Next month, a select class of young basketball hopefuls will graduate to the NBA.
In recognition of graduation season, I recently asked four Toronto Raptors veterans what they would say if they were delivering a commencement address to the outgoing class of prospects as it prepares for the rarefied air of professional basketball.
Danny Green, Jeremy Lin, Serge Ibaka and Jodie Meeks have managed to stay in the NBA for eight seasons or more. Green and Ibaka are front-line players, though hardly stars. Meeks has been traded multiple times, and Lin has played on eight teams besides spending time in the NBA’s developmental league.
Yet, as the NBA Finals get underway, Lin, Green, Ibaka and Meeks are Raptors teammates participating in the first NBA Finals outside of the United States. Their experiences are unique, but the connective thread of their careers is perseverance, self-confidence and faith.
Danny Green, 31, in his ninth NBA season
Green was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 46th overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft out of North Carolina but was waived early the next season. He was signed by San Antonio, where he did two separate tours and played in a pair of NBA Finals. Last July, Green and teammate Kawhi Leonard were traded to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Pöltl and a protected 2019 first-round draft pick.
“This is professional sports; take it seriously.
“Not everybody is going to be treated the same. You’re coming in as a rookie, so you’re going to be asked to do some duties. Learn from the top guys, the veterans.
“Everything might go smoothly, or you might have some locker room issues, you might have some coaching issues. You might have some success early on, you might not. You might have some failures early on. Your coach might believe in you, your coach may not give you a chance. Either way, be professional. Be prepared to grind it out.
“It’s a long process and a long season; each season gets longer and longer. People think they go fast, but they’re long seasons. Take care of your body as much as you can.
“Don’t get too high, don’t get too low. There are so many games, so many nights that you can redeem yourself, so many times that you can fall off — quickly. I’ve seen so many success stories end up dropping so fast. Success doesn’t happen overnight. You have to stay consistent and persistent with everything you’re doing. Basketball is a game but also your livelihood.”
Green was released by the Spurs shortly after arriving in 2010. He had to make an attitude adjustment before the Spurs took him back.
“I had to come back and be a different player, a different person. Luckily, they gave me an opportunity to do so. They coped with me, let me adjust, and as time went on, I became a professional.”
The adjustment and insights will not come overnight.
“Of course not, there’s so much pressure. It’s easier when you’ve been in the league for a longer period of time, when you have some contracts that are guaranteed. That makes it easier.
But as you get older, you understand who you are, you become more confident in yourself and you know that you’ll be OK, that things will be all right regardless of what happens. If I get fired from here tomorrow or am out of the NBA tomorrow, I know that I’ve built. I know I’ll be able to find something else to do. I’ll be OK in life, figuring it out.
Separate basketball from your sense of self.
“Playing basketball is what I do, it’s not who I am. You have to tell people what kind of person you are, separate from basketball. There is so much more to us than just basketball. It’s a big part of our lives, it’s what we do for a living, but it’s not who we are.’
A critical component will be adjusting to the ups and downs of your new life as a pro.
“The important thing is remembering that this is just basketball. It’s not life and death. There are so many more important things in life that are way more serious. You want to be great, you want to compete, but this is just a game. Things could be a lot worse. Every day is Christmas for us here in the NBA.”
Jeremy Lin, 30, in his eighth NBA season
Undrafted out of Harvard, Lin has played with nine NBA teams in his eight years. Lin is the first American of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA.
“Slow down and enjoy each moment, even the struggles, because you’re going to have a lot of struggles. No matter what you’re going through, you should always have a vision or goal of where you want to be. But please, don’t lose sight of where you are now. Enjoy that, because time flies.
“The second thing I’d say is just make sure you have good people around. It’s very important to be able to make good decisions and set your life up so that you have accountability: for your finances, for your life, for how you spend your time, how much you’re working out and what you’re working on.”
Being undrafted made it easy to remain focused.
“But it made it a ton harder because no one wanted to give me a chance, even when I outplayed other people. Why? For whatever reason. It could have been because I went to Harvard; it could’ve been my physical appearance. There may be a lot of different factors that play into that.
“But everybody who goes undrafted is just a little more focused. A lot of kids who go undrafted, there’s something about having a toughness about you. That is definitely something beyond the skills and combine tests. That toughness is really important.”
Serge Ibaka, 29, in his ninth NBA season
Ibaka was drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics, which became the Oklahoma City Thunder, with the 24th pick in the 2008 NBA draft. Ibaka, a three-time NBA All-Defensive first-team selection, has twice led the league in blocks. He was traded to the Orlando Magic in 2016. In 2017, he was traded to the Raptors. He became the first player from the Republic of Congo to be selected in the draft. He has a special message for young African players hoping to make it in the NBA.
“Even when you come here, it does not mean that you have made it. It’s just the start. Most times, young guys get confused. They come here, they say, ‘OK, this is my dream, I’m here in the NBA.’ No! your dream is just starting.
“When you get here, you have to do more work, a lot more sacrifice than what you did before. You have to double the sacrifice to stay, especially coming from Africa. It’s not that easy. We have to earn our respect — from everybody.
“I told myself I would not believe I made it until after my sixth or seventh year. After six or seven years, I told myself, ‘You made it now.’ ”
Stay on mission. Represent the continent.
“Even now, this is my ninth year, I’m still on a mission. I have something to prove because I have to set an example for all the young guys coming behind.
“I remember a couple of years ago, there were a couple of young guys I heard people say they wanted to draft, they said they could be Serge Ibaka-type of players. When I heard that, that is what I want.
“Coming from Africa, being an NBA player, it’s a blessing, but you have to do a lot of work. That’s what I keep telling my young guys: There still is a lot of work to do. There is still a challenge; it’s not easy. They don’t give us those things easily. Young guys coming into the NBA, it’s a beautiful league, nice lifestyle, a lot of money. They have a lot of people around them who are saying this and that. Sometimes they don’t understand that this is hard, this is only the beginning of the fight.”
Jodie Meeks, 31, in his ninth NBA season
Meeks was drafted 41st overall by the Milwaukee Bucks out of Kentucky.
“My biggest adjustment was not getting the ball as much, especially because in college I was the No. 1 option. On this level, everybody’s good, everybody can score. There are only a select few players that are going to get to shoot anytime they want to, so I struggled with that my rookie year and a little bit into my second year. I had to dial my game back a little bit, so that became my niche: They just wanted me to be a shooter, when I’ve been a scorer my whole life. But that’s a lesson: Master your niche and try to stay in it; if you don’t, they’ll find somebody else.
“Find your ace card, what you do best, and master that and don’t worry about the other stuff.”
How he grew over a nine-year NBA career without being a star.
“A lot of hard work, a lot of dedication. Staying in the gym, after hours, before practice. These things help you prepare for big-time moments. You’re not always going to be playing a lot of minutes, so the work that you put in will prepare you for those.”
The best advice a veteran gave him.
“Be ready. Be ready when your time comes, whether it’s two minutes, eight minutes, 20 minutes. Be effective in that time and try to get more minutes that way.”
Get used to being traded. Meeks has been traded three times. Milwaukee traded him four months into his rookie season.
“I was introduced to the business real fast.
“It’s only a handful of guys who have played their whole careers with one team, and those are stars. And even stars get traded. More than likely you’re going to be traded or you’re going to play for a different team in some form or fashion.
“Just remember, it’s a business. You’re not in college anymore. You’re not in high school. At any point in time, you can be in one place in September and in February you can be on a different team, or teams.
“Focus on getting better; whatever happens after that, you can’t control.”
You may never get used to getting traded. He hasn’t.
“That’s human nature. I was really kind of hurt by it. I was drafted by Milwaukee, and they told me they were molding me to take over for Michael Redd when he was finished, maybe two or three years down the road. When the trade deadline came, I was traded to Philly.
“Professionally, it was the best thing that could have happened to my career. I ended up starting for three years after that, but it still hurt, even though it got me going. As a human being, you feel the team is saying you’re not as good as the person they are bringing in, so you want to prove that you’re good or better.
“So for the guys who are coming in, if that mentality is going to help you, then think that way. But don’t take it so personally to the point where you can’t play.”
He hopes Toronto is his last stop.
“That would be nice. Hey, if not, I’ll keep on strolling.”