Brandon Paul had just finished one of his more productive games in the Las Vegas Summer League. On July 10, playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers — his third summer tour — Paul dropped 21 points against the Golden State Warriors.
After the game and back in the locker room, a text can across Paul’s phone from his agent, Adam Pensack reading, “Come out, ASAP.”
Unbeknownst to Paul at the time, Pensack was ready to deliver the news the 26-year-old shooting guard had been working his whole life to hear.
Paul was going to the NBA under a one-year guaranteed contract with the San Antonio Spurs.
“Adam works his ass off,” Paul told Basketball Insiders about his agent. “So I knew he had some things going on, and he was telling me there was a few teams in the mix, but it was not substantial just yet. But I knew once I saw those missed calls and stuff that something might have happened, there might have been some movement. I didn’t expect the news I got.”
The news that Paul wasn’t expecting was the exact news he returned to his third stint in the summer league for. After leaving the University of Illinois in 2013 as one of the Fighting Illini’s most accomplished players in school history, Paul set out to jump right to the Association.
But his story isn’t as linear as he may have hoped four years ago.
After going undrafted in the 2013 NBA Draft, Paul joined the Minnesota Timberwolves for his first taste of summer league action. Unfortunately, his performance didn’t warrant a further deal. Instead, that August, Paul was packing his bags to head to Russia to play for BC Nizhny Novgorod.
By February of 2014, Paul was back in the states and his rights were acquired by the Canton Charge, Cleveland’s developmental team. Bouncing around from country to country trying to prove your worth is one scenario for a professional basketball player trying to make it. But with Paul, on top of working towards his shot, he fell under a string of bad luck that delayed his process.
Throughout the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons, Paul suffered a myriad of injuries that kept him out of the NBA conversation. Since regaining his health, and focusing on his craft, starting with a stint a Spain playing for Joventut Badalona, Paul’s journey culminated with a text message that made the four years of battling all worth it.
“I don’t know if there was doubt,” Paul said about his circumstances. “I think there was motivation, and I think there was a little bit of confusion as well. I had gone through so many injuries, part of myself wanted to question why this kept happening, but I just kept telling myself its all a part of the bigger picture. I think I can kind of sit around, and pout and be sad for myself, or I can continue to get better and prove to myself that I’m a tough player and I think I was able to do that.”
That level of perseverance led Paul to one of the most storied franchises in the NBA and under the tutelage of arguably the greatest coach the sport has ever seen, Gregg Popovich. Those qualities alone that led Paul to San Antonio bear a striking resemblance to the Spurs culture Popovich has cultivated.
The experience from bouncing around different leagues and different countries to ultimately landing in San Antonio has been a dream come true for Paul.
“Its been great, man,” Paul said. “I’m able to learn every day. I’m able to play with some of the best guys around the league. The staff is incredible, down from the interns to the head coach, to the front office guys, to the training staff, everyone just knows their role, it’s like a big family. Coach is going to put you in a position to be successful and guys want to be able to take advantage of those opportunities.”
Since arriving in San Antonio, Paul has seen himself fit into a multitude of roles. Some nights he’ll sit completely, sans a few minutes at the end of the game. Others he’ll play a large role as a reserve. Occasionally, including twice already this season, Paul will get a starting nod.
Adaptation isn’t something that Paul is new to. He’s spent almost every day since leaving college adapting to new surroundings, scenarios, or outcomes pertaining to his basketball life. To him, why should San Antonio be any different?
“It’s not tough at all,” Paul said. “I know my role out there, and I knew coming out of college that I was one of the few players who understood that 90 percent of the NBA is role players. So if you figure out your role, and you’re able to execute that role, you’re going to be a guy that can stick around in the league for a long time.”
Even after a lifetime spent playing basketball, Paul believes there are still things to learn every day when he goes to work. Understanding his role and situation, including his fluctuation of playing time, allows Paul to keep a sharp mind for the minutes he spends on the bench, rather than the court.
“It’s amazing man,” Paul said. “You’re able to learn from the best, see how things move, and when you’re not out there, it gives you a chance to kind of, not only be a fan but a student of the game. You can see what’s going on, and if your number gets called, you kind of adjust to what’s going on because you’ve seen it before, you’ve seen it happen throughout the game, you’ve seen guy’s tendencies. So just being able to come into this organization out of any, and to learn from that is truly a blessing.”
That day all the way back in July, when Pensack delivered Paul with the news of his contract, was an emotional first for the guard. Back then, there was time for jubilation and reflection. On Dec. 3, however, the next night of firsts for Paul in his NBA journey, there was no time to waste.
Paul would be getting his first career start, going up against the Oklahoma City Thunder. He wasn’t told a day in advance. He didn’t know at shootaround that morning. Instead, assistant coach Ettore Messina approached Paul during his pregame stretch and informed him about the lineup change.
This wasn’t July, though. The Spurs were in the middle of the season, and as Paul said, “you gotta be ready whenever.” That means, at most, a few minutes to let the butterflies take their course, and then it’s back to work.
“Yeah I think so,” Paul said of pre-start jitters. “But I kind of had to get over it, I can’t worry about it too much. I think that type of stuff ended pretty early in the season. After I started I played early on a decent amount of minutes, so I think that kind of helped get the butterflies out of there.”
The road that Paul took to get his chance in the NBA wasn’t the smoothest it could’ve been. For the 6-foot-4 shooting guard, maybe that’s the way it was supposed to happen. Paul refers to his opportunity with the San Antonio Spurs as a “blessing,” but with all the evidence laid out to consider, it’s safe to say Paul worked as hard as he may have been blessed.
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