Surviving the grind: Perspectives from our Aussies in NBA Summer League

For the basketball fan, NBA Summer League provides competitive hoops in the dog days of the offseason. The playoffs come and go, and the NBA draft follows after. What else is left? A certain July basketball showcase that’s happening right off the Las Vegas strip.

Off the court, the mood is light and the atmosphere vibrant. The stands and concourses teem with people all over – players, coaches, scouts and fans. Everyone convenes to watch basketball by day, and socialise by night. With all the distractions abound in Vegas, it becomes easy to lose sight of what exactly is at stake for the competing athletes.

For recently drafted players, Summer League presents the first opportunity to impress ahead of the coming training camps. It’s also an opportunity to stake their claim to a potential spot in an NBA rotation. But for those whose immediate futures aren’t as secure, they get a precious chance to earn themselves a payday.

“It matters what you do in the Summer League. So make sure you’re not just preparing for the workouts, but [that] you’re preparing to play pure basketball, and just try to find a role that helps the team win.”

Sage advice from Matthew Dellavedova, who blazed a path for the future wave of Australian basketball talent. He’s a real-life example of how one could make it in the world’s best competition, despite the initial disappointment of missing out in the draft.

Adel

It was Delly’s success story that was firmly on my mind as I watched Deng Adel compete in the 2018 Summer League opener at Cox Pavilion. Adel had a rough initiation to Summer League, playing just two minutes as his Houston Rockets turned a six-point lead into a woeful four-point deficit.

Making my way to the media scrum for the first time in Vegas was an eye-opening experience. At the far end of Cox Pavilion – a tiny arena for the people in attendance – I was bunched up shoulder-to-shoulder with other media members, trying to catch Adel as he left the arena. It was remarkable that the players were getting changed and chatting post-game behind a single flimsy curtain, which hardly hid the fact that their “locker room” was basically open space under the stands.

I managed to catch up with Adel, just as the Houston media rep pointed him my way. To my surprise, a broad grin was painted on the 21-year-old’s face – clearly, his limited playing opportunities weren’t going to get in the way of his current mood.

“From time to time [I] get a little homesick, so it’s good to see you guys. Obviously I’ve lost my accent a little bit, but its always good to see other Aussies,” Adel chuckled.

I could definitely agree with that sentiment. Hear a familiar accent from a fellow countryman –even if that someone is a stranger like me– still offers some measure of comfort, especially when it’s halfway across the globe, thousands of miles away from home.

Banter aside, I wanted to hear his side of the story, on how it felt to be given little rein to perform that night.

“[I’m] being patient, I’ve been through a lot personally so I’m not going to quit now. Depending on what happens through Summer League, I’ve got that resiliency to be patient and continue to grind,” Adel said.

It was a remarkably mature response, but not one that should come as any surprise, taken in context of what he’s been through in his young life. Adel, his mother and five siblings reached Australia in 2004 after fleeing the war-torn South Sudan via Uganda.  Incredibly, basketball only came into Adel’s life at the age of 14. Even at what feels like an advanced age in today’s basketball development cycle, Adel quickly picked up the nuances of the game to earn a scholarship at Division One NCAA powerhouse Louisville.

Dipping his toes into the NBA system for the first time, Adel has clearly been able to draw on past experiences to put his present struggles into perspective.

“The opportunities are there. Obviously I’m here now, so the opportunities are going to be there.”

A key mentor and friend of Adel’s has been the Charlotte Hornets’ Mangok Mathiang, whose game was just tipping off as we had our chat. Mathiang’s contest took place at the adjourning Thomas and Mack Center, located just a Curry-esque long range bomb away across the concourse.

In what quickly became standard procedure, Adel and his teammates were shuffled away by team staffers, still fully in kit, a backpack of supplies their only accompanying gear. As I walked away, Adel provided the best quote of my Summer League adventure so far.

“Hopefully I actually give you something to talk about next game!” he quipped. The self-deprecating sense of humour was in full display.

It was my first interaction with Adel, and I was left suitably impressed and somewhat taken aback by his sense of positivity. It’s important to remember that Adel, like many of the players taking part in Summer League held uncertain futures, with NBA dreams unfortunately remaining just that – dreams that ultimately have not come to fruition at this point.

Creek

The week progressed, and I managed to spend time with some other Australian prospects.

In what was a distinct contrast from Adel, 26 year old Mitch Creek definitely had a more grounded view of what lay ahead, seeing as he was the veteran Aussie in this year’s Summer League. Creek already had a deal for the upcoming season with German club S.Oliver Würzburg to fall back on, should NBA prospects not arise. After his Dallas Mavericks went down to the Phoenix Suns in their opener, he described some of the difficulties and intricacies of playing in such a tournament, where preparation was virtually non-existent.

“We’ve only had two and a half days to get ready, so realistically it’s going to take some time,” Creek admitted. “None of the guys have scrimmaged together before, so after one or two games it will make it a little bit easier for us to transition into playing some good team basketball.

“I thought today, there were a lot of learning curves that we can be proud of.”

Creek was in the midst of his second Summer League campaign, having gone around a year ago with the Utah Jazz. Over discussions with attendees from last season, I learnt Creek might have succumbed to some of the frustrations that came with lack of opportunity, in what is in many ways an individual showcase of talent.

A seasoned professional, Creek racked up eight years of service in the NBL with the Adelaide 36ers, and has been around the block enough times to understand that growing tension and internal pressure would not be conducive to a strong performance.

“Last year I was really nervous and I didn’t know what to expect, but this year I feel completely different,” Creek revealed. “You just have to stay mentally ready every single time. You can sit for a quarter or two and then you have to go in and play hard.”

Creek was hesitant to take too much away from his performance that night, as a productive final two minutes garnered three quick points to go with three rebounds and two assists, his intensity noticeably above his peers on the court, even when the game dwindled away into the final buzzer.

Truth be told, I struggled to see those final minutes. I was trapped in what ESPN’s Nick Friedell aptly coined “the schmooze pit”. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Unlike the crush of bodies that fill the media area in Cox Pavilion, the Thomas and Mack Center houses a wide-open space at the back of one basket, that at any given time accommodates the who’s who of basketball.

Part of the reason why I couldn’t view Creek’s final plays was due to Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban conducting an interview. Well, that paired with the fact that a certain Jerry West had attracted a crowd, likely all of whom were hoping to interact with The Logo himself. It quickly became a daily diversion, a juggling act between spotting the basketball royalty in the pit, while I kept my eyes peeled for a familiar face to interact with.

Trice and Ellis

With all the fanfare and distractions present, the players on the court can often become secondary to the show off-court. For Milwaukee Bucks guard Travis Trice, any difficulties associated with delivering on the court in the face of outside fanfare were irrelevant, as the Summer League veteran had learned to tune the noise out.

“Just come in and focus on the task at hand. Don’t make it bigger than what it is. At the end of the day it’s still basketball and we are just going out there and playing,” Trice said. “That’s my approach every day I’m here.”

Trice last suited up for the Brisbane Bullets in the NBL, but has certainly been what you would call well-travelled over his professional career so far. In what has been a major coup for the development of the Australian domestic competition, Trice was rewarded with a training camp contract with the Bucks, and credited his time in Australia as a major contributor to his continued development as a player.

“The improvement [within the NBL] made from my first year when I was in Cairns to my second year in Brisbane was huge. From the front office and just the NBL as a whole – the media, staff, everything, you can see that everything was different and that league is really taking off.”

The NBL’s growth into a viable NBA pathway for talented prospects is huge for Australian basketball, with more and more Aussie kids eyeing the American dream as they continue their ascension through the ranks.

Former Sydney King Perry Ellis is another example of an international player who chose to ply his trade down under in pursuit of international success. In echoing his Milwaukee teammate’s thoughts, Ellis strongly believes the path to the NBA will lead more players through Australia as the NBL continues to make strides.

“I feel like [Australia] a good way to go and the league is growing,” Ellis said. “From what i hear it’s been growing each year and I think you’ll see more and more of it.

“It was a great experience, [and] great competition overall. It was my first time to really go overseas and play. I feel like I definitely got better and it definitely helped me from a mental mindset to know that you can do things like that.”

Both Ellis and Trice presented as serious figures. Perhaps it’s the realisation that each opportunity like the one in front of them could be their last. They gave the impression that they would be ideal teammates in Summer League play, possessing the ability to provide both a wealth of knowledge as well as a sense of calm, in what undoubtedly became a ragged fortnight together.

Reath

Alongside Deng Adel and Mangok Mathiang, the third Sudanese-Australian to compete in Las Vegas was Duop Reath, who struggled for chances to impress with the Dallas Mavericks. Back among the Cox Pavilion throng, I caught up with Reath after his team’s victory over the Bucks, in which he failed to see court time.

As we worked our way through the crowd to find some breathing space, Reath planted himself down on a bench, providing my neck with some much-needed relief after a week in the land of giants. Rather than show frustration for his lack of opportunity, the former LSU Tiger was adamant that the experience has been a worthwhile one.

“It’s a process, it’s about learning every day, just trying to pick up every little thing,” Reath said. “Especially from the guys that have experience. I just need to pick up every little thing from those guys and the coaches too.”

Much like Adel, Reath has leaned on his relationship with the Hornets’ Mathiang, gaining both confidence and reassurance from his friend. Mathiang has taken great pride in the role he plays in the duos career, giving insight into the challenges that not only those two, but many would be going through at the time.

“I tell [Adel and Reath] that you know what type of player you are, your coaches and the staff know what type of player you are, and you wouldn’t make it this far if they didn’t have any type of faith in you. Everybody has their timing, everybody has there moment and you just have to be ready for that moment,” Mathiang said.

“By the time you come out of college, you’re basically one of the best players on your team. Then you come to the NBA – or at least try to make a team – and you start all over again. You go through recruitment again, you become a rookie and sit out games.”

The last point struck me, as I spent a large portion of my time at Summer League attempting to understand the mindset change. It’s the factor that’s been critical in character development, especially in the face of adversity.

Landale

One of Australia’s most decorated college basketball athletes, Jock Landale missed out on being selected in the 2018 NBA draft despite a dominant season at what has become an Australian haven at St. Mary’s.

Landale, a consensus All-American and West Coast Conference Player of the Year in 2018, was a bit part player for the Atlanta Hawks, with shot attempts few and far between. This new role was a far cry from his dominant position in the Gaels’ offense, one that saw him average over 20 points per game in his final college run.

In what felt like a fitting occurrence, I nearly missed him altogether as I -along with the rest of the crowd- were distracted by the presence of Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and Aussie big Thon Maker rolling into the Cox Pavilion.

Having attended Geelong Grammar School in my home town, we joked about Landale receiving a back page spread on draft day in the Geelong Advertiser, basketball covering multiple pages for the first time in my recollection. But when we got down to business, he was dismissive of the fact he was feeling any pressure to perform.

“I approach every game with the mindset that I have a lot to gain and not really much to lose,” Landale said. “No one has approached me thus far about a contract or anything like that, so I have literally nothing to lose. If anything i’m just trying to show what I can do and that I can play the right way.”

It was poignant that he touched on playing the right way, given that fellow St. Mary’s alum and mentor, Dellavedova had also spoken about doing just that. No longer the focus of his team’s offence, Landale had instead emphasised the importance of forming a relationship with high profile teammate Trae Young, who was surrounded by a hoard of media and fans alike just across the walkway.

“He’s starting to trust me a little bit and i’m starting to figure out where he likes to put the ball,” He said. “I missed two of his lobs in the first games of the Utah tournament so I think he had to learn to trust me a little bit again.”

Therein lies a major challenge for the majority of Summer League players, a present requirement to sacrifice your game for another teammate, that in all likelihood will not be by your side in the future.

Bolden

One Aussie that did have the security of knowing his future destination was Jonah Bolden, as the 2017 second round draft pick was brought in to play with the Philadelphia 76ers after a year overseas with Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel.

I caught up with Bolden at Philadelphia practice in Vegas, which was held at the Mendenhall Center just next door to the host arenas. In what was a unique experience that only Summer League will provide, the Sixers hit the court as the Boston Celtics completed their session, only for the Orlando Magic to walk in the door moments later to prepare for their allotted time on-court.

Bolden had come off a rough opening performance, and was clearly still bothered about his play. With the expectation at the time -and recently confirmed- being that Philly would bring Bolden back to America to play his rookie NBA season, it would be easy to assume he would be looking forward to that moment, and keeping a keen eye on the offseason happenings with the Sixers. It was in fact the complete opposite. Bolden was locked in the moment, trying to ensure he did perform well enough to receive his long-awaited rookie NBA deal.

“I’m not really looking at trades or what [Philadelphia] are doing minutes-wise. I’m working on the here and now, right now I’m here at Summer League, tonight we play the Lakers and I’m going to come out and do what I can. I’m gong to do my best to try and better my performance from yesterday. That game is behind me but it’s going to stick there to remind me I can do better.”

Bolden’s name was routinely mentioned in the stands at Philadelphia games. An outstanding Summer League last season, combined with a solid professional season in Israel sparking excitement that he would become the next Aussie standout to play with the Sixers alongside Ben Simmons. Unlike many of the other Aussies in Vegas, Bolden did reveal he hadn’t been in touch with the other Aussies competing, keeping his focus directly on his current teammates.

Perseverance

That’s one of the things you quickly learn by observing different players approach to Summer League. There is no exact science, no correct way to go about it, you just have to keep trying to impress. For Adel, he was able to take the challenges in his stride, striving to find the positive in each moment presented to him.

That outlook paid off, as an excellent second week sprung his name into possible two-way contract contention. After a breakout performance in the Rockets win over the Los Angeles Clippers, Adel strolled out of the locker room on his way to board the team bus back to the hotel, a clearly excited man. Despite the late game wrapping up at around 10:30pm, Adel stopped to explain some of the feelings after finally securing that opportunity to impress.

“I might not play the next game. But I can’t get down on that, my name was called for a reason and I’ve just got to go out there and play basketball,” he explained.

Another Aussie to take a firm grip on his late tournament opportunities was Creek, who pieced together an impressive final week for the Mavericks. As I cut a lap of the concourse during the week, I spotted Creek from afar, standing in the concession line with the fans – perhaps to buy a bottle of water or a postgame snack. Standing in his jersey, shorts and sneakers, he certainly stood out from the crowd. I chuckled to myself and shook my head at the sights Summer League can throw out there.

In big news for Creek, he recently signed an exhibit 10 deal with the Brooklyn Nets to take part in training camp with a real opportunity to earn his first NBA pay day. When the news first broke, the first image that popped to my head was Creek standing there in line in Vegas – one would like to think it’s the last time he’ll be needing to buy his own postgame food and beverage.

Perspective

It is important to remember the personal element for these athletes, who in the midst of all the craziness that Vegas has to offer, are out there trying to secure their respective futures. The majority of these players aren’t millionaire athletes. They are just athletes trying to catch a big break. Mathiang was quick to point out that point, when explaining why he refused to get down on himself if he spent long stints on the bench during the tournament.

“The thing with Summer League is that everybody is out here trying to feed their family,” Mathiang reminded. “You just try to come out here and stand out by being yourself. Some people might not even get the minutes they deserve, but you just try to go out there and try to contribute towards a win for your team in any type of way you can.”

Pretty selfless stance right?

But while impressed, I wasn’t surprised, as the Australian contingent in Vegas continued to take their stance as role models for the future generations seriously. As I walked out of the Thomas and Mack Center for the last time, sun setting over the world famous Las Vegas Strip, I felt I had gained a greater sense of respect for not just basketball athletes, but athletes in general, especially the ones fighting on the periphery of their field.

Summer League is a grind, and for many of our Australians, the future is still uncertain, even heading into August. But through it all, they battled, scrapped and fought for every opportunity handed to them. This last comment from Adel on keeping a level head despite the challenges, stuck with me.

“There’s a lot of people [in Australia] that would like to be in this situation. So for them to feel some type of hope that they can make it to this level is huge. That’s one of my biggest goals, in being a role model for the younger generation. I just want to continue to represent, represent our community the best way I can.”

With an incredible first Summer League experience complete for me personally, I walked away feeling buoyed by the confirmation that wherever this group takes their talents this season, Australian basketball is in good hands. Really good hands.

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