn’t be more different. In college, when you wake up you’ve got a roommate or housemates. There’s almost always someone you can talk to and hang out with. In the league … some younger guys do live with someone, but for the most part a lot of people are living alone. And not everyone’s built for that. We practice maybe two hours a day, max. So there are 22 hours or so left to fill. You have to take care of your home, and find some hobbies, as well. You have to be mature. With me, I definitely underestimated the whole free time thing. At Duke, our days were scheduled from sunup to sundown. Then that all disappeared.
- Listen to the people who know: If you know people who have direct experience with what it’s like to be a professional athlete … talk to them. Learn as much as you can from those people. With me, my dad played pro ball down in the Dominican Republic. While that’s not the same as the NBA, he knew all about what being a professional athlete is like. My dad did everything in his power to make sure I knew what to expect, be it physically, emotionally … everything. He talked to me about money management, about friends, women — just everything imaginable that sometimes trips guys up. Those lessons have been invaluable.
- Don’t go crazy with mock drafts: I definitely looked at the online mock drafts. It’s almost impossible not to. I really tried not to fixate on them, though. More than anything, I used them to motivate me. I’d see a mock that had me going 12th or 13th, and I’d take it as a challenge. But overall I didn’t get too caught up in people online guessing where I might get picked. At the end of the day, whether they have you going first or 51st … it’s just a mock. It’s not real life. Beyond that, the one other thing I’ll add is that it is a bit of a different situation if you’re looking at the mocks and … you’re not seeing your name at all. Trying to put myself in those shoes, especially now — in a year when there are no individual workouts to improve your draft stock — you’re really going to have to bet on yourself and take a leap. At the same time, though, no one’s going to believe in you unless you believe in yourself. And there are lots of guys who thought they were going to get picked, but who didn’t, and who then worked their way to the NBA and had long careers anyway. But, yeah, not seeing your name at all? That’s gotta give you something to think about for sure.
- Don’t get caught up listening to students at your school or superfans: This is a simple one. A lot of people are going to try to influence your decision, and deciding who to listen to can sometimes be tough. Other times, though, it’s … not so tough. Don’t let students at your school or superfans of the college influence you. They’re not looking out for you. Period. Moving on….
- Prepare for people coming out of the woodwork and asking for stuff: The money that goes along with playing in the league is a blessing. Don’t get me wrong. But once you declare for the draft, and people know you’re heading to the NBA, you’re going to start hearing from folks hoping to cash in. So be ready to deal with it. My advice is going to be the same advice that I got from veteran teammates on the Bulls when I was a rookie: “Find a nice way to tell people no.” Everyone’s way of getting that message across to folks is going to be a little bit different, but it’s a must. You just have to find the way that works best for you.
- Before making a decision, sit down for an hour or two with the people you trust the most and go through everything again: For me, this was my mom and dad, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be family. Just gather the people who you count on most, and who you know will always have your back no matter what … and have a conversation where everything is laid out on the table. It may seem like you’ve already gone over everything a million times. But trust me, you won’t regret having that one last conversation about it. And you’ll probably remember that talk for the rest of your life.
- After you decide, try not to second-guess yourself: This one is easier said than done, I admit. I can tell you that after I made my decision, I definitely had some regrets creep in, some second-guessing. I found myself thinking: What if I had stayed? Maybe we would have won it all? Would I have improved my draft stock? And even after I got to the league, when Duke was on TV battling it out at Cameron Indoor against UNC … I’d still be sitting there thinking, What if? But after a while you realize there’s nothing positive that can come from those thoughts. You just have to make a decision, believe in yourself, and then put all your energy into becoming the very best player you can. For me, that meant working hard so I could make my family proud. But it also amounted to me telling myself: Trust Coach K, and go prove him right.