Welcome to the NBA, Ryan Broekhoff

Opening night in the NBA is a ritualistic phenomenon.

The dawn of a new season brings hope for all 450 players that represent the best basketballers alive. From All-Stars to fifteenth men, champions to perennial underachievers, there is a sanguinity present as limitless potential cascades through the air.

Such feeling is only amplified in NBA rookies, as this is their graduation day. It’s an initiation into the pinnacle of club basketball. In almost every case, it is also the realisation of a lifetime’s work.

This is a sensation Ryan Broekhoff experienced in October.

Opening night of the 2018-19 NBA season signalled a shift in his professional career: he was finally an NBA player. While playing time has been scant during Broekhoff’s time as a Dallas Maverick, the instant he made his debut on an NBA floor made everything worthwhile.

“Stepping foot on the court, down in Phoenix on opening night, was a moment that I will cherish forever,” Broekhoff told The Pick and Roll.

The moment Broekhoff references isn’t a singular event; rather a compilation of minute experiences that, while benign for experienced veterans, represent the milestones of losing one’s NBA virginity.

Experiencing an NBA crowd, for the first time as a combatant. Hearing his name called during pre-game introductions. Launching his trademark jumpshot on the NBA hardwood. Losing to an inferior, lottery-bound, opponent in disappointing fashion. In one night, Broekhoff was ran through the gamut of NBA sensations, and in the process he fulfilled a childhood prophesy.

“Obviously hitting that first shot is something that I look back on,” Broekhoff added. “With such pride and such accomplishment.”

Broekhoff has every right to feel a sense of triumph, for his journey to an NBA debut wasn’t a clichéd tale. He didn’t catapult into the league as a hyper-talented teenager, simply taking the next step in his natural evolution as a basketball player. Reality was far from it. Broekhoff spent a decade globetrotting in search of his NBA dream, fine-tuning his talents in the most hostile of sporting environments.

Ryan Broekhoff isn't your typical NBA rookie either. Having previously played in Olympic medal games, Euroleague Final Fours and the madness of an NCAA tournament, Broekhoff already held a robust basketball resume before the Mavericks entered his life. At age 28, he has weathered many of the youthful ailments that hinder NBA debutants.

Equipped with such a diverse basketball grounding, Broekhoff claims that nothing has shocked him about life in the NBA. Not yet, anyway. It doesn’t protect him from all growing pains. Just like any rookie, Broekhoff is looking to avoid that viral ‘welcome to the NBA’ moment.

“I haven’t been dunked on,” Broekhoff explained, through a chuckle. “I’m sure it will probably happen at some point,” he adds, before immediately tapping a fist against the wooden door that covers his Mavericks locker.

Knocking on wood is a natural crutch for most, especially for NBA players looking to avoid their Kodak moment. In Broekhoff’s case however, the induction of good fortune isn’t necessary. He has shown an ability to make his own luck, and there is no indication of this changing anytime soon.

A journey that began in Frankston took Broekhoff to suburban Indiana, and then Russia, Turkey and everywhere in between, before the Valley of the Sun provided his moment. It’s quite the tale, and no amount of sporting talent alone is enough to succeed down this garden path. Broekhoff has shown an ability to generate his own drive, both on and off the basketball court.

As a self-admitted late bloomer, the college pathway always made the most sense.

“I knew I wasn’t physically ready to go into a professional league,” Broekhoff said of his adolescent mindset.

“I was offered development spots on NBL rosters, but I thought, physically, I wasn’t ready. I needed more time to grow and mature.”

Broekhoff was no teenage prodigy. He was talented, sure, although ill-equipped for the rigours of professional life. His slender frame needed time to mature. While raw gifts garnered attention, they too required incubation away from the ruthlessness of professional life.

The NBA was a dream, not a foregone conclusion. Playing professionally was a more realistic aim, and still, much development was needed to ensure this could be sustained.

With self-awareness that extended beyond his years, Broekhoff knew that stepping straight into professional life would be misguided. He needed more time. Broekhoff also wanted the security of a college degree to fall back on. You know, just in case this basketball caper didn’t go to plan.

“If basketball wasn’t going to work out, and I didn’t know if it would or not, at least I would have a degree to fall back on. Just to be able to look at the bigger picture and see what is going to be best for you. Not just now, but in the future.”

Broekhoff accepted a scholarship from Valparaiso University and made his debut in 2009. After establishing himself as a sophomore, where Broekhoff started 34 of 35 games for the Crusaders, the Melburnian hit his straps in year three. As a college junior in 2011–12, Broekhoff was named Horizon League Player of the Year as he averaged 14.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game.

The Frankston native averaged a college-career high 15.7 points per game during his senior season. Team success followed, thanks in large part to his personal heroics. Broekhoff’s walk-off basket in the Horizon League tournament semi-final against Green Bay-Wisconsin remains one of the most famous shots in the school’s history. It is the defining memory from Valparaiso’s march to the 2013 NCAA tournament.

Broekhoff’s signature moment punctuated his college career. It also signalled the end of his amateur innocence, as a stark illustration of the ruthless nature of professional sport soon followed. Leaving school on a high note wasn’t enough for Broekhoff to be noticed by the NBA. He was overlooked in the 2013 NBA draft, going undrafted, unwanted by the league he had long dreamt of. Broekhoff was forced to start again, on a third continent, as a 23-year old.

There are many on-court descriptors of how he blossomed during his five years in Europe. Stops with Beşiktaş Basketbol in Turkey and Lokomotiv Kuban in Russia provided a basketball playground to sharpen his talents. Broekhoff became one of the best shooters alive, illustrated by his shooting a fluorescent 50% from three-point range last season with Lokomotiv Kuban. Defensively, he grew. As a playmaker, he developed. As a leader, he matured.

These are tangible accomplishments that transfixed the basketball community; reasons why the likes of Matthew Dellavedova publicly trumpeted Broekhoff’s NBA potential. Bubbling away beneath the surface, however, was something more powerful than perceptible progress laid bare to the basketball world.

Now sitting in the Dallas Mavericks locker room, during his NBA rookie season, Broekhoff speaks to a more holistic accomplishment, one that transcends sport, when explaining his personal growth in Europe.

“Those five years in Europe really toughened me up,” Broekhoff said. “They made me grow up and become a man who could take care of myself. Who could take care of my wife and everything that goes along with growing up and becoming an adult.”

Often isolated with just his now wife, Katie --someone Broekhoff credits as being an amazing support and instrumental in his success-- he found the motivation he needed. Time in Europe proved to Broekhoff that he could care for himself, those around him, and drive towards the ultimate end goal.

“Just staying positive and upbeat when things got hard over there, knowing [the NBA] is what I was working towards and then hopefully one day I would get my opportunity. And if I do get it, to grab it.”

A changing NBA helped Broekhoff get his chance. The three-point revolution reached a crescendo whilst he toiled in Europe, as league wide three-point attempts jumped 45 percent in the five years Broekhoff was away from North America. The NBA morphed into a league better suited to outside shooters, right as Broekhoff reached his peak athletic age.

A fortunate accident of timing helped, too, as this past July was Broekhoff’s first basketball offseason being out of contract. It opened the door for him to really attack the NBA, put everything towards workouts and hope.

“Everything just fell perfectly in line for me,” Broekhoff said. “I’m very happy to be here in Dallas.”

Broekhoff admits a strange feeling comes with being back in America. Simple subtleties of life in an English speaking country have returned. An example of walking down the street, knowing that everyone understands what he is saying, is cited as a modest example transitioning back into a world that, while familiar, remains somewhat foreign after all this time.

The people of Dallas have been extremely welcoming to Broekhoff. They are showing love to their new Australian recruit, and that is a sentiment shared by the NBA franchise that employs him.

“We love having him.” Mavericks head coach, Rick Carlisle, said of Broekhoff. “He’s a terrific system player and someone who just knows how to play. He’s a great shooter.”

With the Mavericks surging on the back of rookie phenom Luka Dončić and a veteran-laden roster, Broekhoff’s opportunities have been limited. He has played just 57 minutes across the Mavericks first 23 games of the season. The role hasn’t altered Broekhoff’s mindset though, and he is leveraging the added resources of an NBA program in his continual devotion to improve.

Just as he did for all those years in Europe, Broekhoff is staying ready and diligently preparing for his chance to break out.

“Stay ready, it’s a long season and who knows that can happen,” Broekhoff explained of his mindset. “If I do get the opportunity, make sure I come out, have confidence and be ready to play.”

Joe Ingles, the very athlete Broekhoff is often compared to given their similar paths to the NBA, is adamant that it is just a matter of time for his fellow Australian.

“He will just get better and better the more that he is around it, Ingles told The Pick and Roll.

“He’s in a similar situation to me. The more he is around it, the more he sticks around, he will keep getting better and better.”

To this day, Broekhoff can vividly recall watching NBA games as a child in Australia. Summer mornings turned into blazing hot afternoons, and the best basketball league in the world provided the refuge. One of his close friends would often play host to these gatherings of youthful basketball devotees.

“I had a close friend that was a Spurs fan,” Broekhoff remembered. “We used to go over to his place and we would watch games when San Antonio played Dallas.”

At the time, San Antonio, led by Hall-of-Fame legend Tim Duncan, ruled the NBA. Born in 1990, Broekhoff’s formative basketball years came at a time when Duncan’s Spurs were in championship form. They were the gold standard, while Dallas was perennially one step behind its Texas neighbours. Even still, there was something about the Mavericks that drew Broekhoff in.

Namely, a seven-foot sharpshooter, who, just like Broekhoff, originated from a foreign land.

“When I was growing up and coming through, Dirk Nowitzki was one that I really looked up to,” Broekhoff said.

Broekhoff revered Nowitzki as a child. He watched, dazed, and dreamt of a day when he could emulate the German and play in the NBA. In a way, Broekhoff’s basketball journey has finally come full circle. He now plays in the NBA, alongside Nowitzki, in a twist of fate that evokes a level of serendipity that is hard to process.

Broekhoff certainly struggles to describe his new reality.

“It’s still hard to wrap my head around,” He explained through a youthful smile. “We just walk around and I’m like ‘hey Dirk, how you doing this morning?’ and that sort of thing. We have practices and things like that. It’s surreal.”

This oddity is now Broekhoff’s reality. He has fulfilled an innocent childhood obsession with the Mavericks, and is living out his NBA dream alongside one of his idols.

Welcome to the NBA, Ryan Broekhoff.