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Letters from Limbo
From the moment a player gets called-up to the NBA, he's auditioning to prove he belongs. It can get a little stressful.
When Dee Brown was a coach in the NBA Development League, he used to tell players bound for the NBA one thing.
“Don’t come back.”
Brown, the NBA legend and current Detroit Pistons assistant, had one player – JamesOn Curry – earn the call-up during his two years at the helm of the Springfield Armor. And before Curry got the call from the Clippers in January 2010, Brown issued some words of guidance to his team.
After years spent trying to crack into the NBA, Walker Russell, Jr. has made his time with the Pistons count so far.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
“I told the guys during our team meeting, ‘I really enjoy you guys, but if I never see you again it wouldn’t bother me. If you get called up, don’t come back – not that I don’t like you or anything,’” Brown said.
Easier said than done, of course. Curry’s stay with the Clips lasted only six days, and he’s now back with the Armor, playing for another shot. But Brown’s words hint at a reality that often goes forgotten: an NBA call-up guarantees nothing.
The call-up is the crown jewel of the NBA Development League. But for the players who get it, a call-up is just the beginning. They’ll hop a flight to meet their NBA team, throw on an NBA jersey with their name stitched tight across the shoulders and then proceed to spend days or weeks or (if things align) months very much aware of the fact that they’re hanging somewhere between The Dream and, as Walker Russell, Jr. put it, the drawing board.
“It’s not just about getting the call,” said Russell, the 29-year-old former Fort Wayne Mad Ants guard who got the call-up to the Detroit Pistons on Jan. 20. “It’s about getting the call and proving yourself.”
The usual process goes something like this: Answer the phone. Hear a voice on the other end tell you that your dream’s coming true. Freak out. Pack. Then, before you have a chance to really full grasp what’s going on, hop a flight to your the NBA team at the next location, learn the offensive and defensive sets in half an hour or so and then spend every moment auditioning and doing everything possible to keep from going back.
From the time a player earns the call-up, he has one real job: Perform.
And Russell, who finished Wednesday with a season-high 12 points, along with two assists and six boards in the Pistons’ loss to the Nets, has spent the past two weeks doing just that.
“Walker’s been great,” said Pistons coach Lawrence Frank. “I tell you, he’s a breath of fresh air. He can play. He’s an NBA player. He has leadership skills about him, he appreciates the opportunity, he has great energy and enthusiasm. He’s got a super attitude. He’s a really good person, and a good call-up. He works his tail off. You always love to reward good people, and Walker’s good people.”
Walker spent a good chunk of Wednesday’s game matched up with Sundiata Gaines, the Nets’ two guard and de facto face of the NBA D-League (after he sank a game-winning 3-pointer on the final day of his 10-day contract with the Jazz in 2010, then made himself an NBA fixture).
“Sundiata Gaines is a prime example of a guy that went through it,” Brown said. “He got the opportunity, and he made the most of it.”
But Gaines’ story is exceptional because it tends to be, well, the exception. Wednesday’s game took place just hours after Gaines teammate Larry Owens – who’d been called up by the Nets from the Tulsa 66ers – was waived to create a roster spot for new Nets signee Keith Bogans, showing just how quickly the NBA dream can recede again.
“There’s a lot of pressure [in the first few weeks],” Gaines said. “My main thing was to just go out and try to play hard – try to do something on the team that helps the team. The little stuff.”
“If it’s being an assists guy, if it’s being the best cheerleader on the bench, you gotta find your value for that team,” Brown said. “Not your role, because when you’re there it happens so quick you don’t have a role, you’re just kind of filling holes. It’s about what you’re doing to help your team win.”
Or, in other words, what Walker Russell’s doing.
He’s already logging far more minutes than the usual call-up, averaging 18 minutes a game through his first eight. Meanwhile, his skill set – pass-first, pass-second and shoot-only-in-case-of-emergency – has translated to the NBA game. In only his sixth NBA game (a game in which he logged a season-high 25 minutes), he led the team in assists (five, against the Sixers on Jan. 28), and came back with six in a loss to the Bucks two nights later, which tied him for a team-high with Rodney Stuckey.
“I consider myself a true point guard,” Russell said. “A lot of point guards in the NBA, they’re combo. … I’m always a pass-first, shoot-second kind of guy. Now the guys are starting to get used to that with me -- they’re not waiting. They know by now that Walker’s gonna pass.”
On Wednesday, he even showed a bit of a scoring touch, beating the Nets defense off the dribble when they gave him the lane and sticking a three from the corner when nobody came out to cover him.
And this all comes as Russell, who’d already played all or parts of four NBA Development League seasons – with some stints in Europe stirred into the mix – told himself before the season started that this would be his last year in the NBA D-League.
He could make a lot more money overseas, so the guy who’d dreamed about playing in the NBA since “his mother’s womb” (as he joked on Wednesday) had resigned himself to the idea that if this wasn’t the year, he’d just put the dream on the bench and carve out a career away from the NBA: “if it doesn’t happen it doesn’t happen.”
Then he got the call. And he’s making it happen.
“His job is to stay here,” Brown said. “He doesn’t want to go back there to Fort Wayne.”
“Everything was a whirlwind for me,” said. “I got the call that night, flew into Memphis in the morning and played that night. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”