13 Veteran Players Assisting Younger NBA Stars This Season
No two paths to NBA success look the same.
Tim Duncan used all four years of eligibility at Wake Forest en route to four championships, while Kobe Bryant won five titles without ever setting foot on a college campus.
Most kids pick up a basketball before they know what it is. Hakeem Olajuwon famously touched one for the first time at age 15.
Michael Jordan wore the same pair of college practice shorts under his uniform his entire career.
One point remains constant for those who are hoping to make waves in the Association: There’s always more to learn. Each of those four legends had guys to lean on for advice throughout their careers.
This can come from a number of sources. MJ had coach/wizard Phil Jackson. In college, Olajuwon apprenticed under Moses Malone, who was a center for the Houston Rockets at the time. Paul George created media frenzy this season by asking likely playoff opponent LeBron James to be his mentor. DeMar DeRozan, Lance Stephenson and Brandon Jennings are disciples of the P. Miller Ballers program. Yes, that’s Percy Miller aka Master P.
The locker room, though, is the most common place that players turn to for guidance. Only five guys can be on the court at a time, rotations tend to go anywhere from nine to 11 deep, and rosters max out at 13. And fans only see players a few times per week during games, when in reality teams are together all the time.
So guys have a lot of time to form relationships—often of the mentor-mentee variety that is crucial to young players’ development.
Let’s look at some of the veterans who selflessly take time to educate the next generation of ballers, especially since those young guns are often working toward taking their mentors' minutes and roster spots.
Kris Humphries and Rajon Rondo Pushing Phil Pressey, Celtics
Though they play different positions with little overlap, Kris Humphries and rookie Phil Pressey have taken to each other like freshman roommates. Humphries—who’s only seen the postseason thrice in 10 years—is in the phase of his career when he might bolt a rebuilding franchise like the Celtics for a championship-caliber team.
Instead, he’s committed his focus to Boston and not just on the court.
ESPNBoston’s Chris Forsberg detailed how the veteran has inspired the rookie to put in overtime cardio: “Humphries, now in his 10th NBA season, would invariably recruit Pressey, an undrafted rookie, for rigorous sets of a dreaded sprinting drill. Pressey is brutally honest when he notes now that he's no fan of those sprinting exercises. But he'll never say no to Humphries.”
Forsberg also noted that Humphries often joins in with the rookies on three-point shooting and trick-shot contests.
Though Pressey averaged less than 15 minutes per game, he played in more games than all but three Celtics players. And save for December, his field-goal percentage increased every month. The undrafted rookie earned three starts in April due to various injuries, averaging 8.1 points, 6.9 assists and 1.5 steals in 30 minutes.
While Humphries can’t claim credit for the rookie’s improved guard play, Pressey acknowledged the vet’s dedication to his teammates:
He's always trying to help the rookies out, trying to show them what it takes to get where he got. I can't ask for any other type of vet because he's working just like we are working and trying to get better. Running extra, lifting extra, getting extra shots -- there's no reasons why a rookie shouldn't be doing the same.
And what Humphries lacks in skills, Rajon Rondo makes up for it. Rondo, the last remaining member of the Celtics 2008 championship team, has taken to Pressey despite his usual aloofness.
"[The first time he offered me advice] was pretty cool," Pressey told CSNNE.com reporter Jessica Camerato. "He teaches me how to control the game, what I should be doing on the offensive end, how to run the plays. Every little thing I do, he’s in my ear trying to tell me the right thing to do."
Ronnie Price and Jameer Nelson Guiding Victor Oladipo, Magic
Expectations began as high as they could for the rookie who was touted to make Orlando forget Dwight Howard. With an offensive game deemed to be a work in progress before the draft, it was paramount for the Magic to develop Victor Oladipo into an all-around player if he was to become the franchise cornerstone.
They also needed to make sure the second overall pick had his head on straight and tight enough to undertake so much responsibility.
Ronnie Price, all 6'2” of him, stepped up to the plate. The nine-year vet—who has never reached 15 minutes per game over a full season—knows full well what it takes to survive as an underdog. John Denton of NBA.com writes that Price, “often sets the tone in practice with his relentless hustle and his first-to-arrive, last-to-leave mentality,” and that he’s managed to play in more than 400 NBA games because of his maturity and inclination to fill any role.
As such, Price’s locker sits next to Oladipo’s.
Price—who has backed up Mike Bibby, Deron Williams, Steve Nash, Damian Lillard and Jameer Nelson—has watched Oladipo make the conversion from 2-guard to point guard, which he told Baller Mind Frame’s Zach Oliver is the toughest change you can make in the NBA: “I think by far that’s the hardest transition to make and with that being said I think he’s proven that he’s a hard worker and he’ll have success in this league for many years to come.”
Rumors swirled about Nelson before the trade deadline, but he stayed put and has helped Oladipo with his timing at the new position. On Orlando Magic Daily, Nelson described Oladipo as a “gym rat” with an incredible motor and ability to absorb what he’s taught.
Oladipo has taken Price and Nelson’s lessons to heart. Though Michael Carter-Williams has the inside edge for Rookie of the Year, the former Hoosier averaged 13.9 points, 4.1 assists and 4.1 rebounds and shot 33 percent from deep while learning on the fly.
John Lucas III and Marvin Williams Developing Trey Burke, Jazz
From “Pistol” Pete Maravich to John Stockton to Deron Williams, the Utah Jazz have a tradition of employing the game’s best point guards. The Jazz intended for rookie Trey Burke to eventually join that list when they packaged two first-round picks last June to jump five spots and grab him at No. 9.
Despite missing the first month of the season with a broken finger, he broke into the Rookie of the Year debate with some breakout performances. In December, he had a 30-point, eight-assist, seven-rebound night in a victory at Orlando. He also hit the game-winning three-pointer against the Magic in March.
Burke averaged 12.5 points and 5.6 assists—second among rookies and tied with Damian Lillard. And he did it with plenty of help.
Marvin Williams, who never lived up to his full potential as the No. 2 overall pick in 2005, has settled into a veteran role at the ripe age of 27. He and Burke are neighbors in Salt Lake City, and according to the Detroit Free-Press’ Vince Ellis, Williams isn’t afraid to keep Burke in line when things get too noisy next door.
Five of the Jazz’s key members—Burke, Alec Burks, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Rudy Gobert—are all 22 or younger, so the former North Carolina Tar Heel has had to adapt a team-first mentality. He’s eschewed points for loose balls and screens to help Burke and the rest of the team jell better.
But Williams isn’t the only guy in Burke’s ear. John Lucas III, one of only two guys on the roster who is over 30, has also taken to imparting wisdom on the rookie. And Lucas brings worldly advice with him, having played in the D-League, Italy, Spain and China.
When the Jazz introduced Lucas as a member of the team last summer, he already had plans to invite Burke to train with him and his father down in Houston. He also helped Burke get through the injury that derailed his career before it ever got going, calling it “a minor setback for a major comeback,” per the Deseret News.
And according to Lucas, he’s been on Burke ever since. “I’m always in his ear,” Lucas said, per We Are Utah Jazz’s Skyler Hardman. “I try to help him see little things and point out the subtleties of the NBA game.”
Rodney Stuckey and Chauncey Billups Aiding Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Pistons
A mentor does many things, from giving off-court advice to coaching up players in practice and film sessions.
In Rodney Stuckey’s case, he’s done all of that and provided emotional support for rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The seven-year veteran knows the feeling of having a starter’s role unceremoniously ripped away from him. He started 85 percent of the Pistons’ games from 2008-09 to 2011-12. In the last two years he’s had to defer to Jose Calderon and Caldwell-Pope, starting just 29 games.
But Caldwell-Pope, thrust into the lineup from Day 1, struggled and ultimately lost the position to Kyle Singler shortly before the All-Star break.
Stuckey, rather than gloat when the rookie dropped behind him in the rotation, has been a voice of encouragement for a player who went scoreless a staggering 13 times after the change. "I always tell them to stay positive," Stuckey said before a February game (subscription required) against Denver. "I always tell KCP whenever he's in the game to stay aggressive. He understands. He's a rookie, but it comes with the territory.”
The guy who was in Stuckey’s shoes when the Eastern Washington product was a wee rookie? Chauncey Billups has come full circle five years after departing the Motor City, and he’s teamed up with Stuckey to help Caldwell-Pope develop while playing in just 19 games.
"I've been working his behind off," Billups said after the season opener, per MLive.com. "He's kind of my project. We watch film together. I'm teaching him the game as we practice and play.”
Caldwell-Pope’s numbers leave a lot to be desired, although he entered a situation that was crowded with scorers. The Pistons have hope for him to make a jump between his first and second seasons—especially with Stuckey and Billups there to move him along.
Nikola Pekovic and Ronnie Turiaf Focusing Gorgui Dieng, Timberwolves
As far as surprise rookies go, Gorgui Dieng leads the list.
In 14 starts due to various roster injuries, he comfortably averaged a double-double (12.8 points and 12.4 rebounds) while shooting an efficient .522 from the field. He was also the first rookie in franchise history to record at least 20 points and 20 rebounds when he had 22 and 21 against the Houston Rockets in mid-March.
But his breakout as a top two-way center didn’t come without its difficulties. The Senegal native played a total of 23 minutes in his first three NBA games and picked up 10 fouls—more than points (one), rebounds (two), blocks (three) and assists (three) combined. And when Ronny Turiaf went down with a fractured elbow, Dieng’s minutes didn’t increase.
Fellow big man Nikola Pekovic took the rookie under his wing, instilling the concept of being hungry while staying patient and helping him understand when and where to exert his seemingly boundless energy. He told 1500ESPN reporter Nate Sandell back in November: "I've been in his situation. I know it's kind of frustrating. I always try to help him, try to teach him how to play against big guys...He wants to show that he really belongs here. He's a really hard worker...he'll need to figure out by himself, you know, that you can't be really aggressive all the time."
When Pekovic went out for a second extended stretch with an ankle injury in March and Turiaf was still sidelined, Dieng finally got his chance. He took complete advantage of it, recording five double-doubles in nine games to win the KIA NBA Rookie of the Month Award.
Though much of Dieng’s success comes from his own belief that he’s completely NBA-ready, Turiaf has also been a huge factor. He has helped Dieng with the off-court stuff that comes with being in the NBA.
"We always talk about it," Turiaf said, according to the Star Tribune's Kent Youngblood. "I ask him, 'What have you learned?' And his thing is, 'I’m learning the day in and day out of being an NBA player.'"
Eric Bledsoe Teaching Archie Goodwin, Suns
Play word association with Eric Bledsoe, and you’ll likely come up with terms like "young" and "rising star."
Ask Archie Goodwin to do the same about Bledsoe, and he’s liable to include "mentor" on his list. That’s a strange moniker for a fourth-year guy who is just now breaking out in his own right. But as SunNGun.com's Eric Saar noted back in November, Bledsoe has taken the rookie and fellow former Kentucky Wildcat to school.
“Archie is young right now and he is in a learning mode here and he is in a great place,” he said. “It feels good to have somebody that went to the same college and to have that bond.”
Coach Jeff Hornacek noticed the two watching film together when the team flew from one city to the next.
For Bledsoe, it helps to have spent three years learning from the best point guard in the game, Chris Paul.
At just 19 years old, Goodwin is more an investment than a plug-and-play guy. That’s why his minutes didn’t explode when Bledsoe missed more than two months following knee surgery.
But the second-youngest player has already picked up some important cues from his teammate, per Paul Coro of AZCentral.com:
When it comes to basketball, he’s emotional. On the court, he says a few things. When he does talk, he says something that you should listen to. Off the court, we talk about games and he tells me key points about things I do good and things I can do better. He helps me and I help him the same way. He’s my big brother but he’ll take advice from me the same way.
Andre Miller Maturing John Wall, Wizards
Few players have been around the league as long as Andre Miller. His 15 years of NBA experience explain the popular nickname "The Professor."
Employed by his sixth team after a midseason three-team trade from the Denver Nuggets, Miller is definitely more mentor than on-court contributor. He has played a career-low 14.5 minutes per night in 27 games since arriving in Washington, though he still manages to dish nearly 3.5 assists each contest.
Miller was brought in primarily to guide franchise superstar John Wall through his first postseason experience. With averages of 19.9 points and 8.6 assists, Wall was no slouch before Miller came to town.
But if there’s one part of the athletically inclined Wall’s game that could use improvement, it’s the slowed-down half-court pace that becomes more common in the playoffs.
And then there’s the whole leadership aspect, a role that was previously filled by Emeka Okafor until he was traded for Marcin Gortat days before the season began.
Wall gushed about Miller after just his first game with the team. “That's a guy you can learn from,” he said to reporters following a 94-93 win over New Orleans. “It's a guy that loves the game and is still playing at 37. I hope I can be playing at 37."
Though it would be hyperbole to contribute the Wizards’ 17-10 record since Miller’s arrival to his own play, Wall has been noticeably more efficient. His shooting percentages are up across the board and his assists have gone up slightly. Perhaps that's nod to Miller’s calmness as a floor leader and penchant to distribute rather than look to shoot first—he is ninth all time in assists, after all.
Jason Collins Assisting Mason Plumlee, Nets
Jason Collins, best known to the public as the NBA’s first openly gay player, racked up 12 years of experience as a ruthless paint protector before making headlines with his sexuality.
The Stanford grad has logged just 130 minutes in 20 games since arriving in February. Yet Nets management decided to keep him around for their impending playoff run thanks to his reputation as a mentor to young centers.
And he’s had an immediate influence on rookie Mason Plumlee. "When Mase comes out of the game, I'm trying to talk to him about [the] little adjustments he can make that can help the team," Collins said to Alex Raskin, Nets beat reporter for The Wall Street Journal (subscription required).
Plumlee, a latecomer to the Rookie of the Year race with his offensive post play, acknowledged the help that Collins has given him on the other end of the floor. “He made his name as a defensive player, so he's on me about rotations.”
Head coach Jason Kidd, Collins’ former teammate when the Nets called New Jersey home, had a lighter take on the relationship. “He taught Mason how to foul tonight,” Kidd said after one of Collins’ first games, per the New York Daily News.