Every hooper got that one guy from their hometown that made them fall in love with the game.
Everybody got that guy.
For me? That was Lou Will.
Lou went to South Gwinnett, so when I was growing up, all I heard was story after story about Lou Williams.
He was nice, nice. To this day he’s one of my favorite players.
They used to start off pretty much every game with a lob play to Lou. He’d get an early look at the rim and score. Right out the gate.
The crowd would already be standing in the bleachers before the ball dropped through the hoop. Everybody had seen it happen enough times to know it was going in. I’ll never forget how the gym would go crazy for like the whole game.
And Lou? He would be killing.
I just wanted that moment, you know? People on they feet, screaming, just going crazy for a high school kid.
Back home in the driveway, I’d be practicing moves. I took pieces out of a lot of people’s games. I was skinny — I was thin and long — so everybody was like, “Yo, you’re like KD.” I always kind of watched KD to see how he came into his shots, trying to analyze some of the moves that he did.
What’s KD doing? Oh, how’d he do that spin? Alright. Alright. Let me go try that outside.
That’s kind of how it was for me. As I got older, I watched more and more people, just trying to study them — observe their specific styles. I watched Devin Booker. I watched Paul George. I studied Kawhi on defense. I watched a bunch of Jrue Holiday. And OF COURSE I watched LeBron. That’s a given.
I probably looked crazy to the people in the cars that would drive down my block, eyes closed, acting like I’m somebody else, shooting fadeaways.
My dream was that when I got out of Gwinnett, Georgia, people would be saying, “Man, back in the day? That Devin Vassell kid was crazy!”
My dream was that people would pack out my high school games. Standing room only. And I thought I’d be one and done, going almost straight to the league. Buuut, if I’m telling the truth, it wasn’t really like that. Like at all.
You wanna know how my first big high school game went?
They were booing me.
Record scratch, freeze-frame. “You’re probably wondering how I got here.”
I don’t mean they were booing the team or our fans or something like that.
They were booing ME, specifically.
It was definitely a movie moment. Just not the one I had imagined.
It was more like the movies where the hero is in some crazy situation, and it’s like, Record scratch, freeze-frame. “You’re probably wondering how I got here.”
Let me rewind a bit.
My dad had played college ball back in the day, and my brother was so much older that he was already playing basketball by the time I was born, so it wasn’t long before one of them put a ball in my hands.
I just fell in love with the game, instantly. Really as soon as I can remember.
Me and my dad spent a lot of time in the gym together when I was growing up. But we started out just going to parks with my ball. I used to go to Collins Hill Park over by the high school over there, and Peachtree Ridge Park, which was part of my high school. There’s a lot more parks in Gwinnett, too. Bogan Park. Listen, I could go on and on about some parks.
But I’ll never forget being outside with my dad, me running around doing moves in some like entry-level Nikes. I think they were Roshes. Him catching the rebounds and whipping the ball back to me as the sun went down.
And this was all after he’d been at work all day. As soon as he came through the door, I’d be like, “Alright, come on, come on. Let’s go, let’s go.” And he’d be all like, “I’m tired, but all right. I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it.”
Didn’t even have no real basketball shoes yet, just out there hooping in the dark with my dad.
As early as elementary school, when I told adults what I wanted to be when I grew up, they’d make sure to tell me that most people don’t make it to the NBA. They’d always be like, “What’s your backup option?”
I remember the first time my dream was tested.
I was in middle school, and it was my seventh-grade year. The middle school is seventh and eighth grade, so I was basically trying out for the eighth grade team.
We’re going through the tryouts, and I’m killing all the drills, killing everybody in front of me.
I’m like, Oh, I’m set.
After tryouts, the first roster gets released. I made that cut, so I’m like, Oh, yeah. I know I’m straight.
Next day, the second roster gets posted. I went to look, and my name wasn’t on there. My first thought was literally that it was a mistake. I went to talk to the coach thinking, There’s no way my name’s not on there. But sure enough, they’re like, “Yeah, sorry. We just don’t think that you have the ability to make the team this year.”
And the kicker: “But you can be a manager.”
I’d love to say that I took it really well. But I’d have to have been some extremely mature seventh grader.
I said, “Nah, I’m straight,” and walked out of that gym so quick. I had a rolling chair in my room, and there was probably about three seconds between me storming through the front door of my house and me putting that chair through the wall. I left a huge hole. Then I went stomping around the neighborhood.
I was like, Nah, there is no way. There is no way I didn’t make this team.
Honestly, it brought down my confidence a lot.
And if it wasn’t bad enough that I didn’t make the team, the assistant coach was also my social studies teacher. So I had to see this man every day after that!!! He’s asking the class about British parliament or whatever and I’m just steaming.
I finished out the school year, and that summer, I transferred schools. I went to our rival school.
When I was a sophomore at Peachtree Ridge High, and my first varsity game came against those kids at my old school who’d made the team ahead of me just a few years before, I was a skinny kid with a point to prove.
But as soon as I walk in the gym, I’m already sick to my stomach. I’m thinking, I’m finally here. I’m in front of all these people that knew me at my old middle schools.
And when I came out of the tunnel, everybody started booing.
Like, “Boo, Devin!”
That was my reaction. “Oh.”
Coach says, “Alright, Devin, it’s time for you to go in,” and my heart starts pounding.
I get in the game, and I’m playing my role. Whole time, the crowd straight trashing me. Just talking a whole bunch of mess.
We come down the court, and I spot up in the corner. They pass the ball to me.
The clank of a brick means you at least got close. You hit the rim. But I didn’t even do that. I airballed in front of all those people who knew me from before and were waiting for me to fail.
I said, “Oh, no. Oh, no.”
When I came out of the tunnel, everybody started booing.
A couple of minutes later, my rotation was still playing. The crowd still talking mess.
I get it again, same corner. Another air ball.
I’m thinking, Oh no, get me out of here, Coach.
We ended up winning the game, but I bombed hard. I don’t think I even attempted to shoot the rest of that game.
But after that year, every single time we played them, it was wraps for them. I was good after that. I just needed to shake off the nerves.
I think everybody who’s ever tried to be really great at something has a story like that. They had a game where they just ... weren’t good. I know I probably have a few more of those moments to look forward to in my NBA career.
But those moments are learning opportunities. I know that no matter what exactly is ahead of me, there are going to be ups and there are going to be downs, both on and off the court.
I’ve already dealt with some of that. Some of the biggest challenges I’ve faced, people don’t even know about.
When I was around sixth and seventh grade, my family was going through some things. I don’t like to talk too much about what’s going on in my private life. I keep everything in-house, especially when it comes to family stuff.
But one of the greatest challenges I’ve faced in my life was back then, when my mom had been having severe back issues and had to go through surgeries and stuff like that. She had been a nurse up to that point and used to work long hours, but she couldn’t work anymore and had to go on disability.
Just seeing her sometimes not feeling her best was very tough on me mentally as a kid. Maybe more than I even realized.
Seeing that it wasn’t as easy for her to do some stuff anymore, like getting out of the car, or just walking around — when that kind of thing happens to someone that’s very important in your life, it can take a toll.
But my mom is one of the strongest people on the planet, and with her being as strong as she is, it just became motivation for me. It was motivation for us all, as a family.
I’m lucky to be close with both of my parents, and they’ve really tried to prepare me for everything that’s ahead of me. We’ve had a lot of talks, but mainly their message has been to stay grounded. They told me, “Be who you are, stay humble, and remember where you came from.”
I’ll never forget those lessons.
And I won’t forget that no matter whether I won or lost, or when I didn’t make the team, they never stopped believing in my dream.
There’s still so much more that I have left to prove. I’ll always have that mindset. That’s not going to go away, no matter the success, no matter what’s going on in my life.
I think that just growing up my whole life and not being ranked, not getting some of the credit or recognition I feel like I deserved, it definitely stays with me.
But it also makes this moment — right now, as I prepare for draft night — that much more of a blessing.
It’s a blessing to be where I’m at, and I’ll never take that for granted.
Alright, one last story. March 2019, ACC tournament quarterfinals. FSU vs. Virginia Tech.
We’re down three, with about seven seconds left in the game.
I was on a hot streak and had made three of five three-pointers.
Everybody had been telling me, “You’re hot, you’re hot. Keep shooting if you get open.”
So now, we’re in the huddle. A play is called. I’m in the game, but the play isn’t just for me — there are options. Trent Forrest was inbounding, and there was somebody wide open, right next to him.
But when we came out the huddle, I said, “Bro, listen, if you pass it to me, I’m shooting it.”
He looked at me. I said, “If you pass it to me, I’m shooting it. So take it for what you want.”
And he was just like, “Alright.”
So, Trent gets up to the line, and he looks. He sees me come up the screen and just darts it to me.
I come off of a flare screen to the corner and hit the three, with a hand in the face.
I looked back at Trent and said, “Well, I told you.”
We ended up winning in overtime. And the craziest thing about it all wasn’t even the hot streak I went on that night. It was that they came to the freshman.
They came to a freshman for that. It’s just the fact that they had that much confidence in me. Not only the coaches, but my teammates.
It was huge. It meant everything.
When I was younger, my goal was always to be one and done, always. Elementary school, I was like Yeah, I’m going to be at the McDonald's game. One and done. It’s wraps.
Then when I got offered by Florida State they told me that I’d probably have to redshirt my first year. So all that went out the window. But I just told myself, I said, I’m going to go to Florida State for two years. I’ll be there for two years, and then I’m gone.
I kept that to myself. I told my parents, and my close friends, and that was it.
But I stayed in my role and didn’t step on nobody’s toes — and I just kept working.
People are gonna tell you that you’re not gonna make it because you might not be the biggest. You might not be the fastest. You might not be the strongest. They might even want you to be the team manager.
But it doesn’t matter if you put in the work.
I just put it in the work and stuck to my dream.
Everything I’ve ever done, every experience I’ve ever had, every challenge I’ve ever faced, has led me to this moment.
And as I sit here writing this, in my blue 2020 NBA Draft Combine polo shirt, I want to remember it all.
When my sophomore year at FSU finally came around, I said to myself, Well, you said you were only going to be here for two.
This is two.