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Just Another Guy Trying to Make It in the NBA

Kyle Guy ended his college career at Virginia on top, winning both a national title and Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Now the second-round pick is back to square one in the pros, fighting for a roster spot with the Sacramento Kings—and a much-needed paycheck.

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The reigning Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four is sitting poolside at the Waldorf Astoria on the Las Vegas Strip—a hotel he couldn’t afford to stay at if he were footing the bill. He’s wearing a white T-shirt bearing the words “Charlottesville, Virginia” in orange lettering to go with silver NBA combine–branded basketball shorts. His outfit details the last two stops in his career before making it here, and his mind hasn’t yet caught up to his new reality.

Just a few days prior, Kyle Guy signed a two-way deal with the Sacramento Kings, who selected him with the 55th pick in this year’s NBA draft. Second-round picks don’t automatically receive guaranteed money, so signing any contract is a big deal. But, as Guy notes, he won’t get paid—last season, a two-way salary ranged from $77,000 to a maximum of $506,000—until November, when the season begins.

“I’m as broke as I was before,” he tells me while tearing into a gourmet bread stick that was compliments of the chef. “People think you get drafted, and they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re rich. You’re a millionaire,’” Guy continues. “I don’t have money.”

Guy is even more money-conscious these days—he had to buy jeans for the combine and cringed at the $40 price tag—and he has a reason to be: He’s got an upcoming wedding in Hawaii to pay for. Because he gets no advances, being drafted won’t help with that yet. But Guy is used to having to earn things the hard way.

Few thought he would even be an NBA player. Just over a year ago, he told his mentor and trainer Derick Grant that he didn’t think he wanted to play basketball anymore. As early as this spring, he was told his chances of going undrafted were twice as high as his chances of getting picked. And yet, he still declared for the draft after Virginia’s national title win, with one year of eligibility remaining.

“I have no parachutes—this is how I am,” he says. “I go balls to the wall for everything.”

Guy is the latest example of a player going from the high of winning the ultimate prize in the NCAA to suddenly being on the low end of the totem pole in the NBA. The past two months have come and gone at a whirlwind pace—he hired an agent, participated in the NBA combine in Chicago, and worked out for teams individually, all before the draft. He barely had time to soak in the fact that he had just won a championship. Before he knew it, he was with a brand-new team, just trying to prove that he belonged.

While most eyes at Las Vegas summer league focused on Zion Williamson’s debut or the few other top prospects who played, Guy was among the many competing for a roster spot once the two weeks were up. For players like Guy, summer league wasn’t a finish line, it was a job interview.

There haven’t been any panic attacks in over a year, and that makes Guy smile. His sophomore year at Virginia feels far away now, but he still remembers the chills and the cold sweats, how his throat would tighten and his body would sometimes ache. It happened at practice. It happened on dates. It happened when he would least expect it.

“You just feel like you just want to shut down,” Guy says. “Even if you’re in the most comfortable position, or situation, or environment, if it happens, I have to remove myself from the environment.”

Guy’s propensity to please others exacerbated the situation. Basketball used to be his escape; soon, it became a trap. Alexa Jenkins, now his fiancée, recognized what was happening and encouraged Guy to write down his thoughts and see a specialist. Guy begrudgingly did. He was prescribed Lexapro, and found typing his thoughts into his laptop cathartic. Then, top-seeded Virginia lost to 16-seed UMBC in the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament—the first time such an upset had ever happened. “Boom,” Guy says while making an exploding motion with his hands. “It got worse.”

Grant remembers watching the game and seeing Guy bawl afterward. This wasn’t the Guy he knew. So once the school year ended, Grant drove eight hours from Indianapolis to Charlottesville to bring Guy home. Three hours into the drive back, Guy told him he thought he didn’t want to play basketball anymore. Grant knew he didn’t mean it, but could tell something needed to be done or the situation could spiral. Grant developed a plan: He would text Guy a simple question like, “How was your day?” and Guy would have 24 hours to provide a real, honest answer. The texts and conversations got longer as Guy became more comfortable with opening up. By November, Grant remembers telling those around him that the old Kyle Guy was back and ready to go.

The rest is literally history. Virginia lost only three games last season, Guy hit the biggest shot of his life (for now) and was named the best player of the Final Four, and the Cavaliers won the title to complete the redemption story. The sequence of events bounced Guy, a junior, into the draft conversation. His original plan was to go through the draft process, and then go back to school to finish his degree. But the exposure the title brought was enough to tilt the scales the other way.

Kyle Guy celebrates after the Virginia Cavaliers’ win over the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the 2019 NCAA championship.
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“I always say that UMBC is the best thing that ever happened to me in my basketball career because it sparked a fire. It made me go to this dark place to where I only had one way to go, and that was up,” Guy says. “I’m a firm believer that if we didn’t lose that game, we probably don’t win the national championship. If we don’t win the national championship and all play well, I’m probably not in this position I am in.”

Guy can say that now, but on draft night, it looked like he might have ended up in a completely different position. As the picks got into the 50s, and as Thursday night became Friday morning, Guy remained on the board. The room full of well-wishers gathered at a friend’s house in Guy’s hometown of Indianapolis got quieter; some even struggled to stay awake. All hope wasn’t lost—Guy says the Phoenix Suns told him before the draft that they would sign him to a two-way contract if he went undrafted. But everyone still held out for a chance that his name would get called.

Back when he was still undecided about whether to stay in the draft, an NBA advisory committee made up of basketball operations executives gave Guy a 33 percent chance of getting selected. Jenkins even asked Guy whether he would consider a “normal person job” if the NBA didn’t pan out. But Guy remained confident. “Even if I didn’t get drafted,” he says now, “I really didn’t care, because I know that I am going to make it.”

It didn’t matter. Around 1 a.m. ET, with just six more picks to go, Guy got his shot. The Kings, the only team that had brought him back for a second workout, selected him 55th. A jolt of energy surged through the somber room in Indianapolis. Guy didn’t go to sleep until two hours later.

“We had three second-round picks, so we felt pretty good that we were going to have the ability to take him,” Vlade Divac, the Kings’ vice president of basketball operations, tells me at summer league. “His shooting ability is just great. That’s a true NBA skill. And [to make] it into the league, you need to have one skill, and he already has that.”

Guy achieved his goal: He got drafted. Now he had to start over.

When Guy decided to forgo his last remaining season of college eligibility, he was able to finally do what Virginia had been doing throughout his three years there: make money off his performance. The Cavaliers’ basketball program made $2.04 million just off its tournament run as part of the ACC’s revenue-sharing model, and even more from merchandise sales and donations. Guy, meanwhile, has been trying to scrape together some spending money since he decided to go pro.

“I’m not Zion. I’m not getting hundreds of millions of dollars to do shoe deals,” he says. “So I’m taking anything that can help me get by.”

First, Guy signed up for Cameo—the service that allows actors, athletes, and YouTubers to send personalized video messages to fans for a price—as soon as he committed to the draft. He promoted it to Virginia fans first, and he’s now looped in Kings fans too. He originally charged $50 per video but now charges $60. As of July 22, he had done 91 videos, which amounts to around $5,000.

Guy also signed trading cards for Panini, did a sponsored interview for a culture website, and agreed to be featured on a bottle of “Real Time Pain Relief,” a product similar to Icy Hot. He partnered with Home Stadiums, which makes wallpapers featuring images of stadiums for fans, and VIPVR, another company that allows fans to have real-time video meet-and-greets with him.

“People are like, ‘You’re getting paid this much money per year and you’re asking for those things?’” Jenkins says, referring to the common misconception about his NBA salary. “And we just laugh because it’s like, we literally don’t have a source of income right now. That’s what we’re going to live off of.”

Jenkins had never been to a casino before. So when she arrived in Vegas to watch the Kings’ first game, they decided to splurge. They sat down at a roulette table in Caesar’s Palace and put down a $100 bill. They left the table after 20 minutes, but not before making $250. Given their current financial situation, that may as well have been the jackpot.

Guy fared well on the court, too. He scored in double figures in all seven games he played in between the Vegas and Sacramento summer leagues, and averaged 16.8 points, albeit on 38 percent shooting, in his Vegas appearances.

“You can tell he’s been well coached and has feel for the game, which you have to for someone his size,” Kings summer league coach Jesse Mermuys says. Mermuys was pleasantly surprised by Guy’s willingness to pass up open shots to get his teammates better looks—especially given that summer league doesn’t often reward ball movement. “Every time the level of play is raised, he matches it and exceeds it. Which to me is a sign of an NBA player.”

Kyle Guy reacts after a 3-pointer against the Dallas Mavericks during the 2019 NBA summer league.
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But Guy’s summer league experience also involved a few harsh reminders of the cutthroat environment an unproven player faces in the NBA. Guy became fast friends with Kings third-year guard Frank Mason III. But the day after Sacramento’s last game at the California Classic, Mason was cut. “He was my teammate for a week,” Guy says. “We would have been friends, teammates, all these things, and he gets cut. So it’s hard to balance the fact that it’s our job and it’s our hobby. … I have to grind now because this is my livelihood.”

Guy’s career has been an exercise in finding comfort in the uncomfortable. So he and those around him feel like he’s built for this kind of grind—perhaps even more than he was for the high-profile attention at Virginia. Jenkins says Guy has gotten better at identifying signs of anxiety before they get out of control and that he’s more willing to open up and seek help when he knows he needs it. Guy listens to self-help podcasts and reads at least one motivational book a month. He says he’s also looking forward to speaking about mental health in the NBA with Kevin Love, who has been outspoken about his own battles and with whom Guy shares an agency.

When Grant gets to Hawaii this week for Guy’s wedding, they’ll be spending the time in between festivities in the gym working out. The next goal is to get a guaranteed contract. Guy will have 45 days before his first NBA training camp to prepare—and before he gets his first paycheck. He already knows what he’s going to buy.

“I’m going to buy some AirPods so I can fit in, then I’m going to pay for Alexa’s law school, and then I’m going to buy flights for her to come see me,” he says. Jenkins will be attending law school at Notre Dame in the fall. “Obviously, I’ll have the rent, or mortgage, car payments.” He pauses as if he’s only now realizing what he’s saying out loud. “I’m a freaking grown-up right now. It’s crazy.”

How does it feel?

“Weird as hell, but that’s just the life I chose, and I like it.”

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