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Undrafted rookies weigh options to pursue dream

Former Davidson player Tyler Kalinoski ultimately chose European route as a way to get into the NBA

POSTED: Aug 14, 2015 12:26 PM ET
UPDATED: Aug 17, 2015 2:46 PM ET

By Ian Thomsen

BY Ian Thomsen

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Tyler Kalinoski, who played for the Miami Heat Summer League team, worked his way up the ranks at Davidson where he became an all-conference performer. He will have to work his way into the NBA by starting his journey in France.

He was sitting in a corner of the bright lobby of the Four Seasons hotel. It was serving as a headquarters for NBA Summer League last month in Las Vegas, and he had a view of everyone passing by: Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts, Cavaliers assistant Jim Boylan and Jahlil Okafor, the 76ers' potential rookie of the year.

For Tyler Kalinoski it was like being invited inside the VIP ropes. He was part of their league. For now.

"I don't know if scary is the right word,'' he was saying. "It's a game of chess, of making the right moves. You never know what is going to be the right decision.''

Kalinoski, a high-energy 6-4 guard, was used to exceeding expectations. As Davidson's final recruit four years ago -- discovered at the last minute when a higher-rated player failed to qualify academically -- he had risen to become the Atlantic 10 player of the year while contributing in all areas. He had always seemed to know where he was going, even if others failed to recognize his potential. But this next step was something different.

"In college you know where you're going to be,'' Kalinoski said. "But now, really for the first time in my life, I have no idea what I'm going to be doing next year. So it's exciting because of all the possibilities. But I'm also getting kind of anxious about where I'm going to be.''

He was surrounded by all kinds of virtual doorways. Several of them led directly to a variety of career paths in Europe -- two professional clubs in Belgium, one in Italy, another in France. Those clubs were pursuing him, and he was grateful for their interest; but at the same time, what intrigued him most of all were the less-welcoming portals that might lead to a career in the NBA. He had gone undrafted in June, he knew the NBA was a longshot, and still he did not want to walk away from the possibility.

He was 22 years old, with a face that looked even younger. He was wearing with pride the red cap and T-shirt that had been supplied by his Summer League team, the Miami Heat. He was setting out on his own with more questions than answers.

Was he going to go play in Europe? Or hold out for the NBA?

"Sometime this week I will have an idea of who wants me, and which way I'm going to be leaning -- and which way these teams will be leaning,'' Kalinoski was saying on the opening week of Summer League in Las Vegas. "Hopefully in these next four or five days I will have an idea where I will be.''

Europe or NBA Dreams

"That would be great,'' said Kenny Grant, his agent.

Grant had identified and signed Kalinoski as an exemplary client based on his potential to play on either side of the Atlantic. Grant himself had spent three decades in Europe as a player, coach and agent for all kinds of clients (from any number of countries) before he moved back to his native New York.

"The ideal player for us is someone who is borderline NBA,'' said Grant. "Maybe we get him into the NBA -- but that's also the kind of guy who has value in Europe. The teams in Europe want the guy who is right there with a chance to make the NBA but doesn't make it.''

One of Grant's specialties was to help young American players make the most complicated decision: To choose the fork in the road that separated the dream of playing in the NBA from the reality of a career in Europe. The strategy for Kalinoski entering his first summer of professional basketball was to create maximum exposure on both sides of the ocean. Summer League was the perfect venue because it was swarming with European coaches and executives in addition to the host NBA teams.

"We are willing to ride with whatever Tyler wants to do,'' Grant said. "We give our advice, but we respect that people have their dream. If it works, if it doesn't work, we're okay with it either way. We will go forward with what we have. You don't want someone to go forward with regrets.''

During the opening weekend of Summer League in Orlando, the coach of the French club Elan Chalon wanted to speak with Kalinoski. Their meeting went well, and Chalon became Kalinoski's most aggressive and persistent recruiter.

"Some people go to Europe and they're really happy playing there,'' Grant said. "Others, it's not for them. With these European teams, if you don't show interest, they're gone. This is not like college where you can wait and pick your team. This is different. If the team thinks you're not interested, they're not going to wait around.

"If this is not resolved in four or five days, I think the offers that he has had will begin to disappear.''

One break leads to Davidson shot

The last-second shot was the culmination of four frantic years of improvement. After arriving at Davidson as a fill-in, Kalinoski had earned 17.4 minutes per game as a freshman by not looking for his own shot.

"If I did the little things - play defense and rebound -- I was going to get more time on the floor,'' he said. He practiced the preachings of legendary coach Bob McKillop -- play for the sake of teammates, make quick decisions with the ball -- and earned a progressively greater role while Davidson won regular-season conference championships all four years.

Davidson was picked to finish 12th in the Atlantic 10 last season after upgrading from the Southern Conference. The Wildcats instead went 23-6 while Kalinoski ranked among the top five of their new conference in points (16.7), assists (4.1), three-pointers (2.8 per game while shooting 42.3%) and assist/turnover ratio (3.0) -- while also averaging 5.7 rebounds. His season peaked in the conference quarterfinal: The Wildcats had been trailing by 18 before they ran off the final 10 points, the last of them coming on Kalinoski's lunging lefty drive over two LaSalle defenders for the 67-66 win.

"I looked over at coach and saw he wasn't calling timeout,'' Kalinoski said. "It's one of those things that when you get comfortable and confident in yourself, you want the ball in that situation.''

And then, in the aftermath of that celebration, his college career ended. Davidson lost its next two games, including a first-round NCAA defeat, and overnight Kalinoski went from focusing on his team to zeroing in on himself and his future.

He trained with Accelerate Basketball in Charlotte to prepare for the demands of the NBA workouts. He made his debut in June during a group audition for the Utah Jazz. The experience was strange. He returned home to Charlotte and then flew out again. There would be more workouts with Houston, Philadelphia, Oklahoma City, Detroit and other teams. The drills tended to be the same. He became more comfortable with the format. He realized that what they wanted to measure most of all was his passion.

"There is a lot of competitiveness in the family,'' said Kalinoski. His father Scott Kalinoski played football at Purdue; uncle Dave Ford played baseball for the Baltimore Orioles; grandfather Ron Ward played hockey for the Toronto Maple Leafs; aunt Pamela Kalinoski won four NCAA soccer championships with North Carolina alongside Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly; and another grandfather, Ken Kalinoski, ran track at Ohio State. Both of his sisters have starred in volleyball.

"My dad has always been there coaching me and teaching me life lessons,'' Kalinoski said. "Those are the two things I learned from growing up in an athletic family: Be a leader and be real tough in everything you do.''

I think he is right there on the brink of being a 14th or 15th guy on an NBA roster. In the right system, under the right coaching, he could possibly come in and give you impact minutes.

– Heat summer league coach Dan Green on Kalinoski

He grew up to be the type who didn't worry about scoring but didn't pass up the open shots either; a leader who congratulated the teammate responsible for setting the screen or making the hockey assist. And so it was no coincidence that Miami offered him a Summer League opportunity: Because his values were the same as the Heat's values. Grant liked the idea of linking up with Miami because the Heat were enrolled in both the Orlando and Las Vegas leagues, which would give Kalinoski more exposure.

Kalinoski would average 20 minutes and shoot 46.2% in four games at Orlando, and he would continue to play well in the next two games at Las Vegas.

"A guy with his skill-set is intriguing,'' said Dan Craig, who was coaching the Heat in Summer League. "I think he is right there on the brink of being a 14th or 15th guy on an NBA roster. In the right system, under the right coaching, he could possibly come in and give you impact minutes.''

Kalinoski knew he had the Summer League offer from Miami before he sat down with a few friends to watch the NBA Draft in June. He didn't expect to be picked, but he was disappointed all the same. As much as he tried to focus on the make-good stories of undrafted free agents -- Matthew Dellavedova of the Cavaliers being the most recent success story -- Kalinoski couldn't help but think that he was better than some who had been chosen at his expense. The next morning he was back in the gym and pushing himself harder.

A different style in Europe

"The most important thing is finding players who have the poise and the intelligence to understand the difference of international basketball compared to the basketball over here,'' said Maurizio Gherardini, an Italian who had become the NBA's first European executive as assistant GM and VP of the Toronto Raptors; he was serving now in Istanbul as GM of Fenerbahce Ulker, which last season became the first Turkish club to reach the Euroleague Final Four.

"It is a more physical game,'' Gherardini went on. "In the nice way, it is a dirtier game, with more tricks, especially with the physical contact under the basket -- the pushing, the grabbing, the way you use the pick. Basketball IQ plays a very important role, because in general there is more pressure.''

There are a variety of tournaments and championships during the European season amid a shorter schedule than the NBA's, which means that every game in Europe means more than the typical NBA game. The fans tend to be more passionate, the coaches can be fired after a brief losing streak, and the players are replaced with alarming frequency.

"So it is very important that a young player learns very, very quickly how to manage the pressure,'' Gherardini said. "That is why managing the pressure is almost as important as learning how to avoid traveling, because traveling is also called in a different way. There are a lot of significant adjustments that you need to learn in order to be effective in Europe.''

Gherardini had been scouting and signing American players since the 1970s, when NBA Summer League was held in Los Angeles. Now dozens of his international colleagues were attending Summer League in Las Vegas.

Gherardini was scouring the Summer League rosters for a pair of big men that he might recruit to Istanbul. Coach Vincenzo Esposito, on the other hand, was seeking as many as three or four players for his club in Italy, Pistoia Basket 2000. The presence of so many foreign coaches and executives has created a huge shadow market in Summer League.

"Right now they're still thinking they can make the NBA team,'' Esposito said of potential European pros like Kalinoski. ``So right now you contact them to tell them that you are interested, but you have to wait until the end of the summer break to ink the deal sometimes.''

Grant was in contact with Chalon every few days. The French team was still interested in Kalinoski as his three-point shooting grew less impressive. Having suffered a groin injury in Las Vegas, he was suddenly in the throes of a shooting slump. What was bad for Kalinoski's NBA hopes was good for the team that wanted him to come to Europe.

Moving ahead to Europe

The plane for France left on Tuesday.

"I am absolutely excited to get over there and get started,'' Kalinoski was saying by phone a few days before he launched his new career.

He had originally negotiated the Chalon contract with an ``out'' clause in case an NBA team wanted to sign him. Charlotte and Miami had been expressing interest in bringing him to training camp with the likelihood that he would wind up in the D-League. The offer in France was five times as much money as in the D-League while offering him a greater chance to play. The NBA option in his French contract expired last week.

"We actually have a lot of Davidson players that have played overseas -- and a lot that I've played with that are overseas,'' Kalinoski said. "Getting a feel from their experiences has made it comforting to me.''

Kalinoski will be living in Chalon-sur-SaƓne, in the eastern French region of Burgundy.

"I've gotten the Rosetta Stone (language lessons) for French and I'm doing it as much as I can,'' he said. "I'm definitely going to take this opportunity, not just for basketball, but for learning the culture and the language. I don't want to be one of those guys over there that plays basketball and then spends the rest of his time in the room. I want to explore and get a sense of how they live over there and learn the language as much as I can.''

The coach was known for playing fast and for providing opportunities to his foreign players. But there were no guarantees. Kalinoski was going to have to earn his playing time.

"I hope he has a very good season,'' Grant said. "And then after this season he will be able to look at his options with a more experienced eye.''

The move to Europe was not shutting the door on his ultimate dream -- if he excels overseas, Kalinoski may yet create opportunities for himself in the NBA. The future is unpredictable and exciting and full of promise, and all because it depends on his effort: He is going to play as hard as he can for as long as he can, and the dreaming is going to take care of itself.

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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