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NBA Saturday: The Path of a College Veteran in Summer League

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When you’re an NBA lottery pick, the Summer League is more of a formality. It’s a few games in July that give your new bosses a chance to see what you could potentially bring to the table, and an opportunity to provide your new fans a glimpse at why you were drafted so high.

But not every Summer League prospect has that luxury. For others, a lot of the time college veterans, those few games in July present themselves as an opportunity to fulfill a dream of becoming an NBA player. A good showing in Summer League can give a late-round selection, or undrafted free agent, a shot at latching on with a team.

That is the route being taken by Justin Robinson and Dylan Ennis, two accomplished collegiate players who are logging each minute in the Summer League with hopes that the hard work turns into something more.

Robinson graduated from Monmouth University this past May as the program’s all-time leading scorer. Over his four years in school, he propelled the growth of a little-known mid-major basketball program into one of the most recognized mid-majors in the country, capable of taking down the likes of UCLA, Notre Dame and Georgetown.

Robinson acomplished much despite standing at just 5-foot-8. Despite his small stature, Robinson carries a big game and a big resume. But making the jump to the professional level of basketball is a whole new ball game. During the Orlando Summer League Robinson had the opportunity of playing for the Miami HEAT and began his transition from big fish in a small pond to new waters right away.

“It’s definitely a learning experience,” Robinson said about the transition. “When you go from being ‘the man’ for the past four years and then stepping into a situation where you’re not and you’ve got to prove yourself and work your way up from the bottom again, it’s definitely something to take in and learn from.”

During the week in Orlando, Robinson did his best to try and stick out but didn’t put up the record-setting numbers he was used to dropping during his time in college. Over the five games Robinson played in, he averaged just over six points per game in 15 minutes on the court. The 22-year-old point guard surely isn’t setting the world on fire with those numbers, but he knows that just like in college, success at the next level will take time and hard work.

“You could just say it’s a process, you’ve got to take every step as it is,” Robinson said. “You’re going to have bumps and bruises on the way whether you’re trying to maintain a program or build it up from the bottom. You can learn from everything in every aspect, so just take it in stride.”

For Ennis, his journey up until this point has been every part of a process.

A six-year collegiate veteran, Ennis faced adversity and missteps throughout his time spent playing amateur basketball. He even saw his younger brother, Tyler, enter the NBA before he got the chance to when he was drafted 18th overall by the Phoenix Suns in 2014.

This past season, however, Ennis helped propel Oregon to the Final Four, scoring 18 points and grabbing six rebounds in the team’s national semifinal game against North Carolina.

The elder Ennis received his first shot at an NBA life with the Oklahoma City Thunder in Orlando, checking into five games and scoring just over eight points per contest in 19 minutes per game.

But throughout his time in the college ranks, which saw Ennis at three different schools (Rice, Villanova and Oregon) and the loss of nearly an entire season with a broken foot, the 25-year-old believes he gained a sense of maturity he may not have had otherwise.

“I definitely think it gives me a leg up, it gives me a lot of experience,” Ennis said about his time spent in college. “A lot of guys that might leave early, come to the NBA and they don’t play as much or they have to come off the bench and they don’t know how to react to it. I’ve been in college for six years, I know this is a long grind, a long journey. I’m going to be the guy first up on the bench if I’m playing two minutes or 20 minutes, I know how to adjust. I think that only comes with maturity from being in college for six years.”

In an NBA culture where the top picks in the draft are 18 or 19-year-old kids that logged a lone season in college, the league has a tendency to overlook the four (or six) year guys. If you aren’t a teenager with crazy bounce or a smooth jumper, the odds are already stacked against you. That certainly isn’t the end all be all for players, however, and just last season Malcolm Brogdon of the Milwaukee Bucks flipped the narrative by winning Rookie of the Year as 24-year-old second round pick.

While the journey of any successful NBA player is a grind, when the chips are already stacked against you, these summertime basketball games carry that much more significance.

In Ennis’ experience, more time in college awards players an opportunity to understand their bodies and handle the toll of a grueling summer schedule.

“That’s being mature, again,” Ennis said. “That’s being in college for six years and knowing I have to take care of my body. Some of the young guys may not know that, they think they can run on fumes, but, I know you’ve got to get sleep, you’ve got to ice your knees, you’ve got to eat right and, especially with all this traveling, you’ve got to drink a lot of water, stay hydrated. But, it’s fun. I wouldn’t want to do anything else with my summer than play basketball, learn from NBA guys and, hopefully, be in the NBA one day.”

Having the chance to figure out how your body operates, or how to lead a program from the bottom of the pack into national relevancy, are the overlooked growth moments that players can experience while in college for the full duration.

Robinson made it a point throughout his time in Orlando to the show the HEAT that he has the ability to be a vocal leader on the court and a pest on defense, two skills he was able to hone as time went on at school in New Jersey.

Ennis couldn’t be happier with his situation, and whether he receives a full-time contract out of Summer League, or a two-way variation, the guard will just be happy to get his opportunity to be a pro.

While these college veterans, and now NBA rookies, don’t have the luxury of knowing where they may end up this fall like their teenage lottery pick counterparts, they’re an example that the path to the league can come in many different shapes and sizes.

And no matter how you get there, the feeling at the end is all the same.

“Being in the NBA has been a dream of mine since I was a young kid and just having the opportunity and it presenting itself, I’m just grateful for it,” Ennis said.

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About Dennis Chambers

Dennis Chambers

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.