On the final night of the 2012-2013 NBA season the New York Knicks, beset with injuries, were playing with a short bench. Mike Woodson's team was hobbling out of the season, hoping to make it to the playoffs alive. But Chris Copeland was not hobbling; Chris Copeland was living the dream.
With six and a half minutes remaining,put the ball on the deck, drove the basket, and put the cap on a remarkable week. With that layup Copeland scored his 32nd and 33rd points of the night, surpassing his NBA career high score of 32 points, established two days earlier. Copeland was a 29-year-old NBA rookie, finally putting up numbers in the league after spending five seasons playing all over Europe.
(You can read more about Chris Copeland's journey in this excellent SBNation piece.)
The NBA draft divides the haves and have nots
With the 56th pick in the 2013 NBA draft, the Detroit Pistons selected Peyton Siva of the University of Louisville. Not Myck Kabongo of The University of Texas.
Siva has many of the same limitations as Kabongo -- neither player player is particularly adept at shooting the ball. Kabongo seems on the surface to be a far more appealing prospect. Both Siva and Kabongo are quick, but Kabongo is bigger and younger. These two factors would have led anyone to predict that it would be Kabongo packing for Detroit, while Siva contemplated his future.
But predictions often differ from what really happens.
This same story plays out every June. A new crop of young basketball players watches the NBA draft, hoping to hear their name called.
The 60 players called have the opportunity to quickly make large sums of money in exchange for running up and down a wooden floor. They have no hard choices to make, at least not initially.
Players who aren't chosen, like Kabongo, meet harsh realities and confront hard choices. Their odds of making an NBA team are remote. Many undrafted players from American universities will be invited to join a summer league team, and a small number will be offered a try out with an NBA team in the fall. But few will last to the start of the regular season. In 2012, four undrafted college players were picked up by an NBA team at the start of the season: Kent Bazemore, DeQuan Jones, Scott Machado, and Maalik Wayns. Only Bazemore and Jones made it through the entire season with the same team.
For most undrafted free agents, the path to the Association is more like Rod Benson's account.
The cruel economics the NBA
It's New Years Eve and I'm sitting here cooking Hamburger Helper, watching "The Hangover" on my computer. Chances are good I won't even make it to midnight, because I'm tired and we have a game tomorrow. In the next week we play five times, including two games in Idaho at the D-League Showcase. It's kind of a big week. What a way to start 2010.
--- Too much Rod Benson: Goodbye, blog (January 4, 2010)
The odd economics of professional hoops work like this. First round NBA draft picks receive guaranteed contracts that pay out on a sliding scale. The first pick of the NBA draft will draw a salary worth more than $4 million dollars annually. The last pick of the first round will earn a bit more than $850,000 per year.
Players drafted in the second round are not guaranteed contracts, and will have to earn a spot on their team. If a player signs with a team, he will typically be paid at the NBA rookie minimum, which was $473,604 during the 2012-2013 season. These players under NBA contracts can play with an NBA team, or be sent to play in the NBA Development League. If a player is sent to the D-League, he is still paid as an NBA player by his NBA team, so long as that team chooses to retain him.
If a player is waived by an NBA team, or doesn't make one in the first place, he can still sign a contract directly with the D-League. D-League salaries range from $13,000-$25,500 per season. Additionally, D-League players receive a $40 per diem when on the road, and receive housing and insurance. Most players in the D-League are playing under D-League contracts.
The shortest NBA contract lasts for ten days. For players in the D-League, young men living in places like Hidalgo, Texas or Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a short-term goal is to play well enough to earn one of these contracts. A ten day contract in 2013 paid a little less than $28,000, which is more than what a D-League player will earn in an entire season. And more importantly, these ten day contracts serve as a chance to compete against NBA players, and impress NBA teams.
This path was taken by Henry Sims, who after a four year career at Georgetown spent most of the 2012-2013 season in the D-League. In March, he signed a ten day contract with New Orleans, appearing in two games and logging a total of five minutes. He then returned to the D-League, and finished his season playing with the Petron Blaze Boosters in the Philippine Basketball Association. Chris Johnson is another D-League player who this year made his NBA debut this season on a ten day contract in his first year as a professional.
The D-League path was also used more successfully by West Virginia product Kevin Jones. After going undrafted in 2012, Jones couldn't quite make it with the Cleveland Cavilers. Jones ended up in Canton, and after three outstanding games was signed to an NBA contract with Cleveland. He spent the year going back and forth between Canton and Cleveland, ultimately appearing in 32 NBA games.
The alternative to toiling for SpaghettiOs money with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants is to play abroad. There are professional basketball leagues all over the world where decent money -- sometimes really good money -- can be made. This potential to earn more money comes at a cost. It requires the player to defer his NBA dreams for at least a season, as players seldom make the jump from playing abroad to the NBA in mid-season. Additionally, the life of the itinerant hoopster, traveling the world in search of a game that will pay, can be a lonely one.
Playing abroad does not end the NBA dream. Several former undrafted college players made their NBA debut this season after starting their professional careers outside the United States. Players like Copeland, Brian Roberts, Ben Hansbrough, Aron Baynes, Josh Akognon, Chris Wright, Justin Holiday, Luke Zeller, and Diante Garrett all spent time playing in places like Croatia, France, Japan, Lithuania, Belgium, Turkey, Estonia, China, Germany, Slovenia, Spain, The Netherlands, and Israel.
These guys are the success stories -- the lucky ones -- although many surely will not be on an NBA team next year, and will again wander the earth in search of a paycheck. The majority of North American players playing abroad never get an NBA chance.
The NBA dream
Figuring out when to reach for your dream, and when it is not yet prudent is a classic life challenge. In certain situations, if you reach too soon, your chances are ruined, or at least severely hampered. The basketball world is assembled in this way.
The NBA dream is fancy cars, beautiful women, a big house, Armani suits, and champagne in a South Beach nightclub. The NBA dream is playing in front of 15,000 people and competing at the highest level against the greatest athletes in the world. The NBA dream is charter flights and playing cards with your boys. A pretty damn appealing dream, you can't blame anyone for wanting it, or for reaching for it too quickly when the dream seems almost at hand.
So when is too soon, and what is the right time? With such an attractive dream, few have the perspective and foresight to figure this out. It would be difficult for an adult, but for a 20-year-old kid, it is almost impossible. How many 20-year-olds make suboptimal life choices?
Reaching for the dream is the reason why 40 underclassmen declared for the NBA draft this season, when there clearly aren't jobs for them all. Recent history shows that only 50 of the 60 draft picks will end up making an NBA team. Some of these 50 real openings will go to college seniors and international players. There just isn't room for everyone in the NBA dream.
For many players it is sub-optimal to declare for the NBA draft if they believe they will be drafted in the second round. One in three second round picks never play a second in the league, and many players who believe they will be second round picks end up not being chosen at all. Players would likely be better served playing another season in college trying to improve their chances of moving into the first round. There won't be many NBA scouts watching them play in Japan. The best chance of catching on in the NBA comes through the draft, and the financial difference between the first round and the second round is substantial. Everyone knows this, but it doesn't stop players from declaring too soon.
Myck Kabongo isn't the first college basketball player to go undrafted after declaring with remaining college eligibility. And he won't be the last. He is joined this year by fellow early entry/undrafted free agents C.J. Leslie, Vander Blue, Phil Pressey, and B.J. Young in his quest to make a team.
As an undrafted free agent, no one is mesmerized by Kabongo's potential any longer. And no one is any longer looking out for him, nurturing that potential. The world is full of guards with potential, and Kabongo is now on his own. To make a team, he will have to show someone more than just potential; he will have to show someone that he can play.
Some undrafted free agents, like former University of Texas guard Maurice Evans, eventually catch on in the NBA and carve out a long and successful career. But most vanish, exiled to the fringes of professional basketball, spending part of the year in Bixby, Oklahoma, followed by a short stint in Latvia. Most eventually face facts, staying only a year or two in the D-League before focusing on earning better money outside the States.
The NBA dream isn't figuring out how to shop for groceries in Korea during your month as a mercenary ringer in Seoul. The NBA dream isn't worrying that your Russian oligarch owner is still solvent enough to make payroll. And the NBA dream sure as hell isn't eating Hamburger Helper and preparing for a week in Boise, while your agent tries to find you a chance to play for a few games in the big league.
Most players eventually give up and stop living out of a suitcase, chasing the ten day contract.