Pretty much every basketball player who aspires to be in the NBA shares the same general parameters of how the dream will play out: a standout collegiate career … commissioner Adam Silver striding to the NBA Draft podium and announcing your name as a first-round pick … instant acclimation to your new team … a ready-made role in the scheme … on-court minutes from the jump.
No one ever envisions getting selected in the last handful of picks when ESPN’s broadcast is in a commercial break … signing a two-way contract … honing your craft in G League practices far removed from the limelight … contorting your sizable frame into economy class airplane seats with no legroom en route to games in community college gyms in front of a few hundred people …
That’s not the dream.
But for plenty of guys — like Miye Oni, Jarrell Brantley, and Justin Wright-Foreman — that’s the reality.
The trio of second-round picks in the 2019 draft have played far more minutes for the Salt Lake City Stars than they have for the Utah Jazz. They’ve received far more personal attention from Martin Schiller than from Quin Snyder. They’ve had more home games at Bruin Arena in the Lifetime Activities Center on the Salt Lake Community College campus than in Vivint Smart Home Arena.
It’s not glamorous, it’s not easy, there’s no instant gratification to it. It’s not the pathway to an NBA career any of them envisioned — but it’s the one they’ve got.
“I would say, for any kids who have aspirations of getting this far, getting drafted or being a part of the team is the easiest part of it,” Brantley said. “Every day gets harder. You got to really be focused, you got to really be a pro. But if you attack it, you can come out really successful. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Coming up, going down
When Brantley, Wright-Foreman, and Oni were taken by the Jazz with Nos. 50, 53, and 58 picks back on June 20, logic dictated that a veteran team eyeing a deep run into the playoffs likely wouldn’t have room for all of those guys on the roster. And indeed, Oni became the only one of the three to sign a full NBA contract, the others settling for two-way deals which meant they’d be spending the bulk of the time in the G League, while getting up to 45 days apiece throughout the season to be called up by the Jazz.
After being drafted, they got a taste of NBA life by participating in the Salt Lake City and Las Vegas summer leagues, taking part in organized team activities, then getting invites to the Jazz’s 20-man training camp.
Well, then you’ve got the comedown, and the adjustment to the not-so-big-time that comes with it.
“It’s not easy, right? In the summer, you are part of the NBA team, you’re part of all the NBA activities; then the G League starts and you’re like, ‘OK, this is clearly not the NBA anymore’ — the gym is not NBA, the airplane is not NBA,” Schiller said. “So I think there’s always a second that it takes for them to figure out, ‘OK, hold on — this is a whole different animal,’ just from a mental standpoint.”
A big part of that adjustment comes in accepting their newfound place in the food chain. The three second-rounders — plus the other two guys who’ve split time between the Stars and Jazz this season, big man Juwan Morgan and point guard Nigel Williams-Goss — have all been their respective teams’ main player at some point in their nascent basketball lives.
But if you find yourself playing for the Salt Lake City Stars, that probably isn’t the case anymore.
“It was a little tough just coming in and knowing that you weren’t really going to be ‘the guy,’ just knowing that in Summer League, you were going to have to fight for a spot, fight for an opportunity,” Morgan said. “… There was a lot of grinding.”
There is a reason the two-way guys are two-way guys, why Oni has been frequently sent down to work with the Stars staff, why the undrafted Morgan had to fight to earn a spot, why Williams-Goss had to spend two years overseas before being brought back into the fold — only to find himself also frequently assigned to the Stars.
Yes, they have components to their games that made them attractive to the team. But they also have significant gaps to fill.
Oni has been charged with honing his defensive acumen and his 3-point stroke. Brantley is developing his in-game recognition and cutting down his turnovers. Wright-Foreman is transitioning from a shoot-first gunner to a playmaking point. Morgan was told he needed to add some aggressive rim-rolling to his arsenal, and to better utilize his mobility defensively. Williams-Goss is trying to show his floor-general qualities will translate against elite competition.
Even if they would rather spend 100% of their time with the Jazz, they all recognize the reasons they are not. None has been blindsided by a G League assignment.
“They explained everything, and they told me that would be a possibility a long time ago,” Oni said. “I knew that would be a possibility for all of us, playing with the G League team. I knew that would be a path that I had to take, so I was ready to accept that.”
Of course, the call-ups and the send-downs and the lather, rinse, repeat nature of those transactions can be difficult to navigate, too.
The logistical differences are significant enough: Chartered jets which can take off whenever vs. flying coach with the masses at airline-appointed times; four- and five-star hotels as opposed to sometimes sharing rooms at lesser-starred if still-nice establishments; the travel per diems are a bit lower, as well.
The on-court differences are even more stark.
One minute, they’re getting big minutes in games, the responsibility of carrying a group, low-risk opportunities to play through mistakes. Then the next minute, they’re with the Jazz, and pretty much only seeing action if the game is out of hand in the final 3 minutes.
Brantley has appeared in 26 games with the Stars, averaging 19.3 points and 7.3 rebounds in 32.4 minutes. He’s played 11 minutes in three appearances with the Jazz. Oni’s averaging 12.4 points in 29.7 minutes with the Stars, and has played eight minutes in three games with the Jazz. Morgan earned a full contract with the Jazz after dominating his 12 games in the G League (15.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, 66.1 FG% in 26.6 minutes), but since getting that deal, has just 12 appearances, 46 total minutes, 0.9 points, 0.9 rebounds. Wright-Foreman with the Stars: 26 games, 17.4 points, 39.6% 3-point shooting in 28.1 minutes. And with the Jazz? Zero games played.
“The big trick is the up and down — being pulled out, being sent down, figuring out how to play here after not having been here for three days, but right away getting a lot of minutes,” Schiller said. “It’s just not easy. It’s not easy. I think they’ve mastered it well.”
Using those opportunities
Given that it’s not easy, why not leave them with the Stars to maintain that continuity?
“When Quin pulls the guys up, there’s aways a reason for it,” Schiller said. “It’s not just a random thing to do.”
In Wright-Foreman’s case, his week on the road with the Jazz in mid-January was to give them someone to play one-on-one with Mike Conley to ready him for his return from a hamstring injury.
“That’s some serious usage,” Schiller said. “If you see the overall program, that’s our job, to help the big club.”
Of course, not every call-up is quite that specific in nature. Sometimes, Schiller added, the point is simply to get an up-close-and-personal look at the progress a player is making.
“When Quin calls them up, it’s more like, ‘I’ve got to see where these guys are right now. … Where’s their head three months in?’” Schiller said. “Five months ago in the summer, everybody’s hyped, everybody’s gonna do everything, and say ‘Yes sir,’ et cetera, et cetera. But three months in [to the G League season], you’re going through the [winter] nights, you haven’t spent a lot of time in the NBA, you’ve been in SLCC instead of Vivint — who are you? Are you still working hard? That’s what Quin wants to check.”
That, apparently, has not been a problem.
Limited though the opportunities may be during those call-ups, every player has resolved to make the most of them, whether by picking the brain of their temporary teammates (like the veteran Conley, or the relatable youngster Donovan Mitchell, or the well-traveled Ed Davis and Emmanuel Mudiay, or fellow G League product Georges Niang) or simply by demonstrating to the coaching staff that they’re knowledgable and prepared and ready to go should their number get called.
“You’re always a competitor at heart and you want to play, but you have to really take your time and think about what you’re here for,” Wright-Foreman said. “… It’s a hard adjustment — you’re going from one team where you’re playing to then coming up here. But it’s all a development thing.”
“The way I approach it is everyone there is a pro, so there’s a lot of guys to learn from in that locker room, [as well as] the coaching staff,” Brantley added. “It’s just me trying to do my job and bring something to them, whether it’s energy, character, just being myself. It’s good when I’m up there, it’s good when I’m back down here — it’s good both ways.”
Which doesn’t mean it’s easy.
But then again, they all realize, in the end, it is basketball. Über-competitive, cutthroat, limited-shots-at-the-brass-ring-basketball, but still just basketball.
And so they’ll take the unconventional path. And they’ll put in whatever work they need to. Because if you’re not willing to work for this …
“Definitely it can be challenging, but I think that’s a part of being a pro,” Brantley said. “This is my job now. And when they drafted me and sat me down, they said, ‘Your job is going to be tough. You’re gonna be busy a lot. And this is gonna be part of your job, but if you attack it the right way, you’ll end up successful.’ So that’s what I’m trying to do. I just take it day by day, and I know things will work out.”
“We’re all extremely blessed to be here, to be in this position. So for me to even be on both teams is just an incredible opportunity,” Wright-Foreman added. “This is the best job in America, so why not have fun with it?”
JAZZ AT ROCKETS
At Toyota Center, Houston
Tipoff • Sunday, 5 p.m. MT
TV • AT&T SportsNet
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 33-18; Rockets 33-19
Last meeting • Rockets, 126-117 (Jan. 27)
About the Jazz • Utah broke a five-game winning streak Friday vs. Portland thanks in part to a Rudy Gobert goaltend that wasn’t called. … Bojan Bogdanovic led the Jazz in scoring vs. Portland with 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting. … Though they lead the NBA in 3-point percentage this season, the Jazz made just 10 of 30 tries beyond the arc on Friday.
About the Rockets • Houston is coming off a 127-91 loss to Phoenix on Friday night, in which its smallball lineup was outrebounded 51-29. … Guard Russell Westbrook was held out of the Suns game on the second night of a back-to-back, but is expected to play vs. Utah. … In the Rockets’ previous matchup vs. the Jazz, Eric Gordon dropped in a career-high 50 points.