Success rarely comes in a straight line. DeMarre Carroll knows. Drafted in the first round in 2009, he was traded in his second season, waived mid-season in his third. It wasn’t until he landed in Atlanta, his fifth team in five seasons, that things came together.
“You never know when your opportunity is going to come in this league,” said Carroll. “People look at it and always think the worst. Might be the 15th man on the roster, or might not even be dressing. Injuries happen. Lot of things happen. When you’re young, you don’t understand that.
“My opportunity was in Utah. I was behind the bench for half the year. Three guys got hurt in the San Antonio game. I came in that game, hit four threes. Crazy how Mike Budenholzer, he remembered that game particularly, and he brought me to Atlanta, and he allowed me to be a starting small forward for his team.”
That particular move on Carroll’s winding journey set him on a path, eventually, for Brooklyn. It was in Atlanta that he connected with Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, then a Hawks assistant. In Brooklyn, the 31-year-old Carroll shares a locker room with plenty of players who are at different stages of the course he traveled. They’ve been doubted and discarded, and it drives the way they practice and play today.
“I think that’s part of why we have that competitive fire,” said Atkinson. “Guys that aren’t four-year contracts and sometimes can relax a little bit. For the most part with our guys there’s no relax in those type of guys. None of us have done anything in this league, except for Timy (Mozgov) won a championship, DeMarre’s been to a conference final, then the rest of us, me included, we’re trying to make it.”
Spencer Dinwiddie and Quincy Acy were in the G League before being signed by the Nets. Joe Harris was in limbo, traded and waived in the midst of his second NBA season and looking for another shot. Jahlil Okafor and Nik Stauskas were in Philly, but apparently not in the plans, waiting to see what would happen next.
When you have a half-dozen players in your locker room that have had that experience, it informs the personality of the team.
“All the guys here have a chip on their shoulder,” said Okafor. “We’ve all come from another scenario and we’re all here and we feel like we got a fresh start, or the majority of us at least, and we’re all doing the best to make the most out of it.”
That phrase – “chip on their shoulder” – is something heard often from Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks over the past two years. They use it to describe a lot of the players they’ve acquired. It’s a trait they appreciate. It’s a trait they seem to seek out.
“I think you have to have that in order to have success in the NBA,” said Harris. “It’s too difficult. There are too many guys coming up every single year. There’s a whole new crew of 60 guys getting picked. There’s constant young talent that’s coming into the NBA. No matter where you’re at in your career, the guys that have been able to stick around, people like DeMarre, for him to make it, play for that long, he’s got the same traits that he had when he was clawing his way in, and now he’s made it, but he still has the exact same personality, that chip on his shoulder, that competitive edge.”
Harris is among the players following Carroll’s lead. In his fourth NBA season, he’s posting career highs across the board, pushing the 40-percent shooting mark from 3-point range that he declared as a goal before the season. Dinwiddie has been a revelation at the point, a sure-handed floor general with the ability to break out for big scoring games and a knack for pressure shots.
“The way we practice, the culture we bring here, is opportunity,” said Carroll. “Take advantage of the opportunity, be a competitive team. That’s what it’s teaching these guys. You never know when that’s going to happen. Who will say Spencer would be the player he is now if D’Angelo (Russell) didn’t get hurt, if Jeremy Lin didn’t get hurt. He’s taken advantage of his opportunity.
“I think in this league, that’s what you must do. It’s a must. If you don’t take advantage of opportunity, you can only look at yourself. It might be five games, it might be 10 games, it might be one game. But there’s 29 other teams out there that’s looking at you, and observing you, on a daily basis. Even your own franchise. I feel like you’ve just got to be ready for your opportunity.”
It's not just the second-chance crew. Young Nets like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and Russell are all trying to claim their place. It’s a roster full of players with something to prove.
“Whenever we win games, it’s because we were gritty and because of our personality as a whole,” said Acy. “I think a lot of times when we lose games, we kind of get complacent and we haven’t made it anywhere, so we can’t get complacent in any shape or form. We’ve got to do what got us here. We’ve got to approach every game with that same grit and toughness and identity. That just has to be our identity every time we take the floor.”