The Art of Sticking Around in the NBA

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It hit Garrett Temple over lunch, as all great epiphanies do.

“I realized when I was sitting down with my brother this summer,” Temple tells me at the Brooklyn Nets’ practice facility. “He said, ‘How many guys from LSU played 10 years in the NBA?’”

They quickly got the Hall of Famers: Shaquille O’Neal, Bob Pettit, Pete Maravich. They got Brandon Bass, who played 12, but missed Randy Livingston. (Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf should’ve made it, but didn’t.)

Temple will join that group when he makes his first appearance this season for the Nets, with whom he signed a two-year contract in July. Brooklyn is the ninth team Temple has played for since debuting in 2010. Sorry, check that: the ninth NBA team Temple has played for. He’s also suited up for three teams in what was then called the D-League, and for Casale Monferrato of Italy’s Serie A during the 2011 lockout.

Neither the NBA nor the players’ association can offer a definitive number for the average length of the modern player’s career, but the best calculations available put it between four and five years. Temple, who went undrafted in 2009, has beaten massive odds to reach Year 10. That thought—I’m here; I made itstill sends a chill through his body. I can see the goosebumps on his forearms.

“That’s crazy,” the 6-foot-6 guard says. That lunch was “probably when I realized: Wow. Decade.

I talked to Temple and a bunch of other current and former players who have spent 10 or more years in the league, to find out how—how they’d gone through what they went through, earned their spots in the NBA, and held on to them. Yes, you need talent, and sure, you’ve got to work hard. But there’s more to it than that, right?

Marvin Williams credited his faith for carrying him into his 15th season. You need tenacity and “heart,” says Kendrick Perkins, who lasted 14 seasons before transitioning into life as a TV commentator.

Tim Legler started out playing for teams in the United States Basketball League and Continental Basketball Association, suiting up in far-flung, frigid locales like Fargo, North Dakota, where “there’s going to be 50 people in there, and there’s no NBA scouts coming.” The ESPN analyst points to a fear of failure as fuel for his rise to a 10-year NBA stay.

There’s no one secret, but a month of conversations revealed a few important lessons that NBA hopefuls must learn if they want a long future in the league. Consider this a checklist for continued employment—a rundown of what’s required to hang on to a gig in the best basketball league in the world.

“Humble Yourself Early”

Some players enter the NBA knowing full well that nothing’s promised to them. Anthony Tolliver, who went undrafted out of Creighton in 2007, swears he’s the only player in the league who’s never been the best player on his own team at any level. (I take it Kickapoo High School in Springfield, Missouri, had a squad in the early aughts.) Temple says that never being highly touted has been “a gift.”

“There was a year, when I was 12 or 13, I didn’t play—I wasn’t even in the rotation at AAU,” he told me. “And my dad was the coach.”

But Temple’s experience isn’t typical for an NBA player.

“If you’re coming from college or overseas—or even like me, I was coming from high school—you were the man,” said Perkins, who went straight to the league out of Clifton J. Ozen High School in Beaumont, Texas, in 2003. “You were the guy. You were shooting all the balls, you was doing all those type of things.”

Then, all of a sudden, you’re a backup behind an established NBA player and you don’t know how to handle it.

D.J. Augustin starred at Texas, earning All-American honors and winning the Bob Cousy Award for the NCAA’s best point guard on his way to becoming the no. 9 pick in the 2008 draft. But when he arrived in Charlotte to join the Bobcats, he found himself slotted in behind Raymond Felton—also an All-American (at North Carolina), also a Cousy Award winner, and the no. 5 pick in the draft just three years earlier.

But Augustin didn’t let the change bother him. His attitude: “Don’t care that I’m a backup. Don’t care if I don’t play at all. Just try and learn as much as I can.” It served him well. Augustin has moved in and out of starting lineups, and though he’s never been an All-Star, 2019-20 will be his 12th NBA season.

That’s not always an easy approach to take, especially when you bear the burden of expected stardom. The Hawks drafted Marvin Williams second in 2005, believing the 6-foot-9 Tar Heel had superstar potential. (Two picks later: Chris Paul. Oof.) But after coming off the bench on a veteran-laden UNC squad that won the national championship, Williams wound up in the same position on a Hawks roster that already featured Joe Johnson, Al Harrington, Josh Smith, and Josh Childress on the wing. Williams still got minutes, but he did so by fitting into a preexisting structure, rather than entering one built to propel him to stardom.

“It’s very difficult sometimes as a player, because you know who you are and who you want to be, but sometimes that may not match up with who your coach needs you to be,” Williams said.

That sacrifice can be painful. Literally: 14 years after going straight from high school into the NBA, Wizards swingman C.J. Miles still remembers being an 18-year-old who had to prove to Jerry Sloan that he wasn’t afraid of “being hit in the chest” by grown men before he’d be trusted to run pick-and-rolls for the Jazz.

But if you want to get on the court and stay there, you’ve got to pay your dues. “You got to put your pride aside,” Perkins said. “And if you don’t, you’ll find it hard for you. You don’t humble yourself early, it’ll haunt you in the long run.”

Sweat the Small Stuff (Because It’s Not Really Small Stuff)

Some players can erase their mistakes with sheer athleticism and overwhelming talent. If you’re one of those guys: Congratulations on winning the quick-twitch lottery! For everyone else, though? All the details matter.

How to study, how to sleep, and how to talk on defense. (“Loudly and continuously,” Perkins booms into my phone.) Sprinting to spots, spacing at the right depths, and sitting down in a defensive stance, even off the ball. And, of course, understanding that “on time” can have more than one meaning: Augustin recalls getting to a summer league bus on time, only to be met by Bobcats head coach Larry Brown, who pulled him to the side and told him, “Son, next time, if you don’t beat me to the bus, that means you’re late.” Twelve years later, Augustin says he still makes a point of trying to be first to everything.

Maybe you average 25 minutes a game; maybe you don’t play 25 minutes in a month. Either way, you always have to be ready to perform, because if you aren’t, you might not get another chance. That means making sure your body and your game are in top-end shape, that you’ve hewed to your routine—Williams encourages young teammates to adopt his habit of getting up “100, 200 3s” after practice—and that you know exactly what your responsibility is in any set, any coverage.

“Just like in school, you learn how to study the game of basketball as time goes on,” said Jameer Nelson, a 14-year NBA veteran who last played with the Pistons in 2018. “Nobody wakes up and says, day one, ‘I know how to do this.’ It takes time to learn how to study the game. It takes time to learn how to break down a defense in certain situations.”

If you’re lucky, you’ll get a good teacher. In Orlando, Stan Van Gundy preached preparation and execution until Diet Pepsi poured out of his ears.

“I guess I never thought about it, but he expected me to be an extension of him—not the yelling and screaming, but the preparation part, where I knew every team’s plays,” Nelson said. “Like, literally: If a point guard called a play out, I knew exactly what that play was. I knew where everybody was.”

Jared Dudley

Whole-Ass One Thing

Ron Swanson’s voice might not be the one every nonsuperstar player hears in their head, but his most important message rings true: If you want to make it, get as good as possible at one specific skill teams need.

That’s why Jared Dudley spent the time between his second and third seasons expanding his range. A midseason trade in 2008 had sent him from the slow-and-steady Bobcats to the run-and-gun Suns, so in the summer before his first full season in Phoenix, he shot hundreds and hundreds of 3-pointers every day, working to make himself a spot-up threat. His efforts paid off: After taking 115 3-pointers through his first two pro seasons, Dudley launched 262 in Year 3, drilling them at a 45.8 percent clip. That, plus his dependable-enough defense in the frontcourt, earned him a spot in in Alvin Gentry’s rotation. He’s stuck to the same script ever since, and it’s made him eminently employable; this summer, the 34-year-old joined King James’s court with the Lakers for his 13th NBA season.

Temple learned early that his path to a job would come on the other end. “In the NBA draft workouts, they brought me in to guard different people, and then, when I made teams, it was about defense, defense, defense,” he said. “And it made me stay on the court, right? Stay on the court, you’re going to usually stay on the team.”

Whether it’s becoming a knockdown shooter, a multipositional defender, or an elite rebounder, finding one bankable skill—one, crucially, that doesn’t require dominating the ball—is vital for players hoping to work their way in off the fringes. Just as important: accepting that you might not get to showcase much more than that skill for a while.

For Legler, the skill was sprinting off screens, getting open, and hitting 3s. He knew he could do more than that—he’d averaged a league-high 27.2 points per game in the CBA during the 1992-93 season—but he needed to more tightly focus his efforts if he aspired to more than a CBA scoring title.

“I remember having a long talk with Kyle Korver about this exact topic, the night before his first game in the NBA,” Legler told me. “And I remember at that dinner, Kyle’s like, ‘You got any advice for me?’ And I gave him this exact advice I’m telling you right now, which is: I know you’re a two-time Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, and you don’t do that by just shooting. You’re a really well-rounded all-around offensive player. The sooner you can wrap your head around the fact that, ultimately, the rest of your basketball career, you’re only going to be judged on, ‘Can you take and make 3-point shots at a high percentage?’ you’re going to have a really good, long career, and you’re going to stick around for a long time.”

Korver owns a 42.9 percent career 3-point mark, ninth best in NBA history. He signed with the Bucks this summer and is about to start his 17th season.

Listen to Your Vets

We all want everything right now these days. But like Mitch Hedberg’s wino eating grapes, sometimes you’ve got to wait.

“The way these teams are set up now, the best young players are normally on the worst teams, because they get drafted one, two, three, four, whatever,” Nelson said. “A lot of those guys get frustrated in the beginning. They [need] veterans who talk to them and put them in the right frame of mind.”

Guys love talking about their vets. Perkins and Williams shout out Tony Delk. Nelson and Temple can’t say enough about Keyon Dooling. Augustin salutes the players who helped him in Charlotte, including Juwan Howard, who, he says with a slight sigh, “is now the head coach at the University of Michigan.”

Why the sigh? “When I’m warming up before games,” Augustin said, “and I’m talking to guys who I used to play with that’s now coaches—some of them are assistant GMs and stuff now—they mess with me, and they’ll be like, ‘How old are you, bud?’”

Thinking back on his days in Utah, Miles shares a similar story, with a chuckle: “That’s kind of wild, right? That I was teammates with Greg Ostertag.”

Miles also remembers when he became the Ostertag in the locker room. It happened in 2012, when he played alongside no. 1 pick Kyrie Irving on a Cavaliers team trying to climb out of the smoldering crater left by LeBron’s Decision. Only two Cleveland players, Luke Walton and Anderson Varejão, had more service time than Miles’s seven seasons; all of a sudden, he was one of the vets. He was 25.

Being cast as an elder statesman before you feel like an actual elder can be uncomfortable; Nelson remembers opponents starting to address him as “vet” around his eighth or ninth year in Orlando and thinking, “Not yet! I still have a couple more years left!” But the situation in Cleveland accelerated Miles’s growth as a leader. Now entering his 15th season, he views it as his responsibility—“like, a moral, ethical thing”—to pass down the lessons he’s learned. How selfish would it be, he asks, if he wasn’t doing everything he could to help more players last a decade, too?

Listening to the older dudes has value, especially in an NBA where roster construction has completely inverted over the years. (As Tolliver puts it, “It used to be a bunch of vets and two or three young guys, and now it’s two or three vets and a ton of young guys.”) The vets are the ones who know which refs to work and which ones to leave alone; how to make sure you’re setting the screen at the right angle to get the ball handler loose; how to get on a coach’s good side and stay there.

The vets are the ones who’ve spent years banging up their bodies and can help you learn how to take care of yours. Williams lauds the late Lorenzen Wright, who proselytized about the value of icing your knees after practice, something Williams never did early on but made a staple of his routine.

The vets are the ones who can cut through the fog in your head and help you make things simpler. Tolliver wants to tell me how DeShawn Stevenson changed his career. First, though, he needs me to understand something.

“I don’t curse,” Tolliver says.

“I love this story already,” I reply.

Tolliver says he struggled on the 2012-13 Hawks. Midway through the season, he was shooting below 35 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3-point land. He knew he could shoot, but he was having a hard time loosening up. Enter Stevenson, noted Abe Lincoln–throat-tattooed agent of relaxation. He suggested Tolliver focus in on a two-word mantra: “Eff it.” (Remember, Tolliver doesn’t curse.)

The shot’s either going in or it’s not, Stevenson told him, and you can’t change that once it’s in the air. So eff it. Let it fly the next time the ball swings your way, completely forget about it, and then do it again. Eff it, rinse, repeat. (Stevenson certainly took his own advice: He attempted 6.5 3-pointers per 36 minutes of floor time that season, and 7.7-per-36 two seasons earlier with the Mavericks.)

The mantra stuck. Tolliver’s 3-point attempts jumped from 1.6 per game before the All-Star break to 2.8 per game afterward, and he hit 38.5 percent of them. He’s never looked back: He’s got a 39.3 percent mark from deep over the past six seasons, eighth best in the NBA among players with more than 1,500 attempts in that span. Thanks, DeShawn.

Be Careful How You Treat People, Because They Talk

You know how, in your office, it stands out when somebody always shows up late and leaves early or acts like a dick for no reason? People notice that stuff in the NBA, too.

Augustin said that when teams he’s played for have asked for opinions on prospective free agents or trade targets, they ask about more than just their games: “They say, ‘What type of person is he? How is he in the locker room? How is he with the trainers? How is he with the chefs? Flight attendants?’”

There are other, more immediate reasons to play nice with the support staff. “I’ve seen guys be jerks to trainers,” Legler said. “And a trainer, now, they’re not going to maybe give you quite as much TLC as they would somebody that they genuinely care about.”

Honing “soft skills” to relate to coworkers—things like showing empathy with others, and learning how to talk to people from backgrounds different than your own—can be nearly as valuable in extending your career as improving how you finish at the rim. Perkins says that initiating conversations with new teammates by praising their game and work ethic helped show a different side of him: “A lot of guys that didn’t know me, they thought, ‘Hey, man, that’s Perk, a big, mean guy.’”

After establishing that he genuinely cared about them, it made it easier for him to act as a leader and nip problems in the bud with a well-timed pick-me-up.

“If the guy was struggling with their game and we was flying into a city, I’d tell the guy, ‘Hey, man, me and you goin’ out to dinner, man. We gon’ go watch this game at this restaurant and eat some good steak or whatever it is,’” he said.

Everybody talks. Those stories can be positive—Perkins recalls the adoration Kevin Garnett inspired with the late-aughts Celtics because “he treated the janitor with the same respect that he would treat the owner with”—or they can be negative. Either way, they’ll get around.

“It takes one GM to spread something about you, and you get a bad rep,” Perkins said. “When you’re in those NBA cities and you’re out and about, I’m pretty sure a majority of the time the GM [of the team in that city] knows what’s going on.”

Temple doesn’t smoke or drink, and he thinks that could be a differentiator for some coaches or executives. “It lets people know, ‘OK, this guy, we don’t have to worry about him getting drunk and doing this, or getting high and doing that,’” he said.

Staying out of trouble improves your chances of sticking with teams. The reverse can be true, too.

“I done watched guys, man, come in and have all the skills in the world, but couldn’t get their off-the-court issues together, and just don’t want to do right,” Perkins said. “You know, going out every night. And you just watch those guys simply fade out. They have a short career. It’s like, ‘Man, this guy was so skilled.’ Or, ‘Man, this guy was so athletic.’”

The operative word there is “was.”

“I can name a hundred guys that’s still in the league, that we wasn’t supposed to still be in the league this long, because of the type of people we are off the court,” Augustin said.

D.J. Augustin shoots the ball as Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors defend during Game 2 of the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs
Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Embrace Evolution

There aren’t many certainties in the NBA, but here’s one: Things will change faster than you think. The way they look when you reach the league isn’t necessarily the way they’ll look five years down the line. Or, for that matter, five minutes.

Augustin became the Bobcats’ starting point guard in 2010 and held the gig for two seasons. Charlotte didn’t win much, though. When the franchise pivoted toward a future built around new draftee Kemba Walker, Augustin’s agent asked for his release so that he could catch on somewhere else.

The good news: He got a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Pacers, who had just finished third in the East, pushed the Big Three Heat in the playoffs, and seemed poised to compete for a title. The bad: Indiana already had an established starter in George Hill. Augustin, at age 25, was a backup again; it would be six seasons before he got another full-time starting job.

I’ve been benched. I’ve been cut. I’ve been released. I’ve been traded. I’ve started. I came off the bench,” Augustin said. “Nothing’s guaranteed in this league, man. You can’t take anything for granted.”

For a lot of players, staying ahead of the curve means sharpening your 3-point shot. Dudley and Tolliver shifted their games to become floor-spacing stretch 4s. Williams moved from small forward to power forward after a 2013 Achilles tendon injury that he now calls “a blessing in disguise.”

Nelson admits he struggled with his transition. He’d been an All-Star, a primary ball handler, and an established leader with the Magic. But after he left Orlando and started bouncing around the league, he had to accept a different role. He met an awfully compelling reason to change when he got to Denver.

“[When] you have guys like Nikola Jokic, who can play any position, you pass the torch,” Nelson said. “I remember having one conversation with one of my coaches. I’m like, ‘Man, you guys got me running the corner, setting screens, cutting. I’m a pick-and-roll player.’ He was like, ‘Man, just shut up and cut.’ When I started cutting, I started getting four, five, six points a game.”

“You can’t be stuck in a time warp, or whatever you call it, when you think, ‘I’m still the same player,’” Nelson said. “Technically you are, but the game has changed. The game has evolved into something else, and the game needs you to do different things.”

Even players who heed all these lessons can still find themselves on the outside looking in. The NBA is unbelievably competitive, with dozens of new draftees entering every year and scores of G-Leaguers, international players, and ballers of other stripes fighting for jobs, too. You can be a foundational piece one moment and the remainder of a failed equation the next; Augustin was a top-10 pick at age 20, yesterday’s news by 24, and a waived-and-twice-traded journeyman backup by 29. Now, with his 32nd birthday just weeks away, he’s the starting point guard on a Magic team expected to make its second straight playoff appearance. He’s also nine months away from unrestricted free agency and the prospect of starting over, all over again.

“I don’t think you ever get comfortable,” he said. “Because you don’t know.”

What he does know—what Temple, Williams, Miles, Dudley, Tolliver, and the rest of the NBA’s unsung long-in-the-tooth veterans all know—is that he’s still here. He is, by his own admission, “5-foot-11” and “can’t jump or nothing,” but he’s still here.

“There’s a lot of guys I got drafted with that went higher than me, or guys that came in after me that’s out the league now,” Augustin said. “I even sit back now, even though I’m going into my 12th year, and I’m like, ‘Wow, this guy was supposed to be way more talented than me, bigger than me, stronger than me, faster than me, this All-American, this pick.’ But none of that matters, man. None of that stuff matters.

“Once you’re here, it’s all about how you work, what type of person you are, how professional you are. And it could go a long way.”

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