It was the first week of April when Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s manager rushed into the player’s house and relayed the news he’d been waiting to get for more than four months. Hollis-Jefferson hadn’t been on an active NBA roster since the end of the 2020 season, but earlier that day he’d heard Portland was interested in signing him to a 10-day contract.
“In my mind, I was like, ‘Man, if they don’t call me, I might not play the rest of the year,’” Hollis-Jefferson said in a phone call last week.
The interest from Portland was legitimate, and after inking his deal, Hollis-Jefferson breathed a sigh of relief; he finally had a team to play for. The following morning, he woke up at 5 a.m. to get on a cross-country flight to see whether he could turn 10 days into something more.
Hollis-Jefferson started the 2021 season in training camp with the Timberwolves, but when they opted to waive him for roster flexibility reasons, the former no. 23 pick returned home to Delaware with doubts about his place in the league. “It was a reality check,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “Because if you were to tell me three years ago, four years ago, ‘Rondae, this would be your future,’ I would have laughed. So to be in that position was—is—really tough.”
After being released, Hollis-Jefferson decided to focus on the things in his life that he could control: staying in shape, getting in the gym, and remaining as healthy and COVID-19-conscious as he could. Being in Minnesota over the winter with Karl-Anthony Towns—who lost his mother and other family members to the virus last year—Hollis-Jefferson saw firsthand just how devastating COVID-19 could be. It’s why he tried to be extra careful with his young son at home, and took precautions every time he had to go out to buy food or work out in order to stay NBA ready. He knew teams were putting a premium on flexibility and availability.
“I feel like this season, if you weren’t a guy who would come in and really win a team games, then they could definitely replace you,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “It’s the business, but it’s definitely tough.”
The constraints of this NBA season have affected the league across the board. But for players on the fringes who’ve had fewer opportunities than usual to showcase their potential—due to the short offseason, limited free agent exposure, and lack of a full G League season—the process of staying ready for a chance at a 10-day deal has become an even bigger challenge.
“To be honest, it’s sucked,” second-year player Tyler Cook, who has signed three 10-day contracts this season and is now with the Pistons, said on a phone call last week. “It’s been hectic, but this year and a half has been crazy for everybody.”
Over the past 15 years, an average of 51 10-day contracts have been signed in the NBA each season. Typically, between 20 and 40 percent of those signings turn into deals that will last at least through the end of the season. This year, though, 54 10-day contracts have been issued, but only about 9 percent have turned into end-of-season deals. In other words, teams seem to be valuing flexibility more than ever and have largely been unwilling to commit to players signed through this process. This not only denies the players security in the short term, but it also means they don’t have a chance to play in the postseason and showcase their talents for the following year.
“It’s probably a little weirder [this season] because there’s no G league,” one agent said. “The G League bubble only lasted a couple of weeks, so guys have just been sitting around, and all of a sudden a guy’s name pops up that he’s been signed and you’re like, ‘Wait, they weren’t playing?’”
The mini G League bubble, which consisted of just 15 regular-season games in March, gave fringe players one opportunity to showcase their abilities. But it was limited. Every game, every possession carried added pressure and weight. And those who weren’t on one of the 18 rosters had to figure out their own way to get on NBA franchises’ radars.
For a player like Cook, there was no other option but to embrace his chance in the bubble, and it paid off. Cook got a call from the Nets in late February and soon traveled to Brooklyn from his home in St. Louis to join the team. Not long after arriving, though, Cook realized there wouldn’t be a long-term place for him there. The Nets were about to sign Blake Griffin, who’d take up a roster spot for a big, and after his 10 days, Cook was back home waiting for another call.
“I was taking [COVID-19] tests at home while I was waiting to stay in protocol the whole time,” Cook said. “That way I was staying ready and making sure I could get right to it once the call came.”
When the Grizzlies needed an injury replacement in early January, they called 30-year-old Tim Frazier and signed him to a 10-day deal. Frazier rushed from Houston to Memphis, where he had to quarantine for six days before his 10-day deal could even begin, per NBA protocols. But Frazier was willing to do whatever it took. After the offseason’s short free agency period had come and gone without a contract, Frazier was disappointed. But he decided to be patient and establish a new routine for himself while he waited for a call.
He stationed himself in Phoenix—away from family to limit COVID-19 exposure—where he continued to train, work out, and be ready at a moment’s notice. It was a difficult time in Frazier’s life: isolation proved challenging mentally, and nights spent watching NBA games he wished he was playing in didn’t help much either. But he continued to focus on his goal.
“I would be lying if I told you that I was happy the whole time,” Frazier said. “I had to find ways to do different things, to be ready mentally. … I took on some hikes, which was new for me, but it cleared my mind and helped.”
As Frazier put it, the bad days are just part of the process of waiting, especially when you’re working toward something that’s not guaranteed. A change of pace or Zoom conversation with a family member helped ease those daily hurdles on the way to a deal. But how much can you accomplish even once you get a 10-day contract?
Teams are giving 10-day-contract players like Frazier and Hollis-Jefferson only a handful of minutes a night, if any, which means the pressure is on when they do get in the game. Also they only have a week and a half to familiarize themselves with the terminology teams use for their sets and play calls. They have to be bench motivators and willing practice players who maintain extreme work ethic and good energy.
“At first it’s scary,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “You go through that roller-coaster phase of excitement and nervousness. But then you realize it’s 10 days. You have 10 days to show your work, make it feel like you belong.”
The margins for error are already slim, but as Cook (in Brooklyn) and Frazier (during his first stint in Memphis) found out, whether or not you stick around past that initial deal may sometimes be out of your control entirely.
A few players have been able to make the most out of 10-day contracts this season, though. Take Norvel Pelle, who has signed 10-days with Sacramento and New York this season, and just last week inked a contract with the Knicks to stick around through the end of the season. The Nets, for their part, have signed more than a few players to 10-day deals as they’ve dealt with absences, and through that process they’ve found some players who fit their mold. The Nets gave Alize Johnson an end-of-the-season contract and poached point guard Mike James from CSKA Moscow. The Russian club allowed James to get out of his contract with them, which hints that the Nets are likely to keep James for a second 10-day deal and perhaps the rest of the season too. For every player on a short-term contract like this, that’s the endgame they’re desperately trying to reach.
Cook almost couldn’t believe the coincidence. He was playing on his second 10-day contract with the Pistons when they visited Denver, the team that had given Cook his first NBA deal. During the road trip, Pistons officials called Cook into a room and gave him the news: They were signing him through the end of the season. The deal is not guaranteed after this season, but it assures Cook will be able to spend training camp with the Pistons and continue to build on the positive reputation he’s created for himself.
“I haven’t had any type of certainty as it relates to my future until now,” Cook said, “so it’s great to hear that you’re wanted and that they’re invested in you.”
Guys like Cook and fellow 10-day player Oshae Brissett fall into a slightly different category than Hollis-Jefferson, Frazier, and even DeMarcus Cousins (whom the Clippers signed to a deal through the end of the season after two 10-day contracts) given they’re former undrafted players who got into the NBA through the G League and 10-day deals.
“Every day it was an audition,” Brissett said in a press conference last week. “From when I stepped off the plane, I felt like eyes were on me.”
It didn’t take long for Brissett to shine this season and get a second 10-day deal with the Pacers. Then came the jackpot: a three-year deal worth $3.8 million. The salary is non-guaranteed after this season, but it’s an indication that Indiana wants to invest in Brissett much like Detroit wants to invest in Cook.
Frazier went into his second 10-day stint with the Grizzlies believing that an open roster spot meant he had a chance to stick around. He was already familiar with the system, the plays, and the personnel, and he knew he had an opportunity. On Saturday, the Grizzlies signaled he’d made the most of it by signing him for the rest of the season.
“It wasn’t easy,” Frazier said just a few hours after landing the deal. “But it’s the sacrifices that you make, especially this season. You make those sacrifices with the end goal in mind.”
Frazier says that even though he’s guaranteed to be with the Grizzlies for the rest of the season, he’s not planning to move out of the hotel he’s been staying in since arriving in Memphis. Settling down is a fantasy for most older journeymen like him. Likewise for Hollis-Jefferson, whose second 10-day deal is expiring this week with no guarantee that it’ll be turned into an end-of-season contract.
“I’m not satisfied,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “I think of it like ‘job not done.’ I’m still on a 10-day, you know?”