Career as an NBA Role Player Starts with a Reality Check

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Career as an NBA Role Player Starts with a Reality Check
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Of the 60 players selected in the NBA draft in June, at least half will be stars whose college or foreign teams made them centerpieces of their offense and, in some cases, hid them defensively.      

Excepting a handful of draftees, they will not enjoy that same luxury after commissioner Adam Silver calls their name on draft night. At least not from the start. Most will want it, many will believe they deserve it, but only a select few will get it.

How, then, does a player balance filling a role and not stop working his way toward core status?

No one knows what to do and what not to do better than Phoenix Suns forward P.J. Tucker—because he's done both. After a stellar collegiate career in which he helped the University of Texas to Sweet 16 and Elite Eight appearances, Tucker was drafted in the second round in 2006, 35th overall, by the Toronto Raptors. Neither the late selection, nor the Raptors' pick of Andrea Bargnani with the overall No. 1 pick, nor the presence of such established veterans as Chris Bosh, Anthony Parker and Jose Calderon deterred Tucker from believing he should be a main cog in all that Toronto did.

JIM SIGMON
P.J. Tucker: Then vs. now
Season, Team (Level) MPG FGA/G APG RPG PPG
2005-06, Texas (NCAA) 34.5 11.8 2.9 9.5 16.1
2013-14, Phoenix (NBA) 30.8 7.7 1.8 6.6 9.5

basketball-reference.com

"I was bullheaded," Tucker recalled. "You couldn't tell me anybody was better than me. It's a funny mixture. You want to be very confident but understand the situation."

Tucker's ambition soured his attitude. He played all of 83 minutes in 17 games and made a couple of trips to the Raptors' NBA Development League affiliate before finally being released in March. He hooked onto the Cleveland Cavaliers' summer league team, but the results weren't much better.

He finally opted to go overseas to pursue his desire to be the Main Man. He found what he was looking for in several countries, winning MVP honors and a league title with Hapoel Holon in Israel and Finals MVP while winning a championship in Germany's Bundesliga for Brose Baskets.

When the Phoenix Suns offered him a second chance, he returned with a new appreciation for role players. "Being the main guy over there, I realized how much I needed those role guys," he said. "I had one on every team."

Matt York

He still had to bide his time, but it helped that assistant coach Lindsey Hunter, who would eventually succeed Alvin Gentry as head coach, told him he belonged in the NBA. "He really gave me confidence," Tucker said, "not just that I could be in the league but that I could make an impact."

In the meantime, Tucker, despite only being 6'6", concentrated on giving the Suns what they sorely needed: defense, rebounding and overall physical toughness. "I had to really learn how to guard all over again," he said.

It paid off. Hunter wasn't retained, but new head coach Jeff Hornacek recognized Tucker's value and has started him every game he's been available this season, gradually expanding his role. He's not the first offensive option, but he's also not the last.

DeJuan Blair, now with the Dallas Mavericks, has had the opposite experience as a pro after a very similar run-up. He, too, arrived as a second-round pick despite leading the University of Pittsburgh to the Elite Eight, but he found a place in the San Antonio Spurs' rotation as a rookie. He then started 65 of 81 games in Year 2, 62 of 64 in Year 3. But he was rarely part of their closing lineup, and he had a hard time hiding his disappointment last season when he played sparingly.

He is now coming off the bench in a limited role for the Mavs, and the frustration remains in his face and voice.

Keith Srakocic
DeJuan Blair: Then vs. now
Season, Team (Level) MPG FGA/G RPG PPG
2008-09, Pittsburgh (NCAA) 27.3 10.9 12.3 15.7
2013-14, Dallas (NBA) 15.7 5.1 4.7 6.4

basketball-reference.com

"The NBA is a business—that's what I've learned in my five years," he said. "If I got my shot I'd handle it, but I haven't actually got it yet. It's coming. You just have to stay ready. Accept your role in the meantime."

There's a difference, though, between accepting and embracing that role, and while teams want players to remain hungry to improve and expand their games, they don't want them trying to do so on their own volition or being bitter if they're not being given a chance as quickly as they expect. Without ACLs in either knee, Blair already has defied longevity projections by trimming his weight and protecting his knees as much as he can, but he clearly feels his work and production have not been rewarded.

"They blame it on my height or my weight," he says. "It can mess with your head and turn you into a monster. Having a family helps. You just have to worry about you getting better and taking care of them."

Granted, it's not an easy juxtaposition to keep your hopes of being the orchestra conductor alive while putting all your energy into being the world's best fourth-chair violinist. Not when there's such a stark difference between the pay and security for a star, versus a sub. The way teams are being built under the new collective bargaining agreement—two maximum-salaried players surrounded by a host of smaller contracts—is only expected to expand the gap between the have-a-lot and the have-not-as-much.

Of course, the difference between even a minimum NBA contract and the salary playing almost anywhere else is even more severe. Ambition is all well and good, but a player can't allow his dreams to blind him to reality.

Glenn James/Getty Images

"You have to compete night in and night out," said Blair's veteran teammate, Shawn Marion, who went through growing pains early in his career as well. "Be consistent. You can't be up and down. They know if you have the potential to be more."

Few teams have acquired ancillary players and made them into something more than the San Antonio Spurs. Where they wind up on the spectrum is rarely predetermined.

"Sometimes it's trial and error," says coach Gregg Popovich. "They have to do one thing well for you first. Then you give them a little more and see how they handle it. You owe it to them to add something to their game if you can. Bruce Bowen, for example. When we first got him, we said, 'Bruce, you're not making that move, you're not making that pass. You're going to defend.' He accepted that role. Then we got him to where he could knock down a corner 3. Then we gave him a one-dribble rule—if a guy runs at you, you can take one dribble and pull up or you're kicking it to the first open guy. You're not making plays and you're not finishing at the rim."

Warriors center Jermaine O'Neal has lived the entire spectrum. When he arrived in Portland as straight-from-high-school 17th pick to join a veteran-laden team, coach Mike Dunleavy wanted him strictly to come off the bench to rebound and block shots. O'Neal sensed that's all Dunleavy thought he could do.

Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

Jermaine O'Neal: Then vs. now
Seasons, Team (Level) MPG FGA/G RPG PPG
2001-02 to 06-07, Indiana (NBA) 35.6 15.8 9.9 19.1
2013-14, Golden State (NBA) 20.0 5.4 5.4 7.7

basketball-reference.com

"Sometimes the league will tell you who you're supposed to be," O'Neal says. "I'm not going to let anyone determine who I'm going to be. This league is 85 percent mental, 15 percent physical. If I'm not mentally strong enough, I buy into that. If you lose your confidence in this league, you're done."

O'Neal vowed to give Dunleavy exactly what he wanted but keep his own private growth chart—refining his offensive game after practice and in pregame warm-ups and looking to improve his points per minute scored whenever possible. "If I do what he's asking me to do, he has to keep me out there," O'Neal reasoned.

He also swallowed his ego and played on the Blazers' summer league team four years in a row, an exercise usually reserved for players trying to prove they simply belong on an NBA roster.

Carlos Osorio

"I led the summer league in scoring," O'Neal said. "You have to be able to do what they ask and then do more. I learned when my deal was up that people noticed the extra work. When I went to visit teams as a free agent, the scouts said, 'We watched you before games and saw your skill level then.' Someone is always watching."

Watching, judging and searching. Because while star roles are in short supply, teams are always looking to see if they can find another Mr. Right. In the meantime, every player who is not a star has to keep his sights on being Mr. Right Now.

 

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.

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