The 2016 NBA Draft is set for Thursday, June 23rd. As the stars of the college game get ready to find out where they will begin their NBA journey, CBS Local Sports’ “My Life As” series will give them an opportunity to talk about how they got to this point and what they expect from the future in their own words.
As I transition into the NBA I think I bring a competitive edge to the table. My athleticism, tenacious defense, being able to get in the passing lanes, rebounding and finding open guys are all really strong aspects of my game that I think I can bring to the floor right away.
I’ve played basketball my whole life, but I also played baseball and football as well and it’s funny because growing up, basketball was my worst sport. I was more of a baseball player, more of a football player than I was a basketball player. I quit baseball in middle school and tried to go the football route in high school and also played basketball in high school as well. I had a lot more success in and around the world of basketball once I started playing in high school and that’s when I really started working on being the best basketball player I could be.
The summer after my freshman year of high school is when I really realized that I could go pretty far with this game. Once I made the varsity team as a freshman and got involved with a really good AAU program (Team New Jersey ABC). Once that happened, that really began to consume all my time and right after my sophomore year of high school I stopped playing football and transitioned to being a full-time basketball player.
I was recruited at Vanderbilt by Yanni Hufnagel, who was originally at Harvard before he got the job at Vanderbilt and we had a really good relationship. Then, when I got on campus, I’m just the kind of person that knows right when I’m there and I committed on the spot.
Coach Stallings, coach Richardson, Yanni, and our strength coach Gary Christopher, they were just all guys that I wanted to surround myself with. I didn’t think I would be a professional athlete coming in. I just wanted to play and be a part of a Division-I team. I told Coach Stallings on my visit that I wanted to get him another SEC Championship, because their trophy from 2012 was sitting right next to me. That was my whole ambition going into college. I loved everything about Vanderbilt.
A lot of people don’t know or remember, but I didn’t really start right away my freshman year. Shelton Mitchell, who was also a freshman as well started and I played lesser minutes. That was a humbling experience for me, not being a starter at first after being on a team in high school that was ranked #1 in the state of New Jersey. But, I kept working, believing that I could be a starter and after six or eight games I became the starter for the rest of the year.
There are two big moments that stick out to me when I look back at my Vanderbilt career. The first one is beating Kentucky at home, just being part of a rushed court. With Kentucky being the dominant team that they are it was cool beating them on our home floor. The second moment was when our name was called for this year’s NCAA Tournament. As a little kid, you grow up wanting to play in the tournament and it was such a cool experience to be sitting in the room with my team waiting to see if we got the call. We were called pretty early so we didn’t really get too nervous but, just the excitement in that room afterwards is something I’ll always remember.
When it came to making my decision about whether to leave early, I sat down with Coach Stallings at the end of the season and I asked him if he were me what would he do. And with a college coach, he doesn’t have to say ‘go ahead’, he can say you’re not ready, you should come back or whatever. But, Coach Stallings being the class act that he is, he kept it honest with me and said “I think it’s best for you to go to the NBA because you’re ready. I understand that you’re likely a first round pick and I’m not going to hold you back from pursuing your dream.”
Hearing that from my head coach definitely helped confirm my decision to leave. It’s different coming from your coach as opposed to your family who may be a little biased. He’s familiar with the business, he’s been around it for X amount of years, so to hear that from him made me feel confident going into this process.
When I went to the NBA Combine, I went in with the mindset that I wanted to be top 5 in everything I could in the athletic testing portion. I wanted to be number one in everything. While that didn’t necessarily happen, I am continuing to work on improving my vertical jump and lateral quickness to improve further on my combine numbers. Aside from the testing portion it was cool to just be around the other guys from all over the country. Denzel Valentine, Buddy Hield, these guys were being recognized as some of the best college players just being around that environment was really cool.
As I get ready for the next step I’m working on every part of my game because I don’t see any limits. I want to be great at every aspect of the game. Some guys are just shooters, some guys are just slashers, but I don’t hold myself to just one category. I want to be the best I can at everything.
Honestly, right now, I haven’t thought about my long-term goals for the league. My first goal is to be drafted on June 23rd and then the next thing for me is to play well in the summer league. Once I hit training camp and sit down with the coaching staff and they tell me what they need me to do and what my role is then I’ll start to think about long-term goals, but for now I’m just focused on draft night.