The Life of a NBA Rookie

“And with the first pick in the 2012 NBA draft the New Orleans Hornets select……..”, soon after David Stern and Adam Silver have exhausted all 60 selections in the draft, after the adrenaline and excitement has subsided, after the custom made suits have been put aside, the reality of being a Professional Basketball Player sets in. What happens next for these young, talented, and suddenly rich players?

Within hours of being drafted, the first order of business is to arrange flights to destinations of which most are very unfamiliar. More than likely the only time these players have spent in their new city was the brief period of time for pre-draft workouts and interviews. Teams hustle to get the new players into town within 48 hours of the draft. Players are introduced at a press conference, given uniforms and introduced to so many team personnel members it will take them a month to get their names right. This is a whirlwind, an exciting time for young players and the reality of what lies ahead is looming.

The second order of business is to get settled. Many players have their agents arrange personal assistants to help locate housing, set up furniture, schedule cable, etc. Some players have one or both parents help with these matters, and in some cases the parents even move in to help out, especially during the first year. More often that not, a player will have a close friend move in with them, helping with the logistics of getting things set up. For many of these players, this is the first time they have ever had to make decisions on their own concerning housing, where to live, and who may or may not live with them, (remember the pact you made with friends when you were young?..…..”When one of us makes it, all of us make it). The best advice a player can receive is to choose a place close to their training facility. Many times the players are very young which limits their nightlife activities. Having the gym close gives them a place to go to, especially at night where they can just relax and get some shots up. Choosing the right place to live can be stressful, but with agents help, this should be discussed and a decision agreed upon before the draft.

Once a player is settled, the first part of July is all about preparing for Summer League. This is a showcase for the players drafted and gives the league a chance to see these young players fare against professional players for the first time. Undrafted free agents, players from Europe, and former NBA players will be hungry for a job. Remember when coaches used to say “Play like your life depends on it”? In many cases at summer league, this is true. Their life DOES depend on it. The competition in these games will be unlike that any the drafted players has ever experienced. These are grown men playing for jobs. The intensity, professional rules, and coaching are all new to them.

They will have about one week to workout with their new coaches before a 2-3 day “mini-camp” begins. They are suddenly thrown into a practice situation which is foreign to them. The summer league coach, usually an assistant, will put in offensive sets and defensive rotations at a very quick pace and expect all players to have them down. The free agents and veterans will be familiar with the sets and terminology, which gives them an advantage over the rookies. Rookies are usually guaranteed a certain amount of playing time during summer league, however, the coaches will be paying close attention to how quickly they pick up the system. Basically, they will be indoctrinated into “NBA Basketball 101” at a very rapid pace.

From my experience in coaching and observing summer league games, the physical style of play is the biggest adjustment that rookies have to make. The screening, holding, bumping of cutters, challenging of shots at the rim are at a level most of them have not experienced. In addition, the pace of play is new to them, most notably the 24 second shot clock. This can be tough on young point guards. For example, in a summer league a few years ago, we had a first round point guard from a very high profile college program who had yet to understand pace of play and changing of speeds. He basically played at one breakneck speed. After his first game he had 13 turnovers in less that 30 minutes of play. Learning to advance the ball quickly into the scoring within 6 seconds then slowing down to execute a set is a tough skill for young guards to develop. They learn that playing at different speeds is crucial for success in pro basketball.

The young “Bigs” learn that this game is physical! Shots they normally can finish are now challenged or blocked, that sweet spot on the block is now 17 feet from the basket and guys they could usually run past now stay with them step for step.

At the conclusion of summer league the players and coaches have a better understanding of what areas of development the players need. Time to get in the gym and be ready for training camp only 8 weeks away! Most teams will give the rookies one week off at the end of summer league. This will be the only extended period of time to get away until the end of next season, 9 months away. Once the players report back around the beginning of August, the real work with strength coaches, nutritionists, trainers, and coaches begins.

Rookies can expect to spend 3 hours a day, 5 days a week in the gym for the next 2 months. Although most college programs have weight programs, nothing can prepare them for what a pro strength and conditioning coach has in store for them. The varied, sophisticated weight programs along with the stretching and yoga routines are new to most rookies. In addition, they must get into great condition in order to pass a mandatory test prior to training camp.

For the first time in their lives, young players must deal with the fact that nutrition is now their responsibility. Meeting with a nutritionist and scheduling the delivery of prepared meals is very common among rookies. Many times it takes young players several years to really understand and practice good nutrition. Fast food habits are tough to break, and it takes great discipline to do so.

Most young players have bodies that are not prepared for the rigors of an NBA season. Some need more muscle, some need to lose body fat. Whatever the case may be, the strength coach is put in charge of beginning the transformation of a rookie’s body. Weight training sessions are typically 4 days a week. This is not college, and failure to perform now results in a fine.

On the court workouts with the coaches are Monday-Friday, usually between 60-90 minutes per session. This is where the rookies can begin to further develop skills, work on weaknesses and establish relationships with the coaching staff. These sessions give the coaches great insight into the work habits, intensity, coachability and focus of the players.

A huge adjustment for rookies is what to do with all the down time. No class to attend, no study hall, no meetings with academic advisors, no summer school. Nothing but hoops, conditioning, eating and sleeping. But that still leaves several hours a day free, with more money than they have ever had. This is where common sense, making good choices and keeping a level head is so important. Most agents put their players on a strict budget, yet agents are hired and fired all the time, so telling players what they don’t want to hear is sometimes overlooked for fear of losing that 4% fee.

Training camp begins. Coaches are busy establishing their offensive and defensive systems, player rotations are being set and except for a few situations (usually lottery picks who are slated to start), rookies are routinely forgotten. Often they are on the second or third teams in scrimmaging. Frustration mounts. Coaches are not tolerant of mistakes or missed assignments. Veterans are usually not patient, especially if the rookies are a threat for playing time. For the first time since they began playing, confidence is broken. Often times a young player wonders, “Do I really belong here”? This is where the importance of having a relationship with one of the assistant coaches is critical. Helping them with sets, rotations, etc. Keeping them after practice for extra work and attention. Keeping their confidence up. Talking with them. Developing a positive relationship with that coach. The rookies will be spending most of their time that first year with an assistant with whom they connect.

The most actual game time a rookie will probably see is in pre-season games. These are the 8 games in October to prepare the team for the season. Starters usually play less than half the game, and sit out the entire last game or two. This is the time many rookies are evaluated to determine if they are ready or not to get into a game during the regular season.
At the conclusion of the pre-season schedule, the front office will play the numbers game. A rookie may be assigned to a D League team. A rookie may be on the roster but not be activated for games. For the first time, a rookie is not a star or even a starter.

For many, this will be the first time they have not be an integral part of a game. They can tend to lose focus, neglect their weight training sessions, and put less energy into on court workouts. This is where the importance of having a great relationship with an assistant coach is paramount.

On most teams, rookies are required to be on the court 30-45 minutes before practice begins. This time on the court must be seen as productive for the players. In essence, these workouts become their games. The coaches must design and implement workouts which are both meaningful and engaging. Rookies can plan on playing lots of 1 on 1, 2 on 2, and 3 on 3 during these workouts. Assistant coaches must work with the rookies in 5 on 0 drills, scout team drills and watch extra film to develop work habits which help them learn the NBA game.

As the season progresses, rookies must be constantly encouraged, since frustration can build. In addition to ensuring that these players keep their bodies ready, they must be mentally engaged in each game. You never know when injuries can happen. Rookies may find themselves in the nine or ten man rotation with one or two injuries to a team.

Pre-game workouts, usually done 3 hours before each game, become very important. Most NBA teams have a Pro Player Personnel scout attend these early workouts for the sole reason of evaluating players not likely to get into a game. Rookies and other young players are being evaluated on work ethic, energy, how they respond to the coaches, focus, and skill. The NBA is a very small fraternity and a player’s reputation spreads quickly around the league. Moreover, a player’s attitude on the bench during the game is also being scrutinized. They must be enthusiastic, engaged during time outs, and ALWAYS be into the game mentally.

One of the most important things for young players to establish is a sense of professionalism. They should watch and listen to veteran leadership on their team. How do they prepare for a game? To PLAY or to WIN? There is a huge difference. Have they read the Scouting Report? Have they watched film on the players they are likely to be guarding? Do they know the calls of the five most frequently run sets? What are the opponents Pick/Roll coverages? All of these habits need to be developed by rookies. They will not happen without an assistant coach being involved. Again, this is where the relationships that have been developed since the summer will benefit.

For many rookies, it seems as if the season will never end. Eighty two games as opposed to thirty five, shoot arounds, late flights, early busses, pre-game workouts, regular practices, extra workouts, and weight training sessions. All of these without getting into a meaningful game. It’s All Basketball, All the Time!! This theme needs to be constantly pounded into their heads. This is now your job, and what a great one it is, with only four hundred and fifty of them in the world. Being an NBA player is such a privelge. Young players need to be reminded of this on a daily basis. It can be taken away in an instant.

The best part of being a rookie is when the final game is played and they (hopefully) become second year players. No more crazy rookie initiations, picking up balls after practice, carrying bags or scrambling to get fast food for veteran players 5 minutes before the bus to shoot around.

With very few exceptions, this is some of what rookies can expect their first year in the NBA. What a relief it will be for them to hear “And with the first pick in the 2013 NBA Draft………..”

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