Xavier Cooks on Summer League and the lessons of a year in Europe

LAS VEGAS - The first year of Xavier Cooks’ professional basketball career has come full circle in Las Vegas.

Cooks arrived in Nevada this week to participate in his second consecutive NBA Summer League, albeit with twelve months of professional basketball experience under his belt this time.

The Victorian native spent the past year playing with German side s.Oliver Wurzburg in the FIBA Europe Cup, averaging 11.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists while shooting 52.9% from the field.

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After being overlooked in 2018’s NBA draft, Cooks joined the Golden State Warriors' Summer League roster last July. He impressed with the Warriors, before doing likewise in Europe with Wurzburg, and now punctuates his first year on the professional circuit by joining the Phoenix Suns in Las Vegas this year.

Cooks played 13 minutes in the Suns’ Summer League opener, an overtime victory over the New York Knicks on Sunday night (local time). While the 23-year-old has been here before, that doesn’t diminish the feeling of representing an NBA franchise against some of the brightest young names in basketball.

“To play at the highest level is always a cool experience,” Cooks told The Pick and Roll, following Phoenix’s 105-100 victory over the Knicks.

“Seeing the NBA logo on your shirt is always cool. Playing in games against players like RJ Barrett. It was a really cool experience. I didn’t have the stat line I wanted to have but I played hard. I will be more aggressive next game.”

Cooks readily admits his scoreless performance against New York could have been better, although he remains confident that his versatile talents will allow him to excel at the NBA level. The Suns have been impressed, and offered the young Australian positive feedback.

“They like my versatility, my defensive ability and that I can switch on the ball,” Cooks explained. “I have the ability to guard one through four, even one through five sometimes. I have to stay aggressive. I need to put the ball on the floor a bit more but we will see. They like me.”

Cooks excelled during his four years in Winthrop University, scoring 1,437 career points and ranking sixth on Winthrop’s all-time scoring list. While a collegiate career allowed Cooks to hone his talents, a season in Europe exposed the Australian to a new level of competition. More accurately, it provided a calibre of opponent with the physical stature and mindset not seen at the NCAA level.

“Coming from college and no disrespect to college, but college is soft, as they call every little bump,” Cooks explained. “ Once you get out here [playing professionally], you are playing with grown men who are pushing and shoving. College did a great job. I am learning to play through physicality. Learning to use my attributes. Once you go pro, everyone can shoot and everyone can dribble.”

These comments from Cooks are not to denigrate the collegiate system, but rather show the ruthless nature of the professional game. After Phoenix’s first Summer League game was cancelled due to an earthquake two nights earlier, Sunday’s showdown against New York finally gave Cooks an opportunity to show the entire NBA community the strides he has taken whilst playing in Germany.

Playing in the cutthroat FIBA Europe Cup, against adults who were older and stronger offered the quickest maturation process on the basketball court. This wasn’t the only challenge of life in Germany.

Living in a non-English speaking country naturally presented an obstacle for Cooks. Embarking on this journey, while simultaneously adjusting to the rigorous demands of life as a professional athlete was challenging, but time in Germany turned out to be a transformative experience.

“I learned that I am pretty independent,” Cooks says. “I knew coming from Australia to America to come to college was going to be a pretty big jump, but I am half-American so I had family over here. Going to Germany and speaking no German means I was thrown in the deep end but I loved it. I absolutely loved it.”

Cooks will remain in Las Vegas with the Suns until their Summer League campaign concludes this weekend. Once finished in Sin City, Cooks plans to return home to Australia for a long overdue reunion with family and friends, before preparations begin for the Boomers' FIBA World Cup campaign.

“I haven't been home in two years, so I am going to go home and see the family,” Cooks said. “I will see my loved ones and all my friends. Stay in shape and then get to Boomers camp and try kick some arse there, and see where that leads.”

Cooks was named to the Boomers' 18-man training camp squad for the World Cup alongside NBA stars such as Ben Simmons, Joe Ingles and Patty Mills. A humbled Cooks is excited to be involved with the Boomers preparations for the World Cup. He is already daring to dream about the feelings that would come from being involved with two high profile showdowns against Team USA in Melbourne.

To be honest, I am still honoured to be in the squad,” Cooks said. “Our team is unbelievably talented and to be named in the same list as those guys, I was super stoked.

“My nerves get a little bit rattled thinking about Team USA and all those guys, but our Australian team is the next best thing.”