can encapsulate why Jack Cooley has been a fan favorite at every one of his stops across the NBA, G-League and overseas, it’s his relentless motor and ferocious hustle in the closing minutes of blowout victory on April 1, 2015.
The 6-foot-9 forward – then of the Utah Jazz – still smiles when he recounts muscling his way inside to score on a put-back off his own miss, and then sprinting the length of the court to reject a transition dunk attempt by Nuggets guard Gary Harris.
His teammates jumped off the bench in celebration, and All-Defense First Team center Rudy Gobert even gave him a well-deserved salute.
It’s no wonder then, why Kings fans began chanting “MVP” from the rafters at the Thomas & Mack Center not long after No. 45 stepped on the court during 2017 Las Vegas Summer League action.
In his first appearance, Cooley provided an instant spark off the bench – notching an 11-point, 10-rebound double-double – and left Las Vegas on a similarly positive note with 13 points and 11 boards in the team’s finale. In five contests in Sin City, the undrafted free agent averaged 9.2 points on 64 percent from the field and 6.6 rebounds per game, his positive impact most evident by his team-leading +27 plus/minus.
“I just bring intensity,” he said. “All the coaches I’ve played for know that when they put me on the court – whether it’s 30 seconds, three minutes, 12 minutes – that I’ll give 100 percent of what I have every time I’m out there. They know I’m going to go out there and be tough, and be the best rebounder on the court, regardless of who we’re playing. I’m going to bring a level of physicality that’s appropriate and necessary to be in the NBA.”
Cooley’s rugged style of play caught the eye of no less than four NBA organizations, but his familiarity and affinity for the Kings coaching staff from their shared time in Memphis made the decision easy. The big man signed a two-way contract with the Kings on July 29, which allows him to spend up to 45 days on Sacramento’s roster and the remainder of the 2017-18 season on the team’s G-League affiliate, the Reno Bighorns.
“I actually had a free agent workout with (the Kings) two days after I got back from (playing in) Germany,” he said. “I wouldn’t have done that for any other team. I just love the Kings organization. I love all the coaches – they’re the best I’ve dealt with in all my time playing.”
The 26-year-old has no disillusions about his role or expected playing time on a deep Kings roster. But when he steps foot on the court, whether it’s an early-morning practice or a primetime matchup, players on both sides take notice.
A throwback big man, Cooley occupies the paint, fights his way into position and attacks the basket. According to NBA.com, over the course of his G-League career, nearly two-thirds of his shot attempts came from within the restricted area, on which he converted a nearly-automatic 73 percent.
Inspired by a former NBA Defensive Player of the Year, the undrafted Notre Dame product has utilized his burly frame and court awareness to boxout opponents and convert on crucial second-chance opportunities, collecting 23 percent of available rebounds while on the floor for the Idaho Stampede.
“I remember when I was in high school going into college, I was watching Joakim Noah play for the Bulls, and he never took any possession off,” said Cooley. “(Synergy Sports) started tracking players who work the hardest, and he was far and away No. 1. Seeing (how) Joakim Noah wins games, but doesn’t drop 40 (points), I felt I could do that … So that (helped me) realize that at the pro level in the NBA, my role would be helping teams win through energy.”
It’s only fitting that Cooley’s uncanny ability to leave a lasting imprint purely though his toughness and hustle is reminiscent of a past Kings fan favorite.
“Funnily enough, two years ago, Jon Brockman played in Germany for the team I played for last year,” Cooley said with a chuckle. “He ended up retiring, and they literally brought me in his exact role. The way he plays is very similar to the way I play, and it’s fantastic to be compared to him.”
Cooley’s infectious passion initially lead to Summer League stints with the Rockets and Grizzlies in 2013, and eventually, his first training camp invite from Utah a year later.
In between, the Evanston, Ill. native found himself playing professional basketball in the Turkish Basketball League, homesick in a three-story townhouse on the outskirts of Trabzonspor.
Luckily, his landlords needed a dog sitter for their French bulldog, Lola. The pair formed an instant bond, and when Cooley returned to the states to resume his NBA dream, his canine companion stayed right by his side.
“It took three days for her to start trusting me, and once she learned I wasn’t going to hurt her, she fell in love with me,” he said. “She’d been abused – they made her live outside and didn’t take care of her properly – so, I ended up telling them, ‘I’m taking the dog when I leave.’”
Shortly after Lola made it safely across the border to move in with Cooley’s parents, the then-Stampede forward was out on a long walk with the dog in the fall of 2014, when he looked down at his phone to discover eight missed calls from his agent and another half-dozen from his father.
Utah, after releasing him prior to the start of the 2014-15 regular season, called-up Cooley from Boise, at last validating his NBA journey.
“I just started bawling immediately,” he said. “It was very emotional for me. It had been a dream come true. When you’re a little kid, you’re always like, ‘Oh, I can play in the NBA.’ It all just flowed over me, and I was just losing it.”
Although his first 10-day contract expired without an extension, Cooley was in a Jazz uniform less than two weeks later – but not before taking his frustrations out on hapless G-League opponents.
Cooley averaged 21.8 points and 20 rebounds during a dominant four-game stretch, setting a G-League record with 29 rebounds to go along with a career-high 27 points against the Los Angeles D-Fenders on March 13, 2015.
“When they sent me down, I told my agent, 'I’m going to make it so they have to bring me back up,'” he said.
“My goal every game is to break that (rebounding) record. I go out there with that mindset every day.”
In 16 games with the Jazz, Cooley averaged a modest 1.7 points and 1.6 rebounds in 5.4 minutes per outing. Extrapolated over 36 minutes, his full stat-line is much more indicative of his oftentimes overlooked contributions: 11.2 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 1.2 blocks.
After a brief preseason stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, as well as another go-around with the Stampede, Cooley returned overseas to join Unicaja of the Liga ACB in Spain 2015-16.
Last season, the veteran forward helped lead the Chicago Bulls to the 2016 Summer League title, before finding himself boarding another cross-country flight, this time to Stuttgart Airport in Germany. Cooley racked up 13.2 points and 6.9 rebounds in 19.2 minutes per game for MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg, connecting on
over an impressive three-game stretch in the Basketball Champions League.
All the while, Cooley was certain his hard work wouldn’t go unnoticed by NBA scouts, and few places could present a better opportunity than Sacramento.
“I turned down an offer from overseas...just because this is such a great opportunity with such a great coaching staff,” he said. “My goal is to play against the best, and this is such a great way to improve myself as a basketball player, as well. I’m extremely blessed and I’m very excited.”