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Behind the Smile

Zach Andrews' game has brought him to the cusp of the NBA. His life's brought him to the brink and back.

They have.

They’ve said it in Spain – where Andrews started his pro career after graduating from Bradley in 2007. They’ve said it in Turkey and Bosnia and Japan, too, where his travels also took him. They said it at L.A. D-Fenders tryouts this year, where Andrews’ passion and play convinced a skeptical L.A. staff that they had a place for him.

“The things he did in training camp were impressive,” Millsap said. “I was surprised he didn’t make the Lakers team.”

“He’s super-athletic,” said D-Fenders guard Orien Greene, a veteran of 131 NBA games. “He was jumping over Antoine Walker the other day, and that’s not easy.”

Andrews' skills improved quickly, to the point where he became a walking highlight reel at Bradley -- and he's only kept getting better in L.A. this year.

But it took some time.

Andrews excelled at football in high school, where, as a 6-foot-6 wideout, he could rely on just jumping over people. Basketball took some nuance. Some work. And because Andrews finally had some stability and a sense that his world wasn’t just going to vanish again – and his work blown away – he could put the requisite time in. And in those years, he developed a work ethic that’s stayed with him today.

“[Without them] I think I’d be very lazy,” he said. “Like, saying ‘I don’t want to do this, and the result being right back into possibly trying drugs, being with different women, and having children. I’ve got real close.”

By the time he finished high school, he’d made himself into an elite big man, scoring 22.5 points with 11.5 rebounds a game in his senior year at Cordova High. But his grades weren’t there yet, so the big colleges stayed away.

Which opened the door for Yuba Community College head coach Doug Cornelius to swoop in and extend Andrews an opportunity.

Over two years at Yuba, Andrews went on to earn Bay Valley East All-Conference honors after leading the league with 10.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game in his sophomore season, a year in which he led Yuba to the most wins (24-7) in program history. By the spring of 2005, he’d earned his Associate’s degree.

“There was a time in my senior year where I didn’t know what was gonna happen,” he said. “I had no idea what I was gonna do after high school. I didn’t think I was smart enough to go to college.”

Two years later, he graduated from Bradley College with a Bachelor’s degree in theater, having led the Braves to two straight 22-win seasons, including a run to the Sweet 16 in 2006. In 67 career games in Peoria, Andrews set the school’s all-time record for field goal percentage (.621), picking up 8.4 points and 6.0 rebounds per game.

He went immediately overseas, starting in Spain. And until he came back to California last summer, in anticipation of a trip to the NBA D-League – and, if things went as planned, an NBA Call-Up – he didn’t play pro ball in America again.

I had no idea what I was gonna do after high school. I didn’t think I was smart enough to go to college.

Zach Andrews

But this year, he said, he needed to come home. He wasn’t getting the opportunities he wanted abroad, and it wasn’t hard to see the benefit of playing in the D-League during a lockout-shortened (and, thus, prospect-friendly) NBA season.

And if he doesn’t let on about his past, ever since he returned to the States, it’s been clear just how much the idea of a From still informs his game.

He didn’t play a starring role on the D-Fenders this year, but that’s only because the team had other players – scorers like Gerald Green, Jamario Moon and Elijah Millsap – to occupy the spotlight. Andrews was just content to do everything else, including the stuff nobody else felt like doing. Over the course of 44 regular-season games with L.A., he finished 10th in the league in rebounds per 48 minutes (13.8), ahead of GATORADE Call-Ups Malcolm Thomas, Jeff Foote, Dennis Horner, and Greg Smith.

He also finished the year with one of the league’s top 15 Net Ratings, a measure of how much better a player makes a team when he’s on the court, versus on the bench.

“I see why he has so much passion,” Millsap said. “He puts his heart into the game, grabs rebounds, does everything coach asks him to do.

“I think Zach’s gonna go into the NBA and do the dirty work,” he continued. “The guys that come to mind are guys like Big Baby … Zach’s not gonna give you 20-25 points per game, but he will give you 10 points a game on his energy and effort alone.”

Basketball’s always been a release for him.

“If I am mad, it’s only on the court,” he said. “And when that game’s done, I leave it on the court. It’s a different kind of anger when I leave it on the court. It’s a positive energy. It’s a negative energy that on the court changes into a positive energy I can use to get better.”

There are people that come from perfect upbringings, with two-parent homes that come from well-to-do environments – private schools and all that – and Zach’s a testament that it’s what’s inside of you that matters.

Eric Musselman

And he’s gotten better. Better by little bits and better by leaps over the course of the season, his coach said. He’s focused his energy into the details, polishing up the aspects of his game that he’d always just relied on his athleticism for. And as he’s done so, he’s grown into a threat not to just make it to the NBA, but to stay up there.

“He’s an amazing story,” Musselman said. “There are people that come from perfect upbringings, with two-parent homes that come from well-too-do environments – private schools and all that – and Zach’s a testament that it’s what’s inside of you that matters.

“He’s the type of guy where you can’t put anything behind him, because he’s gonna figure out a way to come out on top.”

And one day, when he’s on top, he knows the From will come back. He’s already offering his help to the California foster system to help talk to kids walking the same, lonesome path he took. But the big moment’s still ahead, he believes, because for some reason, he can’t shake the feeling that when he has kids, they’ll have friends who were just like him.

“I want the ability to say that you can eat here anytime you want, that we have extra blankets,” he said. “If we go on a trip to Disneyworld, I wanna say it’s OK when my son or daughter says can so-and-so come.

“I want them to have that love I never really had, even though their mom or dad is struggling,” he said. “That’s the kind of parent I see myself being, thanks to the people that brought me up.”

Even if he never plays a minute the NBA, Andrews has already won. The NBA is the stated goal, of course, but what it’s always signified is a life of freedom and stability. A life that started in chaos finishing under control.

He already has those things, though. He’s had help in getting there – crucial, life-altering help from the many who’ve taken him into their homes and hearts over the years. But he’s also done much of it himself. And in reaching this point, in living a life of his choosing, he’s done something few men of any background have managed: he’s broken free from fate.

“I’m the best kind of example for kids growing up in the foster care system because we’ve all been told we wouldn’t amount to anything better than what we are – that we need to accept who we are, and that’s not necessarily true,” he said.

He paused.

“In fact I’m sorry, that’s not true at all.”

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