Statistically speaking, none of us will ever tread the pine as a member of the NBA.
There are 30 teams, with up to a maximum of 450 players. We wish we could say that they’re just the lucky 0.00000143 per cent of the United States to make it, but—in reality—these players are the cream of the crop from all over the world, truly a small handful from among billions.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try—dedication has a funny way of paying off at the end.
“It’s very tough, one in a million. You gotta work day and night if you want a career in sports,” says shooting guard Danny Green of the San Antonio Spurs. “Lots of times you’re not going to make it… into the NBA, but you’ll end up with a career somewhere else. You’ll see results, [even if] that may not be the results you want.”
Granted, if you’re past your teens, you probably won’t make it far as some NBA players in the hyper-competitive world of basketball. But if you did manage to begin at least scratching the surface of mastering the discipline and strength these juggernauts have in their struggle to be the best in the world, you’ll not only have the tools to increase your basketball potential, but to get ahead in many other aspects of your life.
Get into a professional mindset, right now
The hard work begins in early childhood for most basketball pros, or as late as 14 or 15 years of age if you’re like Amir Johnson, who quit track and field for high school basketball. This might seem like the age boys should be out getting into trouble, but that’s exactly when some young NBA players start forming a long-term outlook for their goals as adults.
“If you really want that goal to be a professional, you have to start at a young age and treat yourself as a professional,” says the Raptors’ power forward. “You eventually get where you want [to be], and it pays off when you can settle in, you can have your fun after.”
This involves generating good time management, as well as cutting out negative social trappings like focusing too much on girls or running with the party crowd—something most athletes completely drop. However, learning moderation can be an adult lesson in itself, according to Kemba Walker.
“Those definitely are the things you want to avoid, they can be a distraction. At the same time, the guy that does all that knows how to balance everything,” says the Charlotte Bobcats’ point guard.
This balance is key for the kid growing up with hoop dreams, as it’s a habit that will serve them well in the future.
“You got to be young, you got to have fun,” says Cory Joseph, a point guard for San Antonio, before cautioning that “you have to have your head on straight, you gotta imagine what it takes to get to this league, or stay in this league.”
There’s a saying, confirmed by every player we’ve talked to: it’s easier to get in the NBA than to stay in the NBA. But having a pro mentality from start to finish will keep any player who makes it firmly anchored in the league.
Get on the court every chance you get
Then there’s how much to practice. Short answer: All. The. Time. Again, this is something that these ballers learned young.
Nearly all of the players we interviewed can empathize with Amir Johnson, who got up early to shoot around before school started at 8 a.m., missed lunches to play and then capped a day off with yet more hoops. Danny Green, who played four hours daily outside of school, says keeping it up poses a continuous challenge over the course of a player’s development.
“It takes years to adjust to it in high school, [and] in college I only adjusted to it in sophomore year. It takes a lot of sacrifice to get it done,” says Green.
Cory Joseph would spend all of his free time in the driveway and playing 5 on 5 at the local YMCA as well, while Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas would similarly kick it with his basketball buddies before and after classes. To Valanciunas, getting practice in at every possible moment meant gaining the advantage over others who could one day become his competition.
“When you’re partying a lot or doing something else not a basketball stuff [sic],” he warns, “Someone else is, and you’re just wasting your time.”
The importance of education
That’s not to say that your learning should suffer—in fact, a good education is the key to getting opportunities that can up your game. From high school to college, balancing book smarts with your time on the court can also provide a safety net if basketball turns out not to be your calling.
Cory Joseph worked hard in school while keeping an eye on the next step of his development, which especially meant getting grades good enough to play for a school like the University of Texas at Austin. College is a make it or break it moment for prospective professionals, and often an important step even for the guys that go “one and done” before hitting up the draft.
“When you get to college, you’ll know whether you should be playing or not,” says Joseph.
Only very rarely does a player like Amir Johnson come along, who managed to skip a collegiate career and enter the draft straight out of high school. Nonetheless, Johnson says his focus was always on school—homework before play, every day—making the journey that much more challenging, albeit par for course according to the players we’ve talked to.
Surround yourself with people that push (and pull)
Even if you know what your goal is, you’ll need a driving force behind you. For some, it’s enough to be their own voice of encouragement.
“Myself, I just try to work hard, and when I’m working hard, I work harder. When I think I’m working harder, I work my hardest,” says Cory Joseph. “That’s the motto I go by.”
Nonetheless, Joseph admits he could never have done it on his own. “I don’t think any of us in this locker room did,” he says. He had a resource that every prospective player needs: a great family. Joseph in particular was lucky enough to be born into a basketball family, with his father coaching and everyone from his mother to his cousins playing hoops. Even if yours don’t play, mothers and fathers have a great hand in keeping youngsters on the straight and narrow, reminding them of what they’re working for, as do friends and school leaders.
Some players may not even have started on their path to the NBA if it weren’t for those around them. Amir Johnson didn’t know he had the right stuff until his supporters noticed his talent and pushed him forward.
“I didn’t realize until people started talking around me—people said I had a good chance, and my father told me,” he says. “[At the time] I really enjoyed the game, but I didn’t really think it was going to take me this far.”
Just be sure you can handle getting a push in the other direction once in a while. Danny Green learned to take his dad’s criticism in stride, turning it into motivation.
“He’s my biggest critic, and [even now] he still tries to coach… he likes to bump heads,” Green says. “But that’s part of it, that’s part of the game. They let you know what your mistakes are so you can get better.”
As for a social life: forget it. Friendship for many will be limited to a limited group of basketball friends and, later in life, to your team. Most players have to make a very tough choice early in their development.
“I had to choose one: it was either basketball or a social life,” says Amir Johnson. “It was pretty much my social life right there, basketball.”
Cory Joseph’s in the same boat, and he even found love in his small circle.
“I’m still with her, she also played basketball so it didn’t affect the situation,” he says. “Everybody I talked to was doing the same thing I was doing. I had a lot of friends who played basketball with me.”
Kemba Walker, who calls himself a “pretty quiet” guy to begin with, says he enjoyed being part of the surrogate family basketball provided him. His friends were not only on his team, but players he had met in camps and even ballers from other states. Think of it as a professional network in a one of the smallest, high-profile industries around—you never know when a connection might come in handy.
Set realistic expectations—and go for it anyway
It may seem like a tired cliche, but NBA players are living proof that hard work and believing in yourself can, well, work.
“It’s tough, you know everything’s not gonna be easy, but when things start to get hard, just don’t quit,” advises Kemba Walker. “Keep pushing through, and believe in yourself.”
“Because hard work always beats talent, any day.”
Cover photo: International Business Times