It’s an adjustment for all but a handful of NBA players: They were the best player and guy at the heart of their team’s offense in junior high, high school, AAU, and when they got college and were still the best (or one of a couple of the best) players on that team. They have always been the star with the ball in their hands. Then they get to the NBA and are asked to play a much smaller role.
That inability to accept a role is something the Lakers’ Alex Caruso and the Pelicans’ J.J. Redick — two guys who did adapt and adjust their games to fit an NBA role — discussed on The Old Man and the Three podcast (hat tip NBA Reddit). Caruso said Oklahoma City executive Sam Presti helped him understand what was expected, that if his calling card was defense he needed to be better and able to guard multiple positions.
“A big reason guys get stuck in the G-League is because 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.”
This isn’t just an NBA thing, it happens in other sports. How many quality college running backs or cornerbacks don’t make an NFL roster because they aren’t willing to play and go all out on special teams?
There are not many players given the keys to run an NBA offense, and we know all their names. These guys, and the No. 2 options on good teams (maybe a No. 3 guy on an elite team), all are making max or near max money. After that, everyone is a role player. Everyone. Have an elite skill, work hard at it, fit in that role on the team, and a player can have a long and lucrative NBA career. Every 7-footer is not Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kevin Durant. Every guard is not Stephen Curry.
Alex Caruso went undrafted out of Texas A&M and signed to go to training camp with the Thunder in 2016. He showed he could defend and play a role in the G-League, worked on his game, impressed the Lakers enough they signed him to a two-way contract in 2017. Caruso kept working, kept showing he could fit in where the Lakers’ needed him (bringing energy and defense off the bench), and by 2020 he’s playing key minutes in the NBA Finals.
Redick may be the ultimate story of a major college star who had to put in the work on his body and game — and make the mental adjustment — to play a role in the NBA. He became highly valued because he did and what he brought to the table.
It’s a lesson a lot of guys in the upcoming 2020 NBA Draft need to learn. Some will, a few will not, and that latter group will be playing in China — and saying “look at the numbers I put up here” — in a few years.