Posted Dec 29 2011 10:46AM
NEWARK, NJ -- It's a dollar-and-a-dream story.
Actually, it was more like $650 and a dream.
In June, Dennis Horner, a guy who played in Belgium and Cyprus last season, spent $650 (plus travel expenses) to try out for the NBA Development League. Six months later, Horner was making his NBA debut for the New Jersey Nets at the Prudential Center, just a two-hour drive from his home near Atlantic City.
It was a unique journey, and the dream of every guy that paid that $650. But Horner admits he really wasn't thinking this big when he made the trip to Louisville for the D-League tryout.
"I was just trying to impress the people that were there," he said, "taking baby steps."
Afterward, he felt good about how he played. He got positive feedback from the scouts that were in the gym, and his agent told him that he was going to be selected in the D-League draft. So there would be no return to Cyprus, which had to be a relief for the 23 year old.
"It was tough being away from my family," Horner said of his experience abroad. "I have a really close family. And being all the way over there was hard. It was hard on me and that's why I just wanted to pursue this."
The Springfield Armor selected Horner in the third round of the draft on Nov. 3. At 6-foot-9, he's billed as a "stretch four," a guy who can bang inside and shoot from the outside. Horner comes with ACC experience, but averaged just seven points and three rebounds in four years at NC State.
But over the next month, Armor general Milton Lee liked what he saw in Horner, enough to make him one of three Armor players invited to Nets camp in December. And from there, despite a limited amount of time to make an impression, Horner realized his NBA dream for four major reasons.
First, he benefitted from the Nets' new hybrid affiliation with the Armor. Lee doubles as the Nets' general manager for minor league operations. And because the Nets manage the Armor and plan on sending their own young players to Springfield, they have Armor coach Bob MacKinnon running Avery Johnson's system.
Second, Horner benefitted from the lockout, which delayed NBA training camps until after the D-League was well underway. So when Horner was invited to Nets camp, he was already in great shape (thanks to nearly two weeks of two-a-day practices in Springfield), had averages of 15 points and seven boards in three games, and had plenty of experience running Johnson's plays. No adjustment period. No learning curve.
Third, Horner benefitted from the dearth of forwards on the Nets' roster. General manager Billy King has his eyes set on Dwight Howard and wants the financial flexibility to acquire arguably the league's second-best player via trade or in free agency next summer. So King did not go on a spending spree when the lockout ended. He waived Travis Outlaw via the amnesty clause and held off on re-signing Kris Humphries until the Nets had already played a preseason game and Horner had already impressed them with a solid performance against the New York Knicks.
"At first, they didn't have any power forwards," Horner said. "So I felt like I was given the opportunity to show my abilities. From there, I just wanted to work hard and show them I really wanted to be here."
Most important, Horner is an NBA player because Johnson can trust him. When a coach looks down his bench, he doesn't want to see players who are going to give him gray hairs if he puts them in the game.
"He never screws up any plays," Johnson said of Horner. "He's always in the right place at the right time."
So while Horner benefitted from some unique circumstances, the Nets' final roster spot wasn't just handed to a local kid. He definitely earned it, impressing Johnson in practice and everybody else when the TV cameras were turned on.
Of the three camp invites, Horner clearly stood out in that first preseason game, filling the boxscore with four points, four rebounds, three assists and one emphatic block of Jared Jeffries in 18 minutes.
"He got open, made shots, made great passes," King said. "That's really what stood out to me. When you're in that position, you don't want to be somebody that is a clog in the wheel. You want to be smooth. And that's what he was when he was in the offense. If the shot came to him, he hit the open shot. If he had it, he made the right pass."
Nets center Brook Lopez broke his foot in the team's second preseason game. So when it came time to make their final roster cut on Dec. 23, frontline depth was a priority, and they waived veteran swingman Ime Udoka in favor of Horner, who will receive his first NBA paycheck on Jan. 1. As long as he's with the Nets, Horner will earn about $45,000 every two weeks, which is about twice as much as he would have earned all season in the D-League. And if he's still with the team on Feb. 10, his $474,000 salary will become fully guaranteed.
Horner saw his first real NBA action on Tuesday, shooting 1-for-3 in eight minutes of garbage time against the Atlanta Hawks. It wasn't quite Ricky Rubio's NBA debut, but it was a long way from that D-League tryout in June.
From New Jersey to Cyprus and back, Dennis Horner is in the right place at the right time, living out his NBA dream. And it only cost him $650, a payment which he calls "a good investment ... I guess."
It's amazing how far $650 can take you these days.
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