How young NBA players find motivation through their veteran teammates
As part of National Mentor Month in the NBA, current players reflect on league mentors
Kyle Korver leaned against a locker laughing, almost marveling at an improbable journey trekked over 17 years in the league with six different teams.
Former All-Star (2015) and NBA Sportsmanship Award winner (2015), Korver knows he didn’t make it here all alone. That’s why this month — National Mentoring Month — resonates with the Milwaukee Bucks forward as well as several other players around the NBA.
“It’s an honor to play in the NBA, and if you get a bunch of years in this league, there’s a responsibility in that of paying it forward, of showing young guys how to work, how to be a pro,” Korver explained to NBA.com. “That just kind of comes with age, and hopefully we’re doing that in every phase of life, not just basketball.”
The month of January serves as National Mentoring Month, and since 2014 the NBA has partnered with MENTOR in an effort to raise awareness about the positive power of mentoring the youth in communities all over the country.
In the smaller NBA world, players cycle in and out of the league every year at a breakneck pace. The ones who stick around for a long time almost universally credit older veteran teammates with helping them to navigate the pitfalls of the NBA — both on and off the court — while also teaching the nuances of what it takes to develop into a true professional.
That doesn’t mean vets are rolling out the red carpet to younger players, who might ultimately take their jobs.
That’s why Korver laughs reminiscing back to his relationship with former Philadelphia 76ers teammate Aaron McKie, who was 31 years old and in his 10th season when Korver entered the league as a 22-year-old rookie.
“Aaron McKie was my guy in Philly my first few years,” Korver said. “Certain guys take pride in taking the young guys under their wing and showing them the ropes, showing them how to be a pro. He was the first guy that I really like felt he was for me… until we got on the practice court. Then, he wouldn’t let me sub in for him, and he would go at me because he didn’t want me to take his minutes, right? But it was this really good, healthy combo of showing me how to work, showing me how to be a pro, but also being like, ‘Hey, but I’m not giving you my job.’ It was a really good balance of that.”
Allen Iverson was also “a big part of my early career,” Korver added. “He did a great job of giving me confidence and building me up.”
In San Antonio, where future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan served as the driving factor in establishing the franchise’s current culture of selflessness, Patty Mills and LaMarcus Aldridge are carrying the legacy forward, despite not receiving the mentorship they’ve grown accustomed to providing.
Both Mills and Aldridge started off their careers with the Portland Trail Blazers, before joining the Spurs.
“I do it now, but really didn’t have [mentorship from veterans] when I came into the league,” Aldridge said. “I came to a team that turned the page pretty quickly. We were young. Z-Bo (Zach Randolph) and all those guys left. So, we had to kind of learn through trial and error in the fire. I really didn’t have anyone to kind of take me under their wing and tell me, ‘This is what you do.’”
Mills felt the same way over his first two seasons in the NBA with the Blazers.
But then it all changed during the 2011-12 season, when Mills signed with the Spurs and entered a locker room featuring three future Hall of Famers in Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
“I don’t think I really got that until I got here to San Antonio, and I guess I didn’t really understand what it takes to be a professional and all those things that you’d get from a veteran,” Mills said. “I no doubt found that here and really dug into it. I think Timmy, Tony, Manu, all those guys had the same impact, but in their own way because all three of them were different with the way they did it. Timmy led by example. Manu did it in a way of talking about things away from the court, and Tony mentored me a little bit more on the court. I could dive into depth with all of those three guys. But then at the same time, you had guys like Matt Bonner even to an extent. He was that professional veteran that had been around for so long that he just knew what to do to get himself ready for a game. I just walked into an environment in San Antonio where I got that from so many different angles, and I just tried to soak it up as much as I could.”
Two teams, and a championship removed from an eight-year tenure with the Spurs that also featured a title in 2013-14, Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Danny Green described a similar experience in San Antonio learning from Ginobili.
“From Day 1, I tried to be a sponge and take in everything he’s done,” Green said. “He makes it look so easy, but it’s not easy. I [try] to take the things he’s done and try to add it to my game and try to find certain areas within the games to take advantage of or to try to find extra points here or defensive angles that he takes to be successful. He was kind of like the teacher of the group, the professor, the problem solver, the guy that always throws out random scenarios, a mathematician. He’s very informed, always reading up, always wanting to learn something, always trying to teach something, random facts. He’s a very high I.Q. guy on the court and off the court.”
Because of their radically different experiences from Portland to San Antonio, both Mills and Aldridge now feel it’s important to take on mentorship roles with the current Spurs.
Spurs guard Bryn Forbes said that on his first day with the team, Mills pulled him aside, “and told me that if I needed anything you can just come to me.” Undrafted out of Michigan State in 2016-17, Forbes said he’s also received plenty of mentorship from Ginobili and Rudy Gay.
“If you’ve got a little bit of knowledge, it’s your responsibility to pass that on however you can.”
“When you see new guys, young guys, and you see the determination on their faces,” Mills said before pausing. “Even before the determination, you see those question marks going on in their heads when they first walk through that door. They just don’t know what to expect from everyone else. So, the first thing you can say to someone is, ‘If you need help, I’m here. Let me know because I’ve been in your shoes. Whatever this is, I can help you through to get you on your path.’ That can definitely help that first few weeks, months even. It can be intimidating if you come in and you’re not the guy.”
Philadelphia center Al Horford understands that situation intimately, despite actually being ‘the guy’ Mills described, as the No. 3 overall pick of the Atlanta Hawks in the 2007 NBA Draft.
“Zaza Pachulia and Mike Bibby were the two guys for me, as well as Anthony Johnson. Those were the guys I leaned on in those early days,” Horford said. “Zaza was just very professional, really took care of himself well, and [I learned] just from his game and watching him how he operated, how he played. Mike Bibby was a huge help for me on the court, giving me advice pick-and-roll wise, where to get my shots, things to do. He was instrumental in that role.
“I was very lucky. I had a lot of veterans around me. It was very influential. You’re coming in and you’re learning how to be a pro, how to do it the right way. Those guys played for a lot of years in the NBA. There are always a lot of guys that have potential, but to make it a certain amount of years in the league, it takes more than just potential. You have to be professional, you have to be a good teammate, do things the right way. So now, any chance I get to talk to younger guys, I do it.”
Korver’s current teammate, Eric Bledsoe, says he does, too.
Bledsoe spent his first three years in the NBA with the LA Clippers as a first-round pick out of Kentucky. In L.A., Bledsoe played with Chris Paul, Baron Davis, and Mo Williams, as well as Grant Hill, Chauncey Billups, Lamar Odom and Caron Butler.
Bledsoe’s eyes widen when he describes the impact those veterans made on his career.
“I had some great vets to learn from,” Bledsoe told NBA.com. “That Clippers team was stacked with a bunch of Hall of Famers. Man, I learned a lot from every one of those guys. But the biggest thing I got from every one of those guys was to just be patient. They’d all tell me to be patient because my time was going to come.”
It’s here now, and Bledsoe is sharing the same advice with current teammates Donte DiVincenzo and Sterling Brown.
DiVincenzo is in his second year in the NBA, while Brown is in his third.
“I talk to them both all the time,” said Bledsoe, now in his 10th season. “Sterling doesn’t get a lot of playing [time] right now. He’s frustrated right now, but I was in the same position he was in just hungry to play. The guys I came up with would always tell me that no matter if we’re up or down, if you go in, get in there and play hard. But just know that sometimes you just have to be patient and wait your turn.”
Now in his 14th season in the NBA, Gay experienced a similar situation as a rookie in Memphis.
Damon Stoudamire was 33 in his 12th NBA season and on his third team when Gay, just 20 at the time, joined the Grizzlies. Stoudamire immediately took on a mentorship role for Gay, who was playing behind Eddie Jones at the time.
Through that experience, Gay now sees an important responsibility in growing up the next generation of NBA players.
“If you’ve got a little bit of knowledge, it’s your responsibility to pass that on however you can, especially when you’re trying to win, you’re on a team with young players and you want them to progress. You’ve got to speak up and help them.”
Just like we all need to do in helping to shape America’s youth.
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