We’ve all had fun watching Lonzo Ball, Dennis Smith Jr. and other lottery picks put on a show in the NBA summer league this month. But for every top pick lighting up Las Vegas, there are dozens of undrafted free agents scratching and clawing for the chance to land a roster spot.
“I don’t think there’s a difference between me and some of the players who got drafted,” said former Pittsburgh standout Jamel Artis, an undrafted free agent who played summer league with the New York Knicks. “I just wanted to show that I was better than anyone out there.”
Artis’ mentality illustrates the other side of the NBA’s summer leagues: more than 300 undrafted free agents playing in front of general managers, scouts and other decision-makers in an extended job interview.
“You didn’t get drafted, so there’s nothing guaranteed for you. So you just have to stand out in any way possible.”–Bryce Alford, Warriors Summer League guard
These players have a small window to make a big impression — and they’re fighting long odds. NBA rosters have expanded to 17 players this season, but there still isn’t much room for an undrafted free agent to gain a spot. For every Tyler Johnson, Jonathon Simmons and Jeremy Lin — who eventually earned lucrative contracts — there are dozens of undrafted players who never spend a day on an NBA roster after playing in summer league.
“You just have to find a way to stand out,” said Bryce Alford, who suited up for the Golden State Warriors’ summer league team in Las Vegas. “Whether that’s showing up early and staying late, asking questions or getting an extra film session in. You didn’t get drafted, so there’s nothing guaranteed for you. So you just have to stand out in any way possible.”
That was James Michael McAdoo‘s mentality in the summer of 2014. He had spent three months preparing for the NBA draft and traveling to different cities for workouts. He went undrafted out of North Carolina.
“It was back to the drawing board,” he said.
McAdoo and his agent talked about signing a contract in Europe, but he decided to give the NBA a shot and landed on the Warriors’ summer league team.
“When I got to summer league, I was going to practice early, trying to stay as late as possible, and I was one of the only guys doing that, trying to earn a training camp roster invite,” McAdoo said. “I didn’t have to go in there and average 20 points and 10 rebounds … but what I did was enough to get the Golden State Warriors’ attention, and it ended up with me getting an invite to training camp.”
McAdoo eventually earned a roster spot with the Warriors and now has two NBA championship rings. It’s a path to success that dozens of undrafted players dream of.
“Everyone’s looking for an opportunity,” said Alford, the son of UCLA head coach Steve Alford. “I look at it as, I want to prove that the teams that passed on me are missing out. I look at the names ahead of me and I’m thinking I’m better than a lot of those guys. That’s just competitive nature.”
Alford averaged 9.3 points per game in 19 minutes for the Warriors in Las Vegas — the biggest stage of his nascent professional basketball career.
“It’s been what I’ve worked for my whole life, it’s what I’ve always wanted,” Alford said. “Even though it’s just summer league, to be able to wear the Warriors name across your chest, it’s pretty cool.”
Now, Alford will wait to find out if he has earned an invite to Warriors training camp. It would be natural for some self-doubt to creep in during the waiting period.
Trainer David Nurse has seen it before. He has worked with several undrafted free agents (Lin, McAdoo, Sean Kilpatrick, Aron Baynes) and understands better than most the mental approach that these players need to thrive.
“These guys are all uber-talented and it’s just the small details that separate them from the rest,” Nurse said. “I want to empower them — they are at this level for a reason. My role is to be in the background, behind the scenes to help them highlight their strengths and make their weaknesses become assets. It’s all about the relationship and building the trust; I always want to have a servant-attitude approach. And then a lot of it depends on if you are ready when you’re opportunity is called.
“You’ve got to be ready — physically, mentality, emotionally ready as possible when your opportunity is called. My joy comes in seeing their success.”
To aid with that process, Nurse becomes a coach both on and off the court for his clients, supporting them with skills development and a ton of positive reinforcement.
“He’s trying to make sure that mentally I can get over any obstacle that gets in my way,” Alford said. “Being an undrafted free agent, there’s going to be a lot that gets in your way that you have to get over.”
Those are hurdles that Artis, Alford and hundreds of others hope to leap after playing for teams in summer league. Many will end up playing overseas or in the NBA G League, never reaching their goal of an NBA roster. But a select few will make that uncommon jump from undrafted rookie to the NBA.
The jump that McAdoo made three summers ago.
“Looking at the past three years, I’m honestly so blessed. I couldn’t have written a better story in terms of going undrafted and where I am today,” McAdoo said.
“I think the biggest thing for me is continuing to have the same mindset that I had when I was in summer league: Show up, work hard and have a chip on your shoulder.”
Sounds like a good blueprint for the undrafted free agents of the 2017 summer league.