My career is done.
That was Trevon Duval's overriding thought. On the night of the 2018 NBA draft, sitting with friends and family at Bull Bay Caribbean Cuisine in Wilmington, Delaware, he'd felt embarrassment, shock and disbelief as the minutes became hours and his name was not called.
My career is done.
Loving words and pats on the back were appreciated but not enough. A lifelong desire to hear commissioner Adam Silver or deputy commissioner Mark Tatum say, "...select Trevon Duval from Duke University" was left unfulfilled.
My career is done.
Just a year earlier, in 2017, Duval had been the No. 1 point guard and No. 6 overall prospect of his high school class in the ESPN 100—ranked higher than current NBA starters Jaren Jackson Jr., Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Trae Young and Collin Sexton.
Now, on draft night, Duval—featured in the McDonald's All-American Game, the Jordan Brand Classic, the Nike Hoop Summit—had gone from lottery shoo-in to a trivia answer: Who was the first one-and-done Duke Blue Devil to go undrafted?
Two NBA seasons down and three G League organizations later, Duval, 22, is looking forward, aiming to find a way to the place so many thought he'd be two years ago. At the same time, it can be hard for him and his supporters not to look back. How a top prospect ended up undrafted and adrift provides a cautionary tale as a new crop of young men hope to enter the NBA fraternity in the November 18 draft.
That night in 2018 when Duval went unselected, he remained expressionless. "Shut up and don't say anything," was his approach, even as inside he despaired his career was over before it had started.
"It was sad at the end. Felt like a dream," his father, Trevor, said. "All these years, you training for this and preparing for this, and the dream don't come true, and it's like, 'Wow, is this real?' ... Felt like we was in the twilight. Felt like a dream."
All those four-hour, father-son workouts at the YMCA seemed for naught, all that time together with Trevor telling Trevon: You're going to the NBA; you're going to the NBA; you're going to the NBA.
"It was rough, and still is sometimes," Trevor said. "We reminisce a little bit. It was rough—was a rough night. We stopped getting a lot of calls. A lot of people stopped calling. [You] notice who your friends are, notice who's fake and the tagalongs and all that."
Since that night, Trevon has learned how to stand on his own, without the hangers-on.
And there are plenty of true believers still around him, supporters who think the dream is alive.
"Here's the new headline for Trevon Duval: 'How did this kid go undrafted?' That's the headline," said Ron Martin, who coached Duval's We R1 AAU team. "We're going to be watching him play on TV, and the announcers are going to be asking that question, 'How did this kid go undrafted?'"
What had gone wrong?
Going into his freshman season at Duke, as a 6'2" guard with a 6'8" wingspan and 41.5-inch vertical, Duval's biggest strengths were his speed, athleticism and ability to find his way in the paint. He had a physical makeup that caught everyone's attention.
But with the Blue Devils, his game didn't show out as Duke played through Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr., and also featured Gary Trent Jr. and Grayson Allen. Duval's effectiveness and production suffered. He started 34 games, averaging 10.3 points and 5.6 assists, shooting 42.8 percent (29 percent on threes) and 59.6 percent from the line, but at 13.7, his PER was the lowest among the starters.
Then Duval struggled in the predraft process, according to his father, belatedly hiring an agent and not participating in extra workouts.
"I think he probably could've been a little bit more focused," Trevor said. "Coming from being a 5-star athlete, sometimes you think that's enough. Every level is harder, gets harder and harder."
But at the time, people in Trevon's ear thought his draft position was solid, even if he wasn't seen as the surefire lottery pick he'd been coming out of high school.
"Everybody was telling me [as the draft approached] I was definitely going first-round," Duval said. "I was in the ranges of 15 and down. ... Everybody was telling me a bunch of things, but it was first-round and stuff."
Mocks for the 2018 draft did show Duval slipping. Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman in February had Duval going as the last pick of the first round. In May and June, Duval was projected to go late in the second round.
When, after all, he was left undrafted, Duval felt he'd been deceived.
"I was distraught," Duval said about the contrast between what he'd been told and what actually happened. "I was like: 'Damn, that's messed up. I thought somebody was gonna take me.' ...
"A bunch of teams promise you [stuff] and tell you things. You can't even take that seriously. I realized that obviously after the draft. They tell you whatever they feel like telling you."
The father-and-son tandem had a harsh entrance into the business and politics of the NBA. An experience countless families have encountered and will continue to.
Shortly after the draft, the Duvals got the call that would start a stage of Trevon's basketball career he had not been anticipating. On the line was Robert Gantt, aka Coach Weasel, his first AAU coach.
Weasel had reassurance to offer Duval: "'Yo, man, I got some teams here calling for you, man,'" Duval recalled. "'I know everything ain't go how it was supposed to go, but I got some teams calling for you. Just stay positive, man.'
"When I talked to him after that, I really did feel better, and I was a lot more positive," Duval said.
Now, after nobody picked him, it was Duval's turn to make a choice: Houston or Milwaukee for the 2018 summer league?
Duval spent most of his time during the 2018-19 season in Oshkosh with the G League's Wisconsin Herd, not in Milwaukee. Oshkosh is a town with one of the world's largest air shows and synonymous with a children's apparel company—it's not where anyone envisions their career beginning.
But it was a direct opportunity for Duval to reach his basketball goals. "I felt like I arrived. I felt like I was here," Duval said.
In hindsight, the feeling of arrival was premature. Duval made it to Milwaukee for only three games and six minutes of playing time.
"Man, I learned a lot," Duval said. "Biggest thing I took from it: Everybody tells you it, but when you experience that this whole thing is a business.
"You get a little bit of it in college, but it's not really you. It's more like the university.
"But when it's just you, and you realize you're your own corporation and business, that's what I realized."
He saw maturing as his challenge with Oshkosh. Evolving, developing self-discipline, with no father, Coach Martin, Coach K or Coach Weasel on the sidelines.
As the season progressed, Duval produced—12.5 points in 28.2 minutes per game—and scored that brief time with the Bucks, which he described as "nice and dandy up there with Giannis."
Everything seemed to be on track for Duval as an individual, but the team's atmosphere was pressing in on him, and after the third-to-last game of the season, it became too much for him to bear.
On a frigid, gloomy night in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the team suffered the 11th loss of its past 15 games, making it 12-36. Duval was ready to burst.
"I was frustrated we was losing, honestly," Duval said. "The most frustrating thing for me was that it felt like a lot of people were OK with losing. It really just frustrated me and, over time, I said: 'Bro, this isn't cool. We're staying in place. We're not going anywhere.' If we're not getting better as a team, that means individuals aren't really getting better."
Those who know Duval find him quiet, laid-back, easygoing. On that night in Grand Rapids, he became the opposite and got into an argument with head coach Jordan Brady in the locker room.
Duval thought he was in a position where he could voice his candid disappointment with the team. Part of maturing is telling people the truth even when they don't want to hear it, and in that locker room, Duval thought he was doing just that.
The front office apparently thought otherwise. He didn't play in the final two games and was released the day after the season ended. He returned to an increasingly familiar state: uncertainty.
"That was a pretty weird moment for me in my life," Duval said of spring 2019, after his Bucks tenure ended. "I'm thinking like, OK, what is going on?' I didn't get a call for like a day or two. I'm 20 and start thinking like: 'Wow, what's going on? What am I about to do?' I started looking at myself."
The summer was a lot of searching, looking back at what had gone awry in Oshkosh and trying to confront what he had to do to end the unpredictable reality of his career.
It looked like he'd get another chance, fast, when two days after the Bucks dropped him, his two-way contract was claimed by Houston, whose Rio Grande Vipers were in the G League postseason. But he scarcely touched the floor during their playoff run. Summer league with the Rockets was a letdown too.
He flew back home to Delaware.
"I look back at it, and even though I didn't have a horrible year," Duval said, "I just look back and wonder, 'How much more could I have worked to get better?' To where, like, as long as I'm destroying and killing on the court, there's not really nothing [anyone] could say."
There it was. He was growing up without anyone telling him to: Going from thinking he made it to realizing he hadn't. Noticing his work ethic wasn't actually enough to make the NBA but was enough to be in the G League. His introspection was a sign of growth.
Step 1 of moving forward involved self-honesty and accepting he hadn't put in the work to secure an NBA contract. Step 2 would be definitively moving on from being undrafted. Although it had been a year, memories of draft night affected Duval mentally.
As his Delaware offseason progressed, he hung out with friends. On one particular day, Duval blurted, "Bro, I never expressed my emotions on not being drafted." It seemed random at that moment, but his friends did their job and let him cathartically vent.
"I never really talked about it with nobody like that," Duval said. "That really helped me. It really helped me move on and let it go. Sometimes all people need is just somebody to listen to them. You can just listen, and the person will figure it out themselves talking to themselves."
Duval came into the 2019-20 season feeling reborn, committed to the grind, with the past behind him. His first opportunity to bring that to the court was with the Iowa Wolves, affiliate of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who selected him with the No. 5 pick in the G League draft.
"We knew he was a tremendous talent, and he's young. Tre's still really, really young," Iowa coach Sam Newman-Beck said. "We had coached against Tre, and [given] his style of play—being an uptempo guard and defending—we wanted to take a look at his upside."
Duval entered the season knowing he'd be a reserve, behind guards with two-way contracts. Making the best of this lesser role was part of maturing, the way he looked at it. No more guaranteed starts. Farewell, 25 minutes per game.
"It can be real easy to get upset and mad and say, 'I should be playing' and have a bad attitude," Duval said. "I feel that was a big stepping stone for me as a player, because I never had to do that. For me to make do with what I had this season, I did a good job for myself, and I grew."
Where he needs to grow in terms of actual play is with his jump shot. With the Wolves, he averaged 6.9 points per game, making 21.3 percent of his three-point attempts, consistent with his sub-30 percent results with Duke and with the G League Bucks. He's been working at it in gyms around the country, including Phoenix, D.C. and Delaware, trying to remedy that flaw.
"Once I accomplish that, sky's the limit," Duval said.
"Sometimes you just gotta have confidence and shoot that ball no matter what," Newman-Beck said. "Don't think about it, don't overthink it. We told Tre to shoot it whenever he was open. I don't like talking about things like that too much because then it becomes a stigma, and I don't think it needs to."
Newman-Beck acknowledges that "from a skill-set standpoint," a consistent jumper is what Duval must add. But the coach also sees some leadership challenges: "Knowing the playbook and being vocal, which for a lot of guys at a young age it doesn't come naturally to be a vocal leader. Really running the team so I don't have to call out sets."
An NBA scout still sees NBA potential: "An elite athlete, but his biggest flaw is his inconsistency shootingwise," the scout said. "He can run an offense, solid defender, but should have stayed at Duke at least one more season. Definite NBA prospect as a backup PG."
Duval's agent, Jerry Dianis, said Duval has turned down offers to play overseas and will focus on returning to the G League in hopes of making the NBA. He thinks the essentials are there: "He's a prototypical guard with his size, explosiveness and measurements."
That invisible attribute lusted after by executives and scouts is still there too: potential. It is attached to Duval, at age 22, as it has been since he made his teenage rise to top-10 prospect. It's up to him to dispel the doubts he can live up to that potential.
"There was no guarantee that he would make it if he did get drafted," Martin, his former AAU coach, said. "Now he's on the grind. Now he's got to go to work, and he's always been a hard worker."
Clevis Murray is a sportswriter who has written for The Boston Globe, The Tennessean, The Arizona Republic and The Athletic. Follow him on Twitter @ClevisMurray.