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Meet the Mental Skills Coach Training Young NBA Stars

Meet Graham Betchart, a mental skills coach who works with some of the NBA’s up-and-coming stars.

Alex Kennedy

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What do Karl-Anthony Towns, Aaron Gordon, Andrew Wiggins, Ben Simmons, Zach LaVine, Marcus Smart, Stanley Johnson and Jaylen Brown have in common?

townswigginsinside1Yes, they were all lottery picks in the last three years. They are some of the NBA’s most talented up-and-coming prospects.

Wiggins, Towns and Simmons were the last three No. 1 overall draft picks. LaVine and Gordon have had success and put on a Slam Dunk Contest for the ages in February. Each player has a ton of potential, and some of the NBA’s next stars could emerge from this group.

However, these players have another common thread connecting them, albeit one that is lesser known: They are all clients of Graham Betchart.

Who is Graham Betchart, you ask? He’s a sports psychologist or, as he likes to be called, a “mental skills coach.” His impact is felt all over the NBA – as evidenced by his impressive client list – but very few fans know who he is since his work is done behind the scenes and doesn’t get much attention.

Betchart has a master’s degree in Sports Psychology and he’s been providing athletes with his services for over a decade. He’s very good at what he does, which is why some of the NBA’s brightest young stars feel comfortable opening up to him and sharing their insecurities, struggles and fears.

In addition to the players mentioned above, Betchart has worked with many other NBA players such as Festus Ezeli, Patrick McCaw, John Jenkins, Skal Labissiere, Anthony Brown, Josh Huestis, Dwight Powell and many others. He has worked with the National Basketball Players Association for several years, and recently started helping NFL players too. He has also assisted famed mindfulness guru George Mumford, which allowed Betchart to work with NBA legends Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

Betchart is responsible for making sure some of the league’s young stars can manage their stress, handle everything that comes with being a professional athlete in the limelight and produce at a high level on game days. If a player is going through a difficult time or is in the middle of a slump, Betchart is the one who gets the call or visits him. He provides his clients with coping skills, instructing them to stay present, meditate, recite positive affirmations, visualize success and do breathing exercises among other things.

“Mindset is such a huge part of performance,” Betchart told Basketball Insiders. “In the NBA, everyone is athletic and skilled with an incredible body, so what’s the difference? What separates players from one another? Mindset. More and more people are realizing this now.”

One reason why Betchart’s client list skews younger is that the next generation of NBA stars seem much more open to mindfulness training than those who came before them. Unfortunately, there’s still a stigma associated with mental health care, but seeking out professional help for these concerns is much more accepted today – particularly among younger people. Athletes seek out any possible edge that will allow them to maximize their performance and increase their efficiency, so it only makes sense that they are now taking time out of each day for mindfulness exercises. And not only will this help them on the court, the off-court benefits seemingly make it a no-brainer.

When New York Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall first heard of Betchart’s work and his app Lucid, which allows players to do mindfulness exercises on their own, he reached out and said, “Man, where has this been? We’ve needed this!” Marshall became a client and investor in the app shortly after.

While Betchart has plenty of clients to work with these days, it was much harder early on to find players and teams who were willing to give his training a shot.

“I’ve been at this for about 12 years full-time and I know of some people who have been doing this for nearly three decades, but even they say that it’s only in the last couple years that this really started to gain traction,” Betchart said. “Just speaking from my experience, when I started doing this work 12 years ago, I was going to high school teams and directly to the athletes and I had to convince them that this had value. I had to convince them that working on their mindset or working on anything mental was positive, because there used to be a real stigma attached to it. If you said you were working on something mental, all of a sudden it meant something was ‘wrong’ with you. You’d say the words ‘mental health’ and people would run away from it. I called myself a ‘mental skills coach’ because I realized that people are okay with words like ‘skills’ and ‘coach’ – everyone wants to work on a skill or be coached! Early on, I had to basically find a way to fit in and deliver this stuff without kind of letting people know what I was doing. Twelve years later, now people will tell us that they’ve been searching for this kind of service because they understand the importance of mindset and training their mind. These days, we aren’t spending any energy on convincing people that this is important. Instead, they’re looking for it and they’re finding us, which is so refreshing.

“All these years, it was like seeing someone who is really thirsty and you have water in your hand, but they refuse to drink when you offer it to them. That’s how I felt, thinking, ‘Oh my God! Let me help you!’ It’s cool that the world is now much more open to this, to the point that professional athletes are advocating for it. The pros we work with are the first ones to say that it all starts with their mindset. I don’t know if every major sports team has someone on staff doing this yet, but we’re definitely heading in that direction. Just like every team has a trainer and strength coach on staff, soon every team will have a mental strength coach or sports psychologist or whatever they want to call it. It doesn’t matter what it’s called – the important thing is having that person there who can help the athletes work on their mindset.”

Another reason today’s NBA prodigies are more open to mindset training could be because they had a much different rise to stardom than the big-name players of yesteryear. Wiggins, Towns and Simmons were being heralded as “the next big thing” from the time they were children; each of them had at least one mixtape hyping them up as a future star by the time they were 13 years old. The social media age not only promotes players at a very young age, but it also thrusts them into the spotlight when they’re barely teenagers. Mindfulness training is very attractive for a kid who is dealing with intense scrutiny, overwhelming pressure, extreme expectations and the negativity often found online.

While there are plenty of positive things that come with being a star, there’s no question that they live in a fish bowl, are scrutinized and often find it difficult to relate to others. The NBA provides structure and leadership for players, but working with someone like Betchart can help with potential pitfalls too.

“We start with focus, mainly focusing on what’s in your control,” Betchart said. “So often, athletes are focused on stuff that’s outside of their control such as results or outcomes like wins and losses. Putting your energy and focus on those things can really be derailing, so we start by having them focus on the things that are in their control and then go from there. That’s a big challenge as these athletes are coming up. I use the acronym W.I.N. and tell athletes that it stands for ‘What’s Important Now?’ What’s important now isn’t a result or outcome, it’s being in the moment – which I call ‘playing present’ – and then moving on to the next play quickly when that moment is done. That can be hard if you’re having negative results, but you have to be able to move forward. That’s sort of the initial training for athletes, focusing on what you can control, owning what you do control and then moving on to that next play quickly. We can talk about that and it sounds easy, but it’s really hard to do.”

Simmons, who was the top pick by the Philadelphia 76ers in this year’s draft, turned to Betchart for mindfulness training because he was searching for a way to handle all of the attention and pressure that emerged during his one-and-done season at LSU and leading up to the 2016 NBA Draft. Betchart met Simmons at the 2011 Top 100 Basketball Camp, which was hosted by the National Basketball Players Association. Simmons was intrigued by mindfulness training and he eventually started meditating and doing breathing exercises given to him by Betchart, who would work with the LSU star over the phone and sometimes fly to Baton Rouge so they could meet in person.

“He’s an awesome human being,” Betchart said of Simmons. “At this point, I’ve worked with so many great athletes so I tend to gravitate to great humans instead, and he’s one of those really good guys. I’ve known Ben for a few years now; he has a terrific family. With this kind of work, the more years you work with someone, the deeper it goes and the more they develop. With Ben, I’d say we are still in the early stages, but I see someone who is very open-minded to it. And he’s still only 19 years old, so he’s still super young. For him, one of the bigger challenges was that he was a big deal. Ben Simmons is a big deal basketball wise and there was a lot of noise around him coming into college and coming into the draft this year. There was all kind of stuff written about him.

“The big thing that he took to was really focusing on what he can control. He can’t control what people say about him, he can’t control if people criticize his shot, he can’t control if they say he’s the best passer since Magic Johnson, he can’t control if they say he’s the best prospect since LeBron James. You can’t control any of that. For him, he has found a lot of peace in just learning to let go of all that and focusing on what he can control. And all you can control is this very moment, trusting your skills and then going on to the next moment. That wisdom tends to help relax players. For him, it really helped a lot since he had so much noise around him – especially being part of this social-media generation. I mean, it’s a lot of noise.”

While Betchart has an impressive list of star clients, his biggest success story might be Gordon of the Orlando Magic. Gordon has been working with Betchart since he was in the eighth grade, so he’s the best example of how mental skills training can help athletes improve their performance and deal with pressure and demands. From a young age, Gordon’s parents talked to him about being mindful. However, it wasn’t until middle school that Betchart put a sports spin on it and Gordon realized how much these skills could help him with his athletic performance.

“I started working with Graham when I was going from eighth grade to ninth grade,” Gordon said. “I was basically going from being a big fish in a little pond to being a little fish in a big pond. I knew that I needed something to help my game and continue to keep me on the right track. Graham introduced this to me at 13 years old and from then on, the ball was just rolling. I think it’s helped me a tremendous amount. We use basketball as a medium, but we just talk about life. He’s also helped me with situations in my life that have nothing to do with basketball. We talk about money, materialistic things, existential things – some things that normal basketball players may not talk about with their sports psychologist. He’s become a mentor for me. He’s helped me see that there’s more to life than just basketball and I’m eternally grateful for that.

“I think a lot of people just don’t know about it. A while ago, if you went to someone for ‘mental coaching’ or ‘mental training,’ you were automatically labeled as mentally weak. And that’s not true. That’s not true at all. It means you’re searching for something more – a greater sense of fulfillment. I think kids are starting to understand that more and more. They see guys like Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry and they see the iciness about them, the mental toughness. You’re starting to see kids say, ‘I want what he has mentally.’ And where they find it is through coaching, mental training and the Lucid app.”

“A lot of the basketball players I’ve worked with are pretty young – either just making their way up the NBA or on the verge of being in the NBA – because I started doing this training with them when they were teenagers,” Betchart said. “Aaron Gordon, for example, is someone who I met when he was 11 years old and I started working with him when he was 13 We built a strong bond over that time and now we have eight or nine years of work to show. A lot of it is building trust. If you build trust with these guys before they’re multi-millionaires, it’s a lot easier. So that’s why the NBA players I’m working with are young, but I hope to continue working with them. And then I’m hoping that this group of guys is vocal about it and we can influence the next generation, so that the next wave of players picks up on this stuff  – maybe even earlier and starts seeing the results. That way, you don’t need to be some lucky, top recruit to have this either. I mean, everyone should be doing this stuff and benefitting from it.”

Gordon loves the idea of spreading mindfulness training to the next generation.

“That would be amazing and a trend would ensue,” Gordon said. “There would be a better brand of basketball players – guys who are more level-headed, more well-adjusted, more focused. That means the level of competition will rise, which will only help the NBA and make it a more spectacular game. That would be amazing, if I could usher in this new trend.”

Betchart’s app Lucid, which features Gordon and other athletes, has 1,000 five-minute mental training workouts that focus on meditation, visualization and positive affirmations. The app will also eventually include messages for people who are dealing with a specific problem such as a slump, playing better in practice than in games and other scenarios.

“With the app, we want to meet people where they are,” Betchart said. “We aren’t asking you to go on some ‘five-day silent retreat for mental health.’ You know? All you need is a phone and headphones to do this and we tell guys, ‘Hit play every day.’ People are gravitating toward it and seem happy that there’s a resource for this. And we’re not saying we’re the only resource, but we just hope people know that there are resources for this and we want people taking advantage of them.”

“It’s incredible what it’s doing for people,” Gordon said. “I’ve always wanted to cultivate mindfulness in a younger generation and this is the perfect first step. It’s not just about basketball either. Every day, we get emails about how Lucid is helping people in everyday situations. It can help someone in business, in ballet, in tennis, whatever. It’s incredible. Anybody can do this. This is for everybody.”

Betchart does make one thing clear: It takes time to see results.

“There’s no quick fix or overnight success,” he said. “Some of these things are very gradual. Sometimes the improvement is so slow you may not even notice it, but that’s how it works. And you can’t speed through it – we only let you do one per day. You can’t go to a weight room right now and have overnight success. Mental training is the same way. We don’t want you to just put 10 minutes into this and then never do it again. We want this to be something that helps you grow over the next few years. Think of it this way: If you’re a freshman in high school, we want you to work at this and realize your goal by the time you graduate. That may seem like a long time, but there are no quick fixes for things like this. And the guys who have stuck it out and worked at it, like Aaron, have seen great results.”

As the 2016-17 NBA season tips off, keep an eye on Betchart’s players and remember that it often takes more than just physical preparation to reach that level of success.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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2017-18 NBA Report Card: Third-Year Players

Among the third-year players a few budding superstars have emerged, along with some role players who are helping their teams in the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs.

Mike Yaffe

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The 2015 NBA Draft has provided the league with a limited quantity of talent so far. After Terry Rozier (at 16th), it’s unlikely that anyone remaining has All-Star potential. Despite the lack of depth, the highest draft slot traded was at number 15, when the Atlanta Hawks moved down to enable the Washington Wizards to select Kelly Oubre Jr.

But placing a definitive “boom” or “bust” label on these athletes might be premature as the rookie contract is standardized at four seasons with an option for a fifth. If their employers are given a fourth year to decide whether a draftee is worth keeping, it seems reasonable to earmark the NBA Juniors’ progress for now and see how they’ve fared after next season’s campaign before making their letter grades official.

The Top Dogs

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: Given the dearth of premier choices and their glaring need up front, it’s hard to envision the T-Wolves drafting anyone but KAT if they had to do it again. Although his scoring average is down from last season (21.3 vs. 25.1 PPG), that trend could be explained by the addition of Jimmy Butler and the team’s deliberate pace (24th out of 30 teams).

To his credit, Towns had career highs in three-point percentage (42.1 percent) and free throws (85.8 percent), while finishing second overall in offensive rating (126.7). His continued improvement in these areas could explain why the Timberwolves ended their 14-year playoff drought.

Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets: Although he was a 2014 draft pick, Jokić’s NBA debut was delayed due to his last year of commitment to the Adriatic League. His productivity as a rookie was limited by both foul trouble and a logjam at the center position, but he still managed 10.0 PPG.

With Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic off the depth chart, Jokić became the clear-cut starter this season and rewarded Denver’s confidence by averaging 18.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. And by chipping in 6.1 APG, he provides rare value as a center with triple-double potential.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks: Although he has never played a full season since joining the league, Porzingis has provided enough evidence that he can be a force when healthy. Before his junior campaign was derailed, the Latvian was enjoying career highs of 22.7 PPG and 39.5 percent shooting from behind the arc.

Unfortunately, the Knicks haven’t provided much support at point guard to help with Porzingis’ development. Trey Burke looked impressive down the stretch in Zinger’s absence, but that was in a score-first capacity. Meanwhile, both Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay have underwhelmed. On the plus side, Porzingis’ outside ability paired nicely in the frontcourt with Enes Kanter, who prefers to bully his way underneath.

Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: Like Porzingis, Booker’s third year in the NBA was cut short by injuries, but that didn’t stop him from achieving career highs in points (24.9 per game), assists (4.7) and three-pointers (38.3 percent) on an otherwise moribund Suns team. Indeed, cracking the 40-point barrier three times in 54 contests was an achievement in and of itself.

While his short-term prospects would’ve been far better on a team like the Philadelphia Sixers (who might have taken him instead of Jahlil Okafor in a re-draft), Booker can still become a franchise cornerstone for the Suns if they are able to build around a young core that also includes T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson.

Solid Potential

Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers: Despite an inconsistent freshman season at Texas, Turner has become a stabilizing influence at center for the Pacers, whose blueprint consists of surrounding a go-to scorer with role players. While he hasn’t shown drastic improvement in any particular area, he has produced double-digit PPG averages all three years as a pro.

Although Turner’s shot-blocking ability fuels his reputation as a defensive maven, the reality is his 104.8 defensive rating (which is just OK) was skewed by his 110.9 d-rating in losses (it was 100.8 in wins). In order to merit consideration for the NBA’s all-defensive team, he will need to bridge the gap in this discrepancy and impact his team’s ability to win more games in the process.

D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets: Following their respective trades, Russell has fared better in the Big Apple than his 2015 lottery counterpart Emmanuel Mudiay, as the Los Angeles Lakers were forced to cut bait to draft Lonzo Ball. While Ball has shown promise as a rookie, the Lakers’ perception of Russell may have been premature, as the former Buckeye has stabilized a Nets backcourt that had been characterized more by athleticism than consistency.

Despite missing a significant stretch of mid-season games, Russell provided similar numbers for Brooklyn to that of his sophomore season; but without a pick until number 29 in the upcoming NBA Draft, the Nets will have to bank on improved production from DLo and his raw teammates to contend for the eight-seed in the East.

Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics: Injuries have paved the way for Rozier to showcase his talent, most recently with a 23-point, 8-assist effort in game two against the Milwaukee Bucks. But Rozier was already making headlines as a fill-in for Kyrie Irving whenever he was injured. Now that the starting point guard reins have been handed to the former mid-round pick, he has become one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2017-18 NBA season.

The biggest impediment to Rozier’s success might be the regression to limited playing time once Irving returns. While the Celtics could “sell high” and trade Rozier on the basis of his recent performances, they may opt to retain him as insurance while he is still cap-friendly.

Best of the Rest

Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers: Following the trade deadline, Nance has provided a spark for a Cavs frontcourt that has been bereft of viable options aside from Kevin Love.

Josh Richardson, Miami HEAT: A jack-of-all-trades at the small forward position, Richardson has evolved into a three-and-D player that has meshed well with the HEAT’s shut-down focus.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings: Thrust into the starting center role after the trade of DeMarcus Cousins, WCS has provided serviceable (albeit unspectacular) play as the next man up.

Delon Wright, Toronto Raptors: A key contributor for the East’s top seed, Wright was instrumental in the Raptors’ game one victory over the Washington Wizards with 18 points off the bench.

Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls: The former Razorback has flashed double-double potential, but playing time at his true position (power forward) has been limited by the emergence of rookie Lauri Markkanen.

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NBA Daily: Looking At The 2018 Draft Class By Tiers

The NBA Draft is a hard thing to predict, especially when it comes to draft order and individual team needs, Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler takes a look at how this draft looks in tiers.

Steve Kyler

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Looking At The 2018 Draft In Tiers

While Mock Drafts are an easy way to look at how the NBA Draft might play out, what they do no do is give a sense of what a specific player might be as a player at the next level. With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at how some of the notable NBA draft prospects project.

It’s important to point out that situation and circumstance often impact how a player develops, even more so than almost any other variable.

So while the goal here is to give a sense of how some NBA teams and insiders see a draft prospect’s likely potential, it is by no means meant to suggest that a player can’t break out of his projection and become more or sometimes less than his he was thought to be.

Every draft class has examples of players projected to be one thing that turns out to be something else entirely, so these projections are not meant to be some kind of final empirical judgment or to imply a specific draft position, as each team may value prospects differently.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at the 2018 NBA Draft in Tiers.

The Potential Future All-Stars

DeAndre Ayton – Arizona – C – 7’0″ – 245 lbs – 20 yrs
Luka Doncic – Real Madrid – SG – 6’7″ – 218 lbs – 19 yrs
Michael Porter Jr – Missouri – SF/PF – 6’10” – 216 lbs – 20 yrs

Maybe Stars, But Likely High-Level Starters

Jaren Jackson Jr. – Michigan State – PF – 6’10” – 225 lbs – 19 yrs
Marvin Bagley III – Duke – PF – 6’11” – 220 lbs – 19 yrs
Wendell Carter – Duke – PF – 6’10” – 257 lbs – 19 yrs
Mohamed Bamba – Texas – C – 7’0″ – 216 lbs – 20 yrs
Collin Sexton – Alabama – PG – 6’2″ – 184 lbs – 19 yrs
Mikal Bridges – Villanova – SG/SF – 6’7″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Robert Williams – Texas A&M – C – 6’9″ – 235 lbs – 21 yrs
Miles Bridges – Michigan State – SF/PF – 6’7″ – 230 lbs – 20 yrs
Dzanan Musa – Cedevita – SF – 6′ 9″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – Kentucky – SG – 6′ 6″ – 181 lbs – 20 yrs
Trae Young – Oklahoma – PG – 6’2″ – 180 lbs – 20 yrs

Maybe Starters, But Surely Rotation Players

Kevin Knox – Kentucky – SF – 6’9″ – 206 lbs – 19 yrs
Troy Brown – Oregon – SG – 6’6″ – 210 lbs – 19 yrs
Khyri Thomas – Creighton – SG – 6′ 3″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Zhaire Smith – Texas Tech – SG – 6′ 5″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Rodions Kurucs – FC Barcelona B – SF – 6′ 9″ – 220 lbs – 20 yrs
Aaron Holiday – UCLA – PG – 6′ 1″ – 185 lbs – 22 yrs
Jacob Evans – Cincinnati – SF – 6′ 6″ – 210 lbs – 21 yrs
De’Anthony Melton – USC – PG – 6’4″ – 190 lbs – 20 yrs

The Swing For The Fence Prospects – AKA Boom-Or-Bust

Lonnie Walker – Miami – SG – 6’4″ – 206 lbs – 20 yrs
Mitchell Robinson – Chalmette HS – C – 7′ 0″ – 223 lbs – 20 yrs
Anfernee Simons – IMG Academy – SG – 6′ 5″ – 177 lbs – 19 yrs
Jontay Porter – Missouri – C – 6′ 11″ – 240 lbs – 19 yrs
Lindell Wigginton – Iowa State – PG – 6′ 2″ – 185 lbs – 20 yrs
Bruce Brown – Miami – SG – 6’5″ – 191 lbs – 22 yrs
Isaac Bonga – Skyliners (Germany) – SF/SG – 6’9″ – 203 lbs – 19 yrs
Hamidou Diallo – Kentucky – SG – 6’5″ – 197 lbs – 20 yrs

Players not listed are simply draft prospects that could be drafted, but don’t project clearly into any of these tiers.

If you are looking for a specific player, check out the Basketball Insiders Top 100 Prospects list, this listing is updated weekly.

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NBA Daily: Darius Adams, Around The World In Seven Years

CBA superstar Darius Adams talks to Basketball Insiders about dominating in China, playing with Andray Blatche and trying to prove himself.

Ben Nadeau

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Darius Adams is just like every other professional basketball player.

Every year, he works hard, tries to improve and be the best teammate possible. One day, Adams would like to earn his first-ever NBA contract, but after seven long years, he’s always fallen just short. Adams is just like you and me too — forever chasing his dreams even when the outlook is at its bleakest. But Adams’ worldwide journey has taken him from Indianapolis to China and nearly everywhere in between.

Now with a chunk of money saved up, Adams is ready to bet on himself and finally make this at-home ambition come true. Ahead lies a summer of grueling workouts and undetermined futures, but eventually, you learn to stop betting against Adams. From Los Prados to Laboral Kutxa Baskonia, Adams has made a habit of proving the naysayers wrong. As if dropping 38 points per game in China wasn’t difficult enough — Adams still must undergo his toughest challenge yet: Changing the mind of an NBA front office.

But before you can know where Adams is going, it’s just as important to understand where he’s been.

*****

Darius Adams got a late start to basketball. He never played AAU, the so-called holy grail for teenage prospects, and told me that he learned the game by watching streetball in Decatur, Illinois. So by the time he fell in love with basketball, Adams was forced to take alternate routes to the top. He spent two years in the NJCAA with Lincoln College, a small, private liberal arts school approximately 33 miles away from home. During that second season, Adams averaged 18.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals per game on 44 percent shooting from the floor — but it wasn’t enough to make the jump to a Division-I school.

After transferring to the University of Indianapolis, Adams continued to improve in each successive campaign. As a senior, he topped out with a 41-point effort against Illinois at Springfield and tallied 23.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Nevertheless, Adams still went undrafted in 2011, officially setting off a globe-spanning adventure that would make Phileas Fogg blush.

From China to Ukraine, Adams has played in seven different countries in as many years, also adding stops in Venezuela, Dominican Republic, France, Germany and Spain along the way. Adams may have turned 29 years-old this week, but he’s never considered giving up his dreams of playing in the NBA.

“That’s the goal, that’s always been my motivation,” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “I just played my hardest and kept progressing, that was my thing — I didn’t want to be content with: ‘OK, you’re playing pro.’ I want to play at the highest level, I feel like I have the talent to play at the highest level.

“At the end of the day, I just need that opportunity.”

Opportunity is a word that has come to define Adams in many ways.

Beyond that, it’s something that has constantly eluded him, even as he began winning in bigger and better leagues. Despite all his international successes, including a EuroLeague Final Four appearance and a CBA championship, Adams has been unable to turn that into an NBA contract. As far as he can tell, it’s a matter of both perception and timing.

The perception of overseas athletes, particularly those that compete in China, has always been a hot-button issue. For as long as Americans have played in the CBA, there’s an unspoken expectation that they should dominate. Generalizations abound, if you’re from the United States and not dominating in China, there’s a low chance of earning an NBA deal. But sometimes, even topping the CBA charts still isn’t enough. This season, Adams averaged a league-leading 38.7 points and added 8.4 assists (2nd-best), 6.8 rebounds and 2.5 steals (3rd-best) per contest for good measure. On one hand, there’s the stat-padding, empty type of scoring and then there’s this: Absolute annihilation.

But those misconceptions about Chinese basketball often remain an unforgiving roadblock for many. Heck, even Adams had them before he signed with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers two years ago.

“It’s different, my perception was that there would be a lot of short guys that couldn’t play,” Adams said. “Actually, I was probably one of the shortest guys out there, as far as basketball players, and they got skills. They don’t get tired and they’re going to guard you tough, maybe they’re not as skilled as [Americans] are — but they got heart.

“I thought it was going to be easy, but they impressed me.”

And although Adams experienced his fallacies in real-time, he’s still waiting for the rest of the NBA to catch up.

Of course, Adams wasn’t the only American to tear up the CBA this season. Three other Americans, Brandon Jennings, Jonathan Gibson and MarShon Brooks, earned NBA deals this month. That trio of players all put up gaudy statistical lines as well, but none nearly as high as Adams’. Then there’s the case of Stephon Marbury, a former NBA All-Star that moved to China back in 2010, transforming his fringe-status career into a rejuvenated international icon. Marbury’s off-the-court philanthropy and three CBA championships speak for themselves, but Adams is often left wondering why it can’t work the other way around.

“You start questioning yourself, like: ‘What’s the reason why you’re not getting this opportunity?’” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “Some of the teams [I’ve worked out for] come back and say, ‘Well, he hasn’t had NBA experience.’ But when am I going to get my NBA experience if I never get my chance?”

*****

The other frustrating factor for players like Adams to navigate is timing — and as he put it, timing is everything.

To his credit, Adams has never shied away from a challenge or attempted to outmaneuver anybody on this long-winding journey. When he goes to workouts, Adams tells franchises that he’d be more than happy to go against their top guys — however, whenever, or whatever it takes. He’s impressed during private workouts before, but his most recent chance came just as Adams was getting ready to fly back to China for another season. Timing, again, had failed him.

Between workouts too late in the offseason or contracts that needed to be honored, the timing just hasn’t quite worked out for Adams. And it’s not for a lack of trying either — Adams has played two years of summer league (one with the Nets, one with the Mavericks), initially tried his hand at the D-League in 2011 and spends every offseason carefully deciding where to go next.

But when he made the all-important choice to jump from Spain to China in 2016, it wasn’t without a plan.

“Honestly, when I left Spain, I was nervous to go to China because the fans were like, ‘You’re gonna hurt your career, basketball is not as good [there] as it is in Europe,’” Adams said. “So I had that in the back in my mind. Me and my agent had a plan that I’d go to China — the CBA season is way shorter than the European leagues — and then I’d come back in six, seven months and hopefully get on a roster before the end of the season.”

It’s difficult to measure the merits of a big-time scorer overseas, particularly so in China, but Adams has now undoubtedly smashed through his ceiling. For a kid that once started out at a tiny college in Illinois, Adams followed up his Finals MVP-winning campaign in 2016-17 by nearly averaging a 40-point double-double this year. And although he challenged himself to diversify his game between those back-to-back Chinese seasons, he never once thought he would do… well, that.

“I didn’t go into the season wanting to be the leading scorer, I just wanted to win games and another championship,” Adams said. “We had a lot of adversity this season because my teammate, Andray Blatche, got injured early and the offensive role changed to me. Going against double-teams, triple-teams, that was the challenging part, because I knew my team needed me. Dealing with the adversity, it was challenging — but if you put me up to the test, I’m always going to prove myself.”

Although Andray Blatche isn’t a name heard often these days, he’s certainly well-remembered for his time in the NBA. Over his nine-year career, Blatche played for the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets before heading overseas to China in 2014. While he, too, was part of the winning squad that brought the Flying Tigers their first-ever championship in 2017, Adams has also used the 6-foot-11 power forward like a soundboard. Frequently peppering him with questions about life in the NBA, Adams has nothing but adoration for Blatche, whom he now considers a close friend.

“I asked him what it was like to play with DWill, KG, how were the locker rooms, what were the practices like — but he also helped me see different things on the court,” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “Or, like, OK, I might be frustrated and in a bad place, he’d be like, ‘OK, D, you gotta let it go, you’re the leader of the team’ and things like that. Whenever I was down, he was there — he helped me out with being in China, adjusting to the food, where to go, he treated me like a little brother, actually.”

In order to make that second season in China count, Adams decided to focus on his untapped playmaking side, increasing his assist tally from 5.9 to that aforementioned 8.4 per game. For a while, he even thought that might’ve been why he hadn’t earned a 10-day contract yet, so into the grinder it went. Additionally, Adams dared himself to become a locker room leader, the kind of vocal, lead-by-example veteran that any franchise would value.

If the jaw-dropping statistics weren’t going to pave his path to the NBA, Adams was convinced he could find another way to grab front office attention.

“Right now, I’m already developed and can help [teams] win,” Adams said. “I haven’t reached my peak, I can still learn new things and keep progressing the same way. I’m already starting higher in the learning curve [than most young players] — but I’m also a good leader. I can be a scorer, I can be a defensive guy, I got all those qualities — I’m not just a one-dimensional player, I can help.”

*****

But as his season drew to a close in March (the sixth-seeded Flying Tigers were knocked out in the quarterfinals) Adams was, once again, without an NBA contract. In what Adams is now deeming one of the most important summers of his life, he’s going all-in on himself. Previously, Adams couldn’t ignore those lucrative million-dollar-plus deals, he had a family to look out for, after all. To him, it was a risk that he couldn’t take until this very moment. Sure, he could hit the G-League again — although he tried out for two teams, the Iowa Energy and Canton Charge, after going undrafted and was not selected — but there’s little money in that method.

Granted, Adams has always been motivated and hungry, but he’s got an extra push this time around.

“I’m going to all these different countries, I’m playing in their country — so why can’t play in my country?” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “If I’m one of the top players, how come I can’t get an opportunity in my country? Staying home, so my family can see me. My family has never seen me play overseas, only videos. You see all these other stories, like the guy that just played for the Lakers [Andre Ingram] — it took him ten years! It shows you to just never give up — all you need is an opportunity.

“I always tell my mom, my family, my kids that this year is gonna be the year. I’m gonna get my opportunity and I’mma be playing at home — daddy’s gonna be playing at home.”

Adams has always been a late bloomer — he’s forever the product of a once-raw teenager with no AAU experience. He’ll always be the barely 6-foot point guard that jumped into the NCJAA, quickly validated himself and then excelled in Division-II as well. But if you’re looking for a reason to disparage Adams’ hopes and dreams, you need not look further than this. How could somebody with those glaring blemishes ever play at the NBA level and against the best the sport has to offer?

Lest you forget, however, Adams is also the guy that will never stop fighting or believing in himself. Adams is the one that averaged 18 points in Ukraine and Germany and didn’t settle. The higher he climbed, the better he got. When he aced the test in France, he went to Spain and then got all of this. When Adams needed to adapt and change his game depending on the surrounding roster or culture — he did that too. But most importantly, Adams is tired of playing from behind and tired of missing his young family’s most key moments.

And now, with a whole offseason ahead of him, Adams is ready to do something about it once and for all.

“I’m staying prepared for whenever they have an opportunity, I’m betting on myself this whole summer and really taking a chance,” Adams said. “This year, I have enough saved up to really bet on myself. So, the goal is to just go to these workouts, get in front of these guys and show ‘em what I can do.

“That’s all I’ve ever needed, I don’t want anybody to just hand over a contract — I want to prove myself. I feel like I can make an impact — if you don’t think so, put me up against your guys and I’ll prove it.”

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