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Getting to the NBA Is Hard, but Getting Back May Be Even Harder

Some top picks never make it to a second contract. But former first-rounders Nik Stauskas, Justin Patton, and Sam Dekker aren’t giving up hope of a return, even if it means changing their games to get there.

Davide Barco

The start of the 2018-19 NBA season was supposed to be about LeBron James joining the Lakers, but Nik Stauskas stole the show in his first game. Stauskas, making a debut of his own for the Trail Blazers, tied a career high with 24 points to help Portland beat Los Angeles in front of a national TV audience.

“It was one of my favorite NBA games I played in,” Stauskas told me recently. “I was out to prove a lot. ... I was really just trying to establish myself in the league.”

Stauskas had a meandering path to Portland. After he was memorably hand-picked by Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive with the eighth selection in the 2014 draft, the team cycled through three head coaches during his rookie year before trading him to Philadelphia. He spent the next two seasons in the 76ers’ Process until they dealt him to Brooklyn. The following summer, eyeing a fresh start, he signed as a free agent with the Blazers.

For a while, Stauskas found a steady role for himself. He earned meaningful minutes off the bench for a Portland team rolling toward the playoffs. But in February 2019, Stauskas was moved again. In fact, he was traded three times in one week—shuttling from Portland to Cleveland to Houston to Indiana, before the Pacers waived him a day later. Cleveland eventually brought him back to finish out the season.

“With the way that season started in Portland, I felt like I had found a home for once.” Stauskas said. “It was confusing for me because I didn’t see it coming. … It crushed me. It was kind of like back to square one, back to competing for nothing.”

Less than six months after Stauskas outshined LeBron, he was out of the league. Now, after a stint in Spain was cut short by a knee injury that required surgery, Stauskas is pursuing a new angle: the G League, as a member of Raptors 905. For the next month, he’ll be competing in the G League bubble, just outside of Orlando.

Stauskas isn’t the only recent NBA first-round pick hoping for another shot. A number of former prospects who came into the NBA with great expectations have ended up on the outside looking in, either playing in the G League or overseas. They’re trying to do whatever it takes to get back, even if it means changing what got them there in the first place.

Westchester Knicks v Fort Wayne Mad Ants
Justin Patton of the Westchester Knicks shoots the ball against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.
Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images

When the Milwaukee Bucks were making a run at the NBA championship last year, Justin Patton was at home, shooting jumpers in his driveway.

Before pro basketball stopped last March because of COVID-19, Patton had been a member of the Wisconsin Herd, the Bucks’ G League affiliate, for seven games. The NBA hit pause before proceeding through the pandemic, but the G League wound up cancelling the remainder of its season. Not only did Patton lose part of his career, but he also struggled just to access a gym.

“With all the chaos, it was a matter of finding a rhythm and a stable place to work out, and that didn’t happen for months,” Patton said. “It’s made me become more professional. You have to learn to be proactive in situations where you don’t have a lot of resources.” After initially being locked down in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where the Herd are based, Patton returned home to Minnesota and bought a hoop so he could stay in shape.

Like Stauskas, Patton’s path has been anything but linear. He parlayed a promising freshman campaign at Creighton into the 16th pick of the 2017 NBA draft. However, a broken foot derailed his rookie season. After rehabbing, he broke the other foot. Then there were trades.

The draft always has been a gamble. For anyone selected outside the top three slots, the likelihood of making an All-Star team is less than 40 percent, according to research from Threes and Layups. But it’s unusual for high first-rounders to fall out of the league after a few years. Between 1990 and 2010, players picked eighth spent an average of 10 seasons in the NBA. For the 16th pick, the average tenure was nine seasons. In three years, Patton played for three teams (Timberwolves, Sixers, and Thunder), checking in to only nine NBA games over that span.

Patton said front offices never questioned his potential. When he heard feedback, words like “preparation,” “growth,” and “maturity” came up. In the NBA, veterans like Taj Gibson and Steven Adams tried to counsel him on nutrition, stretching, and thinking like a pro, but it didn’t always stick. Looking back, he realized he was forcing too much during practices and getting into unnecessary arguments in the locker room. “I probably didn’t understand everything they said until three months ago,” Patton said, referencing his elongated offseason. “It’s like teachers you had back in elementary school. You hit them up now like, ‘Damn, you were right.’”

Lakers guard Alex Caruso went undrafted in 2016, but in a November appearance on The Old Man and the Three podcast, the former G Leaguer explained the lesson non-stars need to learn in order to fit in: “They don’t realize the position they’re trying out for. It’s like going to a job interview thinking you’re going to be the CFO of the company and they’re looking for someone to clean the bathrooms.”

Patton has been through a lot professionally, but he’s still just 23. He’s an athletic 7-footer with a wingspan that would make Jay Bilas swoon, and he sees himself as a top-10 NBA center. Last G League season, he blocked 3.2 shots per game, playing for both the Herd and the Oklahoma City Blue. In his final game with the Blue, he finished with 45 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists, and six blocks. But he understands that hustle and defense will punch his ticket back to the league. After all, NBA teams call up G Leaguers to fill a niche, not dominate the offense.

For Patton, the prolonged break between seasons gave him time to reflect on his career and process the feedback. He focused on core strength and conditioning to prevent injuries. While shooting outside his house brought him back to the basics, his trainer was eventually able to secure a safe gym in South Dakota, where he prepped for the G League bubble. A lot of the adjustments were small details, like using his big toes to stay grounded in the paint instead of lunging all the time—something he picked up watching Adams.

“I always tell people that the G League is way harder than the NBA,” he said. “In the NBA, you might have a person who’s getting paid, and they’re comfortable. In the G League, nobody’s comfortable. Everybody’s going hard. You really get the mentality that only the strong survive.”

The likes of Danny Green, Jeremy Lin, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Seth Curry improved in the G League before sticking in the NBA. However, those success stories are usually about undrafted players or second-round picks, not people who enter the NBA with a first-round pedigree.

“There is a stigma attached with a guy who didn’t make it the first go-around,” said Jim Clibanoff, director of scouting for the Denver Nuggets. “It’s such a recalibration for some of these kids. … How does the kid respond to it? We talk about hunger and desire, and that manifests itself in how you react to adversity.”

Despite some international interest, Patton hasn’t considered playing overseas, believing the G League keeps him closer to the next level. (It’s also a more viable path financially than it used to be, with salaries starting at $35,000, up from as little as $12,000 when the league began in 2001.) Since the Herd chose not to participate in the bubble, Patton was entered into a special G League draft, and the Westchester Knicks chose him with the ninth pick of the first round.“I come from nothing,” he said. “I don’t care about being broke again. I’m going to fight for my dream to play in the NBA as long as I can. That’s why I’m here.”

Sam Dekker’s dream was to play in the NBA, not in Krasnodar, Russia. For four years, that dream came true. But in 2019, the former 18th pick of the Houston Rockets agreed to play for PBC Lokomotiv Kuban, one of the top teams in Russia.

The move was “a hard pill to swallow.” Foreign land, new alphabet, nine-hour time difference from family and friends. He was making good money to play basketball but had to reset his career trajectory. Plus, living abroad led to plenty of challenges off the court when everyday tasks, like paying for a tank of gas, became difficult.

“It was kind of daunting, kind of scary. You don’t want to say embarrassed, but it’s hard to admit,” Dekker said. “At some point, you have to be like, ‘All right, let’s do this.’ If I want to get where I want to go, I have to do the gritty things and prove myself on a different stage.”

In the NBA, Dekker’s missing ingredient was a consistent 3-point shot. He averaged 29 percent from 3 as a reserve forward with the Rockets, Clippers, Cavaliers, and Wizards. In Russia, he finished the year as one of his team’s top scorers, but still shot around 30 percent from beyond the arc. When COVID cut the season short, he returned to the States. He said his agent talked to a few teams about possibly joining them for the NBA bubble, but then the league declared overseas players ineligible.

Turk Telekom v Limoges - FIBA Champions League
Sam Dekker of Turk Telekom in action during FIBA Champions League Group G match.
Photo by Aytac Unal/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

His preferred destination is still the NBA, but Dekker chose to go abroad to get back there. “I don’t see myself as a G League player,” he said. “Nothing against guys in the G League … but I wanted the challenge of the high international competition.”

This season, he moved across the Black Sea to play for Türk Telekom of the Turkish Super League. His 3-point accuracy has surged to 48 percent, though in Europe, the 3-point line is 19 inches closer than the NBA line. Regardless of his current stats, Dekker knows any future NBA opportunities will require a different role than the one he’s gotten used to internationally. “What team in the NBA doesn’t have their scorers?” he said. “A lot of teams are looking to see if you can hit a corner 3 or defend four positions.”

Accepting a smaller role is how Ekpe Udoh became one of the few former high draftees to make his way back to the NBA after a prolonged absence. The sixth pick in 2010, by Golden State, played for three teams over five seasons in the NBA before signing with Turkish powerhouse Fenerbahce in 2015. There, he became a cult hero, even winning the EuroLeague Final Four MVP the year before some kid named Luka Doncic. International success propelled Udoh back to the Utah Jazz on a two-year deal in 2017.

But a return to the NBA may not be for everyone, even if they have the option. In addition to reduced roles, the NBA would also offer smaller paychecks in some cases. Elite international players earn six- and seven-figure salaries. “I think former first-round picks have a slight edge in returning, all else equal,” said 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey. “They often play well, such that their international salary is superior to the NBA minimum, so they stay overseas for financial reasons.”

Take Shane Larkin, a top-20 NBA pick in 2013 who has become one of the best players in Europe for the Turkish team Anadolu Efes. Last summer, he signed a deal that will pay him $7.7 million over the next two seasons—more than double what he’d make on an NBA minimum for someone with his experience.

A return to the NBA from overseas doesn’t guarantee a long career in the States, either. Udoh’s second NBA experience didn’t have a fairy-tale ending. Early on with the Jazz, he came off the bench as a defensive specialist, but in the second year, he averaged just six minutes per game. For the 2019-2020 season, he headed back overseas, this time with the Beijing Ducks of the Chinese Basketball Association.

But whether they’re halfway around the world, in the G League bubble, or back in the NBA in a more limited role, all former top picks must change the outlook on their careers at some point. “It’s about seeing yourself for who you are, and not who you think you ought to be,” Dekker said.

As Stauskas put it: “I’m not content with where I am. The whole goal is to get back to the NBA. But I think mentally, I’ve come to the point where I’m at peace. If I never played another game in the NBA, it’s not something that’s going to haunt me for the rest of my life.”

Jordan Teicher is a freelancer who has written for The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker.

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