Becoming an NBA player is so difficult and the odds so low, the usual route into the league of being a big-time college stud who leaves his “education” after a year or two is often only circumvented by foreign players who have been professionals since they were 15 and spent years around crafty veterans developing all of their skills (think big men who can shoot 3’s). There are also the hard-working college grads who make the rounds of European ball and the NBA’s Developmental League (D-League) in hopes of picking up a few 10-day contracts here and there so they can always say they made it, they played in an NBA game.
The rarest breed of player is the one who grew up learning the game in the US, played his college basketball in the states, runs the Euro/D-League gambit for a few years, and then enters the NBA as a full-time player with a guaranteed contract. The most well-known recent example was Jamario Moon who first joined the league in 2007 at the age of 27 after multiple D-League stints, some time in Rome, and a portion of 2004 with the Harlem Globetrotters.
There are three current NBA rookies who have followed this odd path to the NBA, and all three have made steady contributions to their clubs throughout 2010-11.
Gary Neal, San Antonio Spurs
Neal is Manu Ginobili’s back-up for the Spurs and is one of the team’s big guns off the bench. He scores 8 ppg in only 18 minutes, but his true scoring contribution comes as an expert bomber from deep, where he’s connected on 52 of 132 long-range shots this season for a very good 39% clip. Only Ginobili and Richard Jefferson have hit more triples for San Antonio (81 and 60, respectively), and each has played almost twice as many minutes as Neal. The 26-year-old rookie is also the team’s best-rebounding guard (he bests all non-centers and PF’s for that matter) with an 8.8 Rebound Percentage and 14.8 Defensive Rebound Percentage, plus his 87% free throw mark is only two thousandths of a percent below team leader George Hill (.867 vs. .865). His 53% eFG% is well above the league average, and he’s adept enough of a defender and passer that he won’t embarrass himself when he’s not knocking in 3’s off the bench.
Neal had a distinguished high school career, winning a Maryland state title as a junior (while averaging a triple-double) before playing his senior year at renowned Calvert Hall College High School in Baltimore. He played his first two seasons of college ball at La Salle, where he earned the Atlantic-10 Rookie of the Year for the 2002-03 season after leading the team with 19 ppg. Neal was dismissed from La Salle after a similarly stellar sophomore season for a rape allegation he was later acquitted of. He played at Towson University near Baltimore from 2005-2007, averaging 26 ppg, shooting well from everywhere. Neal wasn’t drafted, so he went to the Turkish Basketball League, leading the league in scoring with 24 ppg. He spent some time in the Spanish ACB League and eventually played two years in Italy’s Lega A (one of the top leagues in the world), making the All-Eurocup Second Team for 2008-09 in the ULEB (second-highest level of Eurocup basketball). Neal then spent the spring of 2010 in Spain averaging 13 ppg (shot 41% from behind the arc) before blowing up the NBA’s Summer League on the Spurs’ squad, scoring 16 ppg while shooting 50% from deep (an unbelievable 17-for-34).
San Antonio signed the sharpshooter to a guaranteed three-year deal (all but unheard of for a player with a path like Neal’s). He certainly hasn’t made Spurs’ fans regret it. In only his third game, Neal scored 16 points in 20 minutes, hitting 4 of his 8 threes (plus both shots inside the arc) and also grabbing 6 rebounds in a win against the Clippers. A week later he scored 15 points in 14 minutes (5 for 7 from downtown) in a 4-point win on the road. Recently Neal has been playing a consistent 20 to 30 minutes per night, scoring over 20 points in 3 of SA’s last 7 games. Yet again the Spurs have found a player that’s been overlooked, and yet again he’s paying dividends in a big-time way.
Eugene “Pooh” Jeter, Sacramento Kings
Jeter (rhymes with “better”) is currently the Kings’ second-string point guard, a 5-feet-11 jitterbug of exceptional speed and controlled aggression. He uses his ball-handling and quicks to get into the lane regularly, plus he’s a smart distributor who makes very few mistakes with the ball in his hands. Backing up Beno Udrih, Jeter has played in 19 of Sacramento’s 31 games, and leads the team in assist-turnover rate (2.9-1.0 A-TO, 2.9 ratio), is the team’s top free throw shooter (93%, 14 for 15), and is a close second to Tyreke Evans’ team-best Steal Percentage of 2.2 (Jeter – 1.9). Although he hasn’t yet proven to be much of a scorer (4.3 ppg in 14 minutes, shooting 38% from the field and 20% from deep), his eFG% (39%) is barely worse than those put up by his much more famous teammates Evans (40%) and DeMarcus Cousins (43%).
Jeter’s path to the league started in LA, where he was born and raised, before heading to the University of Portland, one of the few scholarship offers he could secure due to his short stature. Despite graduating in 2006 as the Pilots’ all-time leading scorer with 1708 points and possessing an extra gear that few NBA point guards can match, Jeter got no attention from the league other than some work in the Summer League. He decided to spend a year with the D-League’s Colorado 14ers, where he lead the team to the championship game while playing alongside current Celtic Von Wafer. From there he played a year in Ukraine, earning first-team all-league status, averaging 12 points, 3 assist, 1.4 steals, and 37% shooting from downtown. This earned him a contract in Spain’s ACB league (Ricky Rubio’s current home), where he played for over a year before moving on to the Israel Premier League, where he earned 3rd Team honors in the EuroCup tournament. Playing with the Cavaliers’ Summer League squad this past summer, Jeter was Cleveland’s top player, scoring 14 ppg, giving out 5.4 apg, and shooting 48% from the field.
Sacramento liked what they saw in his play over the summer and signed Jeter to a one-year contract. After sitting most of the first month of the season, Jeter has taken over a majority of the back-up PG duties from Luther Head. Jeter has averaged 16 minutes per contest since the beginning of December, and the Kings’ biggest win of the season was also Jeter’s biggest game. In a 116-91 pummeling of Washington on December 8 (their next-biggest win was by only 5 points), Jeter played a season-high 27 minutes, scoring 13 points on 3-for-6 shooting (plus 6-for-6 from the free throw line), and distributing a team-high 9 assists without turning the ball over once (the only King not to do so that night). Throw in 2 steals, 4 rebounds, and 0 fouls for good measure, and it’s easy to see why his +21 for the game was third-best, only trailing starters Jason Thompson and Tyreke Evans. Although the Kings’ season and a large part of their roster is a mess, Jeter is one bright spot fans can look to.
Gary Forbes, Denver Nuggets
Forbes is a poor man’s jack-of-all-trades from the small forward position, showing the ability to drive to the rim for easy shots, to shoot from outside, and to do an OK job passing and rebounding. With plenty of Denver’s frontcourt players missing time in 2010-11 (Chris Andersen, Kenyon Martin, and recently Carmelo Anthony), the 25-year-old Forbes has managed to start some games for the Nuggets in his first year. While only averaging 13 minutes per game, Forbes is averaging 6 points and 2 rebounds per game. He’s done a great job shooting the ball, hitting 48% of his shots, including 40% from deep, which has worked out to a 52% eFG%, second-best on the team for all non-guards. Also, his shooting percentages at the rim and from outside of 15 feet are some of the best on the Nuggets.
Forbes was born in Panama but moved to Brooklyn as a child. He was named the borough’s Player of the Year his senior year in high school and was a McDonald’s All-American finalist. Forbes played his first two years of college ball at the University of Virginia, starting 17 games as a freshman in 2003-04. He decided to transfer after coach Pete Gillen resigned following his sophomore season, so he sat out 2005-06 and played his junior and senior seasons at UMass from 2006-08. He paced the Atlantic-10 in scoring his senior year with 20 ppg and was named the conference’s Player of the Year. After not getting drafted, Forbes played one season in the D-League, averaging 17 ppg and 5 rpg. Last year, he spent time with four different teams in three continents, including the Talk N Text Tropang Texters in the Philippines. After leading the Israeli Basketball Super League with 20 ppg in 9 contests this past spring, Forbes came back to the US and played with the Rockets in the Summer League, barely making a dent (4 ppg, 3 rpg). Despite this, he was invited to the Nuggets’ preseason camp, where he averaged 10 ppg in 19 minutes per in the pre-season, before making the team on a guaranteed contract.
As a rookie, Forbes started the third game of his career, playing 24 minutes against the Mavericks in a 1-point loss while logging 12 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists. He started against Dallas again three days later and scored 8 points on 4 shots in the win. A few weeks later he scored 19 (on 8 for 13 shooting) and pulled down 9 boards off the bench in a 2-point victory over the Knicks, and he got two more starts in early-December while Carmelo Anthony sat with in injury, picking up 15 points, 6 boards, and 2 steals against Toronto in a victory on Dec. 10. Although Forbes isn’t wowing anyone with his athleticism, his hustle and scoring versatility have made him a consistent contributor to a team likely headed to the playoffs.