Two basketball players will never forget March 31, 2013: Kevin Ware and Jaron Blossomgame.
Both high school stars from the Atlanta area, Ware was a sophomore playing for Louisville in the Elite 8 that day. He suffered one of the most gruesome leg injuries in televised sports when his leg broke while landing awkwardly after trying to block a shot.
Watching in Clemson, South Carolina, Blossomgame knew the horror too well.
A year before, Blossomgame suffered the same injury to his left leg in a workout.
Ware’s injury was on national TV. Blossomgame’s was in an empty gym. But the fears and the memories were all the same.
“It was the same thing and I heard the cracking sound all over again,” Blossomgame said. “I remember holding up my leg and seeing my shin bone sticking out a few inches. It was the toughest thing I had to go through.”
Blossomgame broke his leg in April 2012, during his senior year of high school. He wasn’t cleared to play again for 18 months.
Five years later, he’s the Spurs’ second-round draft pick. In the NBA Summer League, Blossomgame averaged 5.1 points and 5.9 rebounds in Utah and Las Vegas.
He’s moved on from the injury, but when Blossomgame pulls back a leg sleeve, a scar that’s larger than a quarter is still there.
“There’s still a titanium rod and some screws in there,” he said. “I’m kind of glad I faced that type of adversity early on, though. It’s a part of my story. I learned from it, I know how to approach every day with the right mindset and I had to be a hard-working guy to get here.”
At 23, Blossomgame was the oldest player selected in the 2017 NBA Draft.
The maturity he’s gained began with his darkest moment, holding his limp leg in a gym outside Atlanta.
Once a Top 100 prospect in ESPN’s recruiting rankings, Blossomgame said there were days he wasn’t sure he’d ever see the court in a college game. It took six months before he could put pressure on his left foot. He required a second surgery on the leg nine months after it was broken, where bone marrow from his hip was injected into his leg to improve the healing process.
“People told me after the injury that I wasn’t going to be the same, that I couldn’t do this or that,” he said. “Luckily, I had a stronger inner circle that taught me to win each day and control what I could control.”
Blossomgame couldn’t play, but he never stopped working. He worked with Clemson assistant coach Steve Smith and strength and conditioning coach Darric Honnold to figure out spots where he could improve, getting involved in nutrition and workouts. He said he added 30 pounds of muscle in his time at Clemson and is currently 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds.
“He attacked rehab with ferocity,” said Clemson head coach Brad Brownell. “There were times we were trying to get him to slow down because you could see his hunger to get back. I think that injury has given him a greater appreciation for the work he’s put in and how he earned his way.”
Making up for lost time, Blossomgame was cleared to play in the 2013-14 season. He started in 30 of 33 games, including a 14-point, 14-rebound performance in a win against Duke.
He led the Tigers in scoring and rebounding as a sophomore with 13.1 points and 8.2 boards a game and was named the team’s most improved player.
When he led Clemson again with 18.7 points and 6.2 rebounds as a junior, he was named First-Team All-ACC and the conference’s most improved player.
“He’s always believed in himself,” Brownell said. “He’s worked really hard and has seen results. The best thing is that he sees the areas where he wants to improve at the next level. It’s hard to find the competitive spirit and fight that Jaron has. The rest is stuff that he can work on in the Spurs organization.”
Blossomgame declared for the 2016 NBA Draft but did not sign with an agent. After going through the combine and draft workouts, he decided to return to Clemson.
As a senior, he led the Tigers for a third straight season with 17.7 points and 6.3 rebounds. He finished his career fifth all-time in Clemson history for points.
“Jaron is somebody who has had a very good career up to this point,” Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford said. “He’s an athlete who plays hard and competes, and we’re excited for him to come in to training camp and go to work.”
Blossomgame attended the 2017 NBA Draft and waited patiently for five hours as 58 names were called first. When it was the Spurs at No. 59 though, Blossomgame said he could feel everything he’s worked for fall into place.
For someone who waited 18 months to step on the floor again after his leg injury, five hours to go to a franchise he’s always admired was worth the wait.
Throughout his college career, Blossomgame has admired Kawhi Leonard from afar, breaking down Leonard’s college film, his development with the Spurs and noting the similarities.
He notes that they’re both 6-foot-7 wings and that defense is his strong suit as well, especially his ability to guard multiple positions.
Blossomgame has Leonard’s college statistics memorized, as Leonard shot .205 from 3-point range as a freshman and .291 as a sophomore at San Diego State. Blossomgame shot .200 as a freshman and .288 as a sophomore.
Leonard has gone on to shoot .388 from behind the arc in his NBA career.
“I compared myself to Kawhi in an interview with the Spurs and they all laughed,” Blossomgame said. “I have a long way to go, but to see him become one of the NBA’s best shooters, it goes to show that the time you put in the gym is going to factor into the results you’re going to get. I hope I can do the same thing.”
Blossomgame speaks of Spurs assistant coach Chip Engelland with the utmost reverence and said he was ecstatic to get a text message from Engelland the day after the draft. Blossomgame responded that he was ready to get to work.
“There are always aspects you can add to your game, and you can see it with the way Spurs players develop each season,” Blossomgame said. “That growth is what I love the most. It’s what drives me to be the best player and person that I can be.”
For Blossomgame, San Antonio might be the perfect place to live up to his name.