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NBA hosts annual Rookie Transition Program for league's newcomers

The 4-day Rookie Transition Program provides tools for players to succeed in NBA life.

The Draft class of 2023 recently brought many questions to the Rookie Transition Program, a mandatory seminar for rookies.

LAS VEGAS — Dozens of future NBA players left their college campuses behind months ago and came to Summer League to hoop, only to find themselves back in a classroom this week, still taking notes.

It’s all part of the process at the NBA’s Rookie Transition Program, a four-day orientation where expert knowledge is dropped on rookies who are vaguely aware of the surreal world they’re about to enter.

It’s designed to help them understand everything that orbits around the game — money, relationships both business and personal, outside influences and other issues — and avoid the hiccups and speed-bumps that could interrupt careers, or end them prematurely.

In that sense, it’s the “summer league”‘ within the Summer League because much like the games being played in Vegas, everything about the program is geared toward preparation for next season and beyond. That’s why Ray Allen spoke to the rookies Monday about topics other than 3-point shooting. Jabari Smith Jr., fresh off his rookie season with the Rockets, detailed to them what his last 12 months were like. That’s two of several guest speakers who provided viewpoints from opposite ends of the NBA spectrum.

All questions at the Rookie Transition Program (RTP) are answered: How do you handle money? How do you process being dropped in the rotation or benched? What about expectations, both high and low? Dealing with coaches? Teammates? Media? Family members? Getting released? Becoming part of a new city and community?

The program is a joint effort by the league and NBA Players Association, and attendance is mandatory. It’s in the best interest of everyone that the transition for rookies is as glitch-free as possible. So much is at stake: careers, generational wealth, reputations and health of the teams that drafted them.

The league first held these seminars in 1986, and it was born of necessity. There were too many examples of dreams that were deferred or died because some players simply weren’t ready for what the basketball world threw at them. When the cautionary tales began to multiply, then-commissioner David Stern and the union joined forces to give incoming players a blueprint and road map while bringing in some influential voices to speak.

It’s no coincidence that today’s players rarely become grim statistics. Nothing is perfect; some will still slip through the cracks, but those examples aren’t the norm. Players know how to handle situations far better and in greater numbers than those who came before them.

“It’s so useful and beneficial,” said Smith, the No. 3 overall pick in 2022. “You’re told about everything that you eventually encounter at some point. They give you everything you need to know.”

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NBA life came fast at Smith. He saw his performance fluctuate for much of his rookie season before catching his stride after the All-Star break. His play in the Summer League has been so encouraging — 29 points including the game-winning shot Friday, then 38 Sunday — that the Rockets just shut him down for the remainder of the tournament.

Purvis Short is the Chief of Player Programs for the union who’s involved in the RTP virtually from the start. He played in a different era as one of the league’s best shooters of the 1970s and 80s with the Warriors.

“This has always been regarded as one of the most comprehensive professional sports transition programs,” Short said. “We try to cover a wide variety of topics. Our primary goal is to lay a foundation, to provide these first-year players with the necessary content and resources so that they’re able to navigate this environment.”

There’s a twist, though. The outside world has shifted over the years, with the challenges being faced and the topics being addressed in the transition program.

“Our content and our focus have changed,” Short said. “It’s imperative for us to stay on top of things that are happening now so we’re giving these kids the right information and they can have more success than what we’ve enjoyed in the past.”

For example: There was no such thing, for the most part, as social media just 10 years ago. And now? Players use it daily, and like millions of other addicts, often recklessly. All of a sudden, it’s an important topic at the RTP.

“We all recognize the dangers of social media and are always stressing to understand how to use social media to their benefit, and anything that’s put out there lives out there forever,” Short said.

Another issue that wasn’t addressed years ago: Mental health, once spoken in hushed tones everywhere. Not at the RTP, where psychologists are brought in to have those conversations.

“Mental wellness has received a lot of attention the last few years and so everybody’s in a better place to talk about it openly,” Short said. “We try to make sure our players, particularly our first-year players, have some opportunity to talk about their mental well-being. They’re introduced to all the resources that are available and that they know how to access those resources.

“We had a mental health expert talk with them about relationships,” Short said. “They’re going to be dealing with a lot of folks on a lot of levels so they’re going to have to create relationships that they didn’t have in the past.”

Social justice was another topic that was on the agenda Wednesday and Thursday.

“Several years ago players became more vocal and did some good work in that area,” Short said. “We want those things to be highlighted with the new players. NBA players can have an impact on their communities, both where they’re from and nationally. So we help explain: How do you use that platform, and how do you become engaged in the right way in things you believe in and things you want to see changed?”

And so the agenda is constantly evolving, almost on a yearly basis. The mainstay topics — financial literacy, building and maintaining positive relationships, fitness and health — never change. But now there are refreshers on how to best take advantage of … Twitter.

Jamila Wideman, who heads NBA Player Development, said the challenge for the program is to stay fresh and current. This was why the league and the union put great thought into choosing the guest speakers, engaging 20-something players and presenting it as a whole.

“While this program is for the players, it’s an incredible time for us to learn who these guys are,” Wideman said. “The players are always evolving, so we need to evolve and know how we can meet their needs.

“For us, what’s important is to recognize what voices resonate with the guys,” Wideman said. “Getting former players in front of them, current players in front of them, along with a range of folks who are going to be the community where they’ll interact. We want to speak to not only these guys playing on the court, but they’re entering the business world of basketball and explaining how those pieces work and move. We want to bring in folks who have the credibility, licenses and expertise in certain areas. Those voices are impactful.”

The attention spans at the RTP, according to those who attended, were locked in. Short is pleased with how young players, some still teenagers, are mature enough in these sessions to realize what’s at stake.

“We have their focus,” Short said. “They do want to become better and we want to provide the information that can make them better. There’s always a lot of questions.”

And what about the future of the league, Victor Wembanyama, the No. 1 overall pick who’s under the most pressure?

“He asked some wonderful questions today,” Short said. “He was engaged.”

The program is taking place at the training facility of the WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces, by design. The organizers want the rookies to understand how the NBA family goes beyond, and to realize how much of a role women have in today’s league — as coaches, trainers, in the front office and medical staffs.

Those who serve as school teachers in education get satisfaction when they hear from students years later. The organizers of the RTP are no different in that regard.

“Our feedback has been tremendous,” Short said. “Jabari (Smith) and Bobby (Portis) told us how this laid the foundation for them, and so they talked about how to be a professional, understanding your position with your team, your impact with your community, and the access to all the resources that can help you if you encounter problems. They spoke from a different time period than these players, but they all spoke about the foundation we try to teach here.”

The goal is a common one: To help develop careers through education, preparation and keep the talent flowing into the league with as little resistance as possible.

“We all have investments in each other,” Short said. “Look, this is a business, so everyone wants to be at their best so the business can do well. We all have to work hand in hand. Our players have to be at their best. Owners and league officials have to be at their best. We as a union have to be at our best, to make sure things continue to move forward accordingly. As players coming into this league, you’re standing on the shoulders of others who made sacrifices, who had challenges and survived those things. There’s a lot of responsibility and accountability on every level.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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