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Steve Aschburner

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High-energy but unknown guys, like Oklahoma City's Jerome Dyson, keep the competition fierce in camp.
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Endangered species of the NBA: The camp "sleepers"


Posted Sep 30 2010 7:29PM

They are the feel-good stories of the NBA, those plucky yet largely unknown players who arrive at training camp with a duffel bag, a dream and no guaranteed contract.

They are opportunists and chameleons, on hand to pounce should an established guy pull up lame in two-a-days and adaptable enough to fill whatever hole, slot or gap they notice in a team's roster. They get to the gym early, leave late, run when others jog and somehow manage to dive even before the ball gets knocked loose.

Their resumes are written in pencil rather than pen. Rent vs. buy? Sheesh, these guys hole up in a hotel room and extend their stays one day at a time.

They're the rabbits of camp, setting a blue-collar standard that can push fellows with eight-figure deals. They're mascots, in a way, adopted for their energy and underdog status by teammates who are shoo-ins to start. They're free agents for the working class, the way you and I would be, less focused on taking their talents to South Beach than on simply not being banished to Pismo Beach.

They're the sleepers, the surprises, those players of whom little or nothing is expected at the start of October but the same guys for whom opportunities beckon by the end. Picked in the 50s of a 60-man draft. Undrafted entirely. Back for a look-see after time served in the D League or overseas. One last cut away from pounding pavement rather than hardwood.

Oh, and they're going the way of the Dodo bird and Blockbuster storefronts.

The NBA has gotten so scouted-out and contracted-up that it nearly is impossible for any player to fly below this league's radar. And even if one did, teams are hanging out their "No Vacancies" sign like never before, because either they're maxed out with 15 guaranteed salaries or, for budgetary reasons, they're planning to carry only 13 or 14 guys. Now, rather than a spot on opening night, it's more likely that a low-profile player will be hoping to make an impression for a 10-day contract deeper into the regular season.

It's too bad, too, because they often are the brightest, most inspiring stories in camp. And it's clear that coaches love having that type of player. One man's hunger, dreams and floor burns can set the tone for a team, and become contagious, in ways that mission statements or film studies cannot touch.

During some breaks in their schedule at the recent NBA coaches' meetings in Chicago, I spoke with a number of head coaches about this endangered species of player:

KURT RAMBIS, MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

"I don't know if I'd go that far. There probably are still surprises in both directions: There are guys you thought would be really good and didn't turn out that way. It comes down to skill level. Fitting or not fitting into a system. Some guys just naturally gravitate to a certain style of play and fit in. There's maturity level, too.

"Some of it is just circumstances. There are guys who have had rough patches in their careers and they finally get to a point where they say, 'All right, I'm going to do whatever they ask me to do.' Then they just fit in.

"You'll still see them. ... Somebody like Shannon Brown on the Lakers. When the trade with Charlotte went through, he was kind of a throw-in to make the money work. Then he was the guy who ended up getting all the time. Above Adam [Morrison]. I think because of his athleticism and a couple of dunks he got early, he became a fan favorite and the players wanted to see him do well too."

PAUL WESTPHAL, SACRAMENTO KINGS

"It's probably a little less prevalent because of Europe. The players who might otherwise have come in and made a splash, if they get something guaranteed over there, the timing is such that they can't take a crack at the NBA. They've got a guaranteed contract and why should they take a chance on coming in and doing something here on a make-good basis? So some of those players who would have broken through are playing over in Europe.

"It depends on what you mean by below-the-radar, too. Most good teams don't count on a second-round pick, but a lot of times they end up starting and having a better career than guys picked ahead of them."

SCOTT SKILES, MILWAUKEE BUCKS

"With scouting and technology now -- literally all over the world -- you end up knowing everybody. That doesn't mean you don't underestimate somebody. Maybe a guy comes to camp and you think, 'Wow, he's a little better than I thought.' But there just aren't that many [unknown] guys anymore. We tape the D League games. You can just sit around and watch everybody play, so when you invite a guy to camp, you have a feel already.

In the past, you wouldn't know them.

"Unfortunately for those guys who are right on the cusp, a lot of teams have either a full roster or maybe one spot going into camp. Then the rationale is, 'Well, we only have one spot, we'd like to leave it open in case something happens [with other team's cuts].' But if you do have a guy for maybe five days, when you've put in the foundation of the stuff you're going to do, if something happens [during the season], that's one of the first guys you're going to look at. If you liked the guy, maybe you bring the guy in. And maybe he comes back next year when you might have a roster spot."

ERIK SPOELSTRA, MIAMI HEAT

"It just depends on the degree that somebody surprises you. That's why it's important to go into each camp with an open mind. For example, if we have 18 names up on our board, I know that down at the end -- at 12, 13, 14, 15 -- there's probably going to be somebody who jumps out and says, 'I'm going to be on this team.'

"I remember three years ago when we had [undrafted center] Joel Anthony. We had him there in summer league to be a practice player, really, but he made our summer league, played well in a couple of games, earned an invite to camp. Again, we all thought he'd be the first cut of training camp, but he surprised us and impressed us enough that he made the team. Now three years later, he has a chance to be a starter on a real special team."

SCOTT BROOKS, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

"If it's dying, I'm going to always try to keep it alive. Because in 1988, I was that person. I was that guy that nobody knew. [Philadelphia coach] Jimmy Lynum saw something and he liked it, and he kept me. If I wasn't on that team with that staff, I would have never made it. Jimmy saw something that the other 22 coaches in the NBA at that time probably wouldn't have liked. I was backing up Maurice Cheeks and they needed that hustler, a guy who's going to not turn the ball over.

"A good example last year was [Wesley] Matthews in Utah. I thought he was good and tough and had a lot of intangibles to make a team, but he not only made that team, he started and played well into the playoffs and got rewarded [by Portland with a five-year, $34 million contract].

"We have three guys we're bringing in who are pretty competitive [Elijah Millsap, Jerome Dyson, Tweety Carter]. I don't know if they're going to make it this year, but they all have NBA ability. Three tough kids who all play hard -- you're only going to make it if you play hard and leave it on the floor every practice, every drill. Even warm-ups. We have an eight-minute warm-up drill and I tell our guys, 'It's not a warm-up drill for you. You have to be going full speed in warm-ups if you want to catch the coach's or the general manager's eye.' The veterans are using that as a warm-up, which they should. But when I played, I got there early enough before practice that I was ready to go."

JERRY SLOAN, UTAH JAZZ

"You see [surprises] both ways: One's good, one's not so good. But I don't think it's rare. Look at the number of guys who have come up from the D-League. They get out there and have a chance to prove themselves and make themselves better. I think that's what a lot of players lack, some know-how of how to play at an early stage, and that's something they can learn if they work at it. Maybe somebody cuts them at the beginning, but if they stick with it, there's always an opportunity. We've had a lot of second-round picks hwo have layed well, going back to Bryon Russell, David Benoit and Howard Eisley, of course Paul Millsap and the kid we had last year, Wesley Matthews.

"A coach can see whether somebody can compete. The bottom line is, will they hold up for you? A lot of kids play well in camp because they're on a day-to-day basis and they probably know that. It's the guy who can come back when things don't go right -- you see how they do, how they perform after they've had a few problems. A lot of guys fall off after the first couple of weeks. Some guys go a little longer. And some guys just need the experience of playing and learning how to be tough enough to play."

GEORGE KARL, DENVER NUGGETS

"The thing that's hurting it, in my mind, is more and more teams aren't putting 14 or 15 guys on the roster. That part of the totem pole has shrunk. I think also Europe, maybe not this year but in past years, has become competitive for those guys as well.

"We've had some good stories in Denver. Dahntay Jones, we picked him up and started him. He's had a good run since then. They've been reincarnated a little bit. Chris Andersen -- we're in the middle of [summer] and we don't even know who our third big is going to be, and we find Chris Andersen. He kind of rehabbed himself. That was a great get.

"So the ability to get a guy who was out of the league -- Dahnte was in the D-League and didn't play most of one year -- I actually see more of them being more successful. A guy like Anthony Parker coming back from Europe. There seem to be [players] really identifying with the second opportunity. Maybe he plays with more humbleness, more hunger. Being humbled is always a positive thing if you're strong. Once you get through it."

MIKE D'ANTONI, NEW YORK KNICKS

"I think the scouting is so much better that we don't overlook them. And the ones who can do it are already under contract. They'll always pop up, but not as much as they used to. There's always that possibility -- hopefully we've got one guy [Russian center Timofey Mozgov] who was overlooked. He's 24 years old and was unsigned.

"So there's still guys out there. but once you find them, you usually have to sign them. There's not, like, the sleeper-sleepers. Once they start looking good, even in preliminary workouts, they're going to find a contract someplace. You don't have a chance to slide them under the radar. Before, a guy overseas, you might not see or know anything about. Now with all the blogs and Internet, everybody knows everybody else's business."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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