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How Did Rookies Adjust to the NBA During the Shortest Offseason in League History?

Over the past month, teams did all they could to help their new players learn and get comfortable. But all will tell you there’s still a long way to go.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Tyrese Haliburton didn’t know what he had done wrong. Following a Kings’ preseason game last week, Haliburton found himself being chewed out in the locker room by his teammates. His mistake was benign, but in the context of the league’s rookie chore tradition, it was costly: He didn’t get towels and washcloths for all the Kings’ players.

“I didn’t know that was a duty of mine, so now I got to do that,” Haliburton said this week with a resigned laugh. Haliburton expects his rookie duties to be different than they may have been in the past, given the various health protocols this season, but he’s already anticipating what’s coming his way. “I gotta make sure I got brand-new [playing] cards, every flight. I just got my car so I know that they’re gonna make me grab snacks and stuff for flights.”

For Warriors rookie James Wiseman, the yelling came earlier—during one of the team’s first practices. And of course, it came from Draymond Green. “I already went through that, but I love it,” Wiseman said. His unfettered eagerness during his first preseason game was enough to get both Green and Steph Curry to tell him to “Calm down, rook.”

A rookie’s learning curve is complicated enough with the transition from amateur ball to the NBA. And yet, just a month removed from hearing their names called in the draft, the league’s newest members are facing the toughest challenge a rookie class has ever had to face. Everything from pranks, to learning new offensive and defensive sets and terminology, to figuring out how to live on their own is happening at once, and on a sped-up timeline.

“Everything is just thrown at you,” Suns rookie Jalen Smith said. “You gotta learn to catch up with the speed of the team, learn all the terms and plays. It’s been tough and challenging.”

Teams are aware of the difficulty and are doing their best to get both rookies and new additions up to speed. But the reality is that the shortest offseason in the history of the league will inevitably lead to a lot of learning on the fly.

“They tell me all the time I’m a lucky rookie during COVID times,” said the Celtics’ Aaron Nesmith, whose only duty so far has been to pick up Chipotle when the team traveled to Philly. Nesmith says he’s mostly been able to focus on conditioning and learning how to maximize his role, but there’s still a long way to go. “It’s a slow process. I’m going to be learning all season.”

On any given night over the past few weeks, a Dallas Maverick—more than likely a rookie or a younger player—may have seen his phone light up with a text from the team’s shooting coach, Peter Patton. The content of the message was a pop quiz: Patton wanted to know whether the player remembered a particular defensive scheme the team taught them.

To Patton, this practice is less about testing the young players and more about letting them know they’re being thought of. With such a condensed offseason, Patton, who relishes playing the part of teacher, doesn’t want those guys to feel left behind. “All of our young guys have done an amazing job of soaking it in,” Patton said. “Really putting in the extra time to learn and acclimate themselves very well.”

Dallas’s younger players and their two rookies, Josh Green and Tyrell Terry, had longer practice days this offseason, which involved pre-practice shooting work and post-practice review sessions. Some even returned to the facility later in the evening to get more detailed instruction on their shot, handle, or finishing techniques. Maximizing the amount of development time was key for teams this offseason, and it forced Patton and the rest of the Mavs’ coaching and development staff to be even more hands-on. Normally, Dallas would have an “intern army” of 12 people to help out with everything from rebounding to facilitating different types of workouts and drills for rookies. Now, they have no interns, and instead have had to use analysts as rebounders and reconfigure drills to fit the available personnel.

“Being creative with the workouts was a big thing,” Patton said. “You have to incorporate yourself into the drill.”

For Pistons rookie Isaiah Stewart, the biggest on-court adjustment has been going from a post-up-heavy offense in college to the NBA, where pick-and-rolls dominate the game. Stewart has accounted for that by flooding teammate Mason Plumlee with questions about how to excel in that system. Under the current circumstances, veterans have taken on even bigger roles in the education of rookies. Wiseman is already getting analyzed by Green, while Portland’s CJ Elleby raved about the influence guys like Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have already had on his game.

“My learning window is a lot smaller, so I have to pick up more information in a smaller period of time,” Elleby said. He added that the most challenging part so far has been remembering the plays when he does get on the floor. “The guys are making it easier on me. … They’re trying to teach me whenever they get the chance to make sure that I’m not getting left behind.”

Rookies aren’t the only ones going through hastened adjustment periods in new environments. Elleby said it’s helped to have Derrick Jones Jr. with him during the process because he’s also a new addition and is learning the system alongside him. The Clippers, who lost JaMychal Green, Landry Shamet, and Montrezl Harrell this offseason and added Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard, skipped the pleasantries and quickly had a team-bonding honesty session where Kennard learned one of the team’s assistants liked Lil Baby. Danny Green had to work out offsite for two weeks before the trade that brought him to Philly would become official, so in addition to finding a place for him, his fiancée, and two dogs to live, he did his best to communicate with coaches and watch film to get up to speed with Doc Rivers’s new system for the Sixers.

“It’s such a quick turnaround,” said Green, who is on his fifth team of his career. “I only had three to four weeks off, no real vacation, and back to work.”

Wes Matthews went from Milwaukee to Los Angeles in a flash. He says now the task at hand is to learn the different nuances and terms the Lakers use. He believes the process should be easy enough, but dealing with the non-bubble environment will be the real challenge because there will be more distractions. Rookies across the league aren’t just adapting to basketball at hyper speed; they are also being told to prioritize self-care and safety outside the practice facility.

“I don’t think the level of play and the quality of play is going to be any less across the league than it has been before,” Patton said. “But I think it’s gonna be different across the league depending on who is doing what, as far as listening to the quarantine rules.”

Jalen Smith is running a bit late to our interview, but as Willie Green—one of the Suns coaches who’s working with Smith—will tell you, there’s a good reason for it: He’s getting extra shots after the Suns practice. Practice time is of the essence for a player like Smith, whom Phoenix selected with the 10th overall pick in this year’s draft; he’s had only 35 days between draft night and tip-off to prepare. It’s already clear to Smith how different things are in his new reality.

“There’s no standstill in this game. Everyone’s always moving, always cutting,” Smith said. “The awareness has to be top notch.”

Smith raves about the support group he’s found with the Suns, but his biggest way of coping with the transition from Maryland to Phoenix has been to play more basketball. Gym time, both during and outside of practice, has been Smith’s refuge from the hours of vacant time he finds himself with these days. Alone in his new Phoenix apartment during a season where going out is effectively not an option, Smith has had little choice.

“Before the NBA, you go work out and then come home, have your family, they got home-cooked meals,” Smith says. Now, though, “I just gotta make sure I’m taking care of my body off the court, keeping myself out of trouble, and just making sure that I’m building good habits.”

Home-cooked meals might be gone for now, but soon after arriving in Phoenix, Smith and the team prioritized finding him a personal chef. It was an attempt to make that aspect of his routine stress free, something that’s been a priority for other rookies, too. Everything from finding an apartment to figuring out food intake is also a part of the acclimation process.

“I think their biggest stress right now is getting their WiFi set up,” Patton said of the rookies. “In development, you’re constantly asking these guys how they’re doing. You can’t talk about basketball the whole time right now. … If you want to have guys successful on the court, you got to make sure their home life is straight.”

Elleby is still figuring that part out. When he moved to Portland, he only brought clothes and books and prioritized getting an apartment that was close to the Blazers’ practice facility so he could walk to practice early and stay late. Now that he’s more settled in, his next goal is getting his Wi-Fi set up and remedying the car situation that has him relying on his brother to take him on Costco trips.

“I’m trying to be more vegetable-oriented and cut down on all the meat,” Elleby said. “[Those are] things that I’ve been reading about and trying to get more knowledge on as far as what I can do to get better when I’m not on the court.”

Forming those new habits, on and off the court, can help rookies adjust to their new realities. But ultimately, like any new job, most of these guys know that the best way to learn is by doing. And if that means getting tossed into the fire prematurely—like Wiseman starting at center in his first game with Golden State—then so be it.

Some of these players haven’t suited up for competitive basketball in nearly 10 months, so their desire to play competitively transcends any hesitation they may have. “I wasn’t nervous,” Killian Hayes said after his first practice with the Pistons. “I was excited because I hadn’t had a team practice in like eight or nine months.”

“Shit, I’m ready to play,” the Magic’s Cole Anthony said. “Let’s go.”