Some of the most interesting stories heard around the NBA often involve undrafted players or those that are signed to non-guaranteed contracts. It often takes a combination of luck and determination for these fringe players to land in a perfect situation and ultimately stick on an NBA roster.
For these players, there is no road map on how to get into the NBA. Many of these players are often unsure of which path to take to get into the league. Some players opt to stay closer to home and attempt to earn a call-up to the NBA through the D-League, while others take the more lucrative route by playing overseas in Europe, China or elsewhere.
Recently, one of the more publicized journeys of a player occurred with Miami HEAT center Hassan Whiteside. He was drafted with the 33rd overall pick by the Sacramento Kings in the second round of the 2010 NBA Draft. Over his first two seasons in the league, Whiteside bounced around between the Kings’ roster and the D-League and would appear in only 19 games with Sacramento.
Whiteside would later play in Lebanon and China before returning to the D-League. He was finally able to catch on with the HEAT at the beginning of last year, four years after initially being drafted. He became an overnight sensation last season for Miami and now finds himself as a key piece of a HEAT squad with playoff aspirations.
Other players that find themselves in the position that Whiteside was in use his story as motivation. They see that having a successful campaign in the D-League or overseas can be used to put themselves on an NBA team’s radar.
For former Central Florida forward Tristan Spurlock, he finds motivation in the success that he’s been able to have this season. He went undrafted out of UCF in 2014 and has since played for the Detroit Pistons in the Summer League, the Canton Charge in the D-League and in Puerto Rico.
Since having an up-and-down year following his collegiate career, Spurlock has bounced back strongly playing for Alba Fehervar in Hungary. Through eight games, he leads all scorers with 19.3 points per game. His 6.8 rebounds rank 13th in the league, while he’s seventh in steals (2.0) and second in blocks (1.8). In addition, he leads his team in points, rebounds, assists and blocks.
“I feel like everybody’s situation is so different,” Spurlock told Basketball Insiders. “What gives me more motivation is when I look at my numbers and that I’m being efficient. It’s not like I’m averaging 20 points shooting 30 percent from the field. I’m shooting 51 percent from the field and 42 percent from the three and I’m like, ‘Okay, that can translate into the next level.’ It’s my first year in Europe and I’m leading the team in scoring, rebounding, assists and blocks. That gives me more motivation and the reassurance that I can do this. It’s one of them things that you got to prove to everybody else.”
Spurlock’s rise in Hungary isn’t by mistake. He’s put in time at the gym and has worked with several different trainers. Whether it’s with Brad Augustine at the Central Florida Basketball Academy in Orlando or back home in Virginia with the Drills and Skills training team, he’s worked on his game and has refined his skills. He’s also played a few games in the Orlando Pro-Am this past summer, going against players like Jason Williams, Courtney Lee, Austin Rivers and Elfrid Payton among others. He made headlines with a massive alley-oop dunk while playing in the Pro-Am. But, he still vividly recalls working with Stan Van Gundy and several Pistons players last summer at the Orlando Summer League.
“Stan taught me a lot and helped me go forward,” Spurlock said. “He was telling me to really flourish, that I need to be a three. One thing he did was let me be a three. In practice, I never played the four; I was always the three. Athletically, I was definitely holding my own. That’s one place I know I’m not going to struggle at. I’m touching my head on the rim dunking, and he’s like, ‘Do that! I need you to get to the rim and do that!’ Me, Andre [Drummond] and Tony Mitchell are having dunk-offs, and he’s like, ‘I need you to get to the rim and finish like that.’
“The thing that I liked was that Kyle Singler and Drummond worked out with us every day. I’ve known Andre for a long time now. We were working out every day. They wouldn’t play, but Singler and me would go at it [in practice]. I was guarding him, then I had to guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.”
His interactions with the Pistons and his time with Canton in the D-League have helped mold him into the person he is today. Those opportunities allowed him to experience much different situations than in college. Most players admit the D-League is a humbling experience. The hotel accommodations are not glamorous and the travel schedule is grueling.
Spurlock admitted the short stint in Canton put things into perspective and allowed himself a chance to grow personally. Since he had experienced life in the D-League, he wanted to get a taste of European basketball and have a chance to play on a bigger stage.
“My agent gave me a couple of offers in a couple of places,” Spurlock said. “He was just telling me the situations and telling me how good of a league [Hungary] is and the chance that we get to play against four or five Euroleague teams. For me, that was a big thing. I wanted to go against a couple of those teams. A lot of guys started to sign – Kendrick Perry [from Orlando] and Aaron Craft [from Ohio State]. I saw that it was a good league. It was a lot of talent. Our point guard [Kenny Chery] went to Baylor. He was with the Trail Blazers Summer League before he signed with us. I knew we were going to have a really good team.”
When you factor in the adjustments that Spurlock has made moving to Hungary, his early season success seems even more impressive. Players over the years have told Basketball Insiders that fans overseas are extremely passionate about their teams, which can make for rough playing environments. In some leagues, fans have thrown batteries onto the court while others have waited until after games to fight the referees.
The most obvious challenge has been adjusting to a different language, but Spurlock says most of his teammates understand English. The team has an assistant coach that understands both languages and will often translate for the American players. Being American and playing overseas presents numerous challenges. American players often don’t get many fouls called in their favor. In addition, foreign players often challenge American players and are often giving them their best effort each night and coming at them with increased intensity.
“Here they want to see you compete,” Spurlock said. “If they bring you in as an American, they don’t care if you played 38 minutes last game and had 40 points – when you’re out in practice, you got to be better than everybody else because you’re the American. You got to do it a lot, because if you don’t, they will think that they won’t need you. If they feel like they don’t need you and they’re paying you more than the rest of the team, what do they have you there for?”
The transition has become much smoother for Spurlock in recent weeks. His team flew his brother out to be with him during his time in Hungary. He admitted that before his brother arrived in Hungary, he didn’t leave his room much. In general, he would only leave to go to practice or to go to games. Having his brother by his side allows him to get out and explore Europe with somebody that he knows.
“They flew my brother out so they paid for everything for him,” Spurlock said. “He travels when I travel. That was one of the perks of my contract, so it’s cool having him out here. It makes it a lot easier. He watches all of the practices. He’s in the locker room with me making sure I’m good. It was my first European gig so [my team] wanted to make sure that I was good.”
While Spurlock’s end goal is to play in the NBA, he understands that he needs to be patient. He’s received a ton of feedback from different trainers and scouts overseas that have told him that he could one day play in the NBA, but he just needs to put in his time and continue working on his game. His biggest priority right now is staying healthy. He knows that if he takes care of things this season in Hungary that bigger opportunities could come down the line.
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