The strange world of NBA try-outs
It’s marked on my calendar at home, tapped into my iPhone and burned into my memory. July 26 is the date I’ll know whether I have an NBA contract, the date I’ll know whether my dream has become a reality.
There are 491 players in the NBA. An average of three roster spots per team open up every year. And every June, aspiring players from around the world meet in one spot to try and convince those teams they are worthy of one of those openings.
The whole basketball world is watching the NBA Summer League. The arenas are full of scouts from pretty much every professional league – I’m talking the NBA, Euroleague and our own NBL clubs – in search of their next big star.
This has been my second year in the Summer League. I’ve definitely approached my time with the Dallas Mavericks differently than I did last year when I was playing for the Utah Jazz. It was overwhelming back then, to say the least.
This is what last year was like.
Every day, I’d walk into a room full of stars, power, image. I’d look at the NBA logo on my chest. Every scenario was hyped up. The pressure was always on.
I’d walk into the gym, take a look around and see NBA championship-winning coaches Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle and Erik Spoelstra. Then Stephon Marbury would walk past. Then Baron Davis would give me a high-five and Vince Carter – yes, the Vince Carter – daps me up.
I’d go through my processes, as I always did, and then I’d realise I was standing next to Donovan Mitchell, who would finish runner-up to Ben Simmons for NBA Rookie of the Year.
‘Play it cool, play it cool,’ I’m thinking. But let’s be honest. I was fangirling to the max.
I pride myself on being confident and in control of my feelings and demeanour. In the NBL, I could look around and think, ‘I got this’. But Summer League last year was a different story. I had to take a moment and think, ‘Fuck, I thought I was good … but these guys are next level’.
So there I was, shooting with a stiff arm in warm-up and doubting myself.
This wasn’t me. This wasn’t the Mitch Creek I knew.
I managed to calm down and play to a level I was satisfied with, but I also knew I had more to give. The feedback from Utah was that they loved my effort and the way I played, especially on defence, and how I communicated.
They indicated I had the athleticism that could translate to the NBA but needed to work on my shot consistency and to continue to get rebounds and create scoring options.
For me, everything in life is an audition, and on this occasion, I didn’t get the role. But I learned. Everything I’d absorbed was going to lead to something else.
I walked away from that trip with the IQ I needed to get better, the mental strength to become more resilient. I helped my side, the Adelaide 36ers, make the last game of the 2017/18 playoffs. I won the club’s MVP. It was one of the proudest moments of my career and life, due to the work I’d put in.
And then came the call-up to the 2018 NBA Summer League.
This time, I knew I was ready. I prepared myself well and removed all distractions.
I abstained from drinking and partying, I deleted my Twitter and Snapchat and only kept my Instagram and Facebook for business purposes – and to stay connected with my family while abroad.
The overwhelmed, bright-eyed kid from the previous year wouldn’t be attending this Summer League. This Mitch Creek was ready and couldn’t wait to get started.
Many people think Summer League is the same as the NBA. Big cash, private jets, hanging with A-Listers and playing basketball in between.
It’s not like that. Not even close.
It started with a 30-hour trip to New York. I checked in at the hotel, then headed straight to the facility to get my body right with a run, quick hot-and-cold bath and lift. I tried to get some shut-eye. I reckon I managed 16 seconds that night. I don’t know whether it was anticipation or the fact I was jet-lagged as hell, but there I was.
I missed breakfast the next morning and made my way to the training facility. I was surrounded by 15 other guys complaining about their domestic transit time. Five hours. Cry me a river, lads!
We went straight into testing. It was cut-throat. One of the tests, our shooting test, consisted of 100 shots varying between pull-ups, crossovers and other moves and however many you finished on ended up being your percentage. I think I ended up with 66 per cent.
There’s one other thing I should mention: I hadn’t touched an NBA ball for 12 months. They are VERY different from your standard NBL basketball. NBL balls are soft, with a cushioned grip and are quite easy to handle. The NBA ones are, pardon the pun, a whole new ball game. Imagine you are holding a basketball covered in sand. They are lighter and until they’re covered in sweat they’re extremely hard to handle.
‘Play it cool, play it cool,’ I’m thinking last year. But let’s be honest. I was fangirling to the max.
I was in the States for six weeks and played a total of four games. And in between, I trained and trained and trained some more. There was nothing Hollywood about it. Just a bunch of blokes from around the world trying to be the best they can.
I was paid around $150 a day to cover expenses. I’d be sitting on the team bus next to a millionaire, playing in the same league as potential millionaires – and here’s me wondering what lunch order will fit in my budget!
It didn’t bother me one bit. I was there to do a job.
After the experience of last year’s Summer League, I knew what I needed to do. I felt mentally stronger and more prepared. I’d made every sacrifice possible to achieve my goals. I was strict with my diet. Over the six-week period, I may have had one pizza but that aside, it was all plant-based foods, juices and what my body required.
I needed to ensure I was giving myself every opportunity to succeed. I couldn’t afford to leave anything behind.
THE DOOR LITERALLY OPENS
Summer League is an interesting experience.
Players are there for various reasons. Some already have NBA roster spots locked down and are there to work on conditioning, increase game time and improve certain elements within their game. Others, like Dennis Smith Jr of the Dallas Mavericks, were there to learn how to become better leaders. He blew the league away last season with his athletic ability.
There are players with chips on their shoulders, disgruntled because they didn’t get drafted. And there are others like I was last year in Utah – overawed, looking around and taking it all in.
This year with Dallas, I was smarter. I understood my role and what was required to be noticed. One of the challenges of the Summer League is the need to impress in a relatively short space of time. In Australia, I score, I rebound, pass, play defence and lead. In Summer League, with the limited minutes, you don’t get that opportunity. I knew that this time around.
Having said all this, it was something completely unrelated to my skills, my fitness or my preparation that put me on the radar of one NBA team. I didn’t see it coming at all.
An old lady was entering one of the facilities. I like to think of myself as a chivalrous guy and I held the door open for her, as I would normally do. I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t realise anyone was watching.
Soon after, I got a call from my agent. He said a member of an NBA team’s front office saw me holding the door for the lady. He was asking questions about me and my background. I know! It sounds like something out of a movie script. But it was obviously a character trait that aligned with what this particular front-office guy was looking for in a player.
I guess it comes down to whether you’re a ‘team first’ player or a ‘me first’ player.
This year with Dallas, I was smarter. I understood my role and what was required to be noticed.
There are guys who can drop 40 points and take 15 boards but collapse mentally when things don’t go their way. Others have no interest in whether their teammates do well. They just want to do what’s right for them on the stats sheet.
My approach, as with so many Aussie players, is this: I’ll do everything I can to make my teammates better. That includes being the most vocal on the bench when we score and ensuring the guys I play with are feeling positive the whole time. I bring out the best in others and I see this as a strength of mine. Sometimes I can be too unselfish and focus more on other people’s success than my own. It’s a balancing act I’m always working on.
Dallas told me they wanted me to be aggressive, to defend and to lead. They required energy for the whole game, whether I was on the court or not, and what really helped my psyche was when the coaching staff said they wanted me to play the way that I know I can play the best.
Shoot the ball when open, attack and be an absolute pain in the arse on defence.
That’s me. They wanted me to be me. I loved that.
On reflection, I’m really happy with my performances with the Mavs. I defended guys from the point guard positions through to the centres. I guarded some of the stars, like the No.1 draft pick from the Phoenix Suns, Deandre Ayton, who I drew a charge against. I ticked that off as a win. My veteran IQ sucked him into charging me.
They were happy with my defensive work and, most importantly, my attitude and ability to absorb their instructions and execute.
I am extremely grateful for Bob MacKinnon, the head coach of Dallas’ G-League affiliate, the Texas Legends. He really took me under his wing. He took me through shooting drills, trained me as hard as I’ve trained before and assisted with the mental side of the game.
He was someone that I could trust, and for that I will always hold this relationship close.
I was armed with everything I needed to get the best out of myself when I put that Dallas Mavericks jersey on to enter my second Summer League.
Growing up in Horsham, I dreamed of visiting America. My parents were moving us around in homes, trying to make ends meet. America? That was the place from TV shows and movies, right? I never, ever thought I would be there for business, trying out for a place on an NBA roster.
I also never thought that the experience would be so lonely.
I was in America by myself. The closest thing I had to a friend was FaceTime, but considering the time difference between Australia and the States, phone calls were few and far between.
I was training in Dallas, where the coolest day we had was 38 degrees. It wouldn’t have been smart to go for long, energy-sapping walks in the heat in between games. But neither was it much fun staying in a hotel room on my own.
I ended up getting Ubers to the shopping mall and walking around in the airconditioning. And I’d talk to the bell boy at the hotel every day. He was the only person I had to communicate with between training sessions and games. He must’ve thought I was crazy.
Other than that, downtime usually consisted of playing Fortnite while every scenario kept circling around my head. What if this doesn’t work out? What if it does? What do I do with my house? Do I bring my dogs if I make it? If no one in the States signs me, should I sign in Germany? What do I do with my bike?
Over and over and over again. When you’re alone, everything just magnifies.
I never, ever thought I would be in America for business, trying out for a place on an NBA roster. I also never thought that the experience would be so lonely.
I suffered anxiety, constantly wondering what was next. I had days where I would call my family and best mate in tears, just wanting to hear their voices. I felt like I was my grandfather sitting in a retirement home, waiting for someone to pop their head through the door and say hello.
So while people might’ve looked at me and thought, ‘Man, that kid’s living the dream,’ I’d be crying behind closed doors thinking, ‘Everything I’ve ever worked towards could end this week’. You spiral into doubt, which makes me very uncomfortable.
People don’t talk about mental health enough. Especially athletes.
We live in such a fictitious world, where we seek approval via likes or views on our social media accounts. I don’t buy it. But people forget that behind the Instagram or Facebook account, there’s a human being just trying to be the best they can be.
I had a message on my Instagram account after playing some games with Dallas that said, ‘The world would be better off if you just fucking died,’ followed by, ‘Please Die, Die,’ repeated for four pages.
Part of me looked at it and thought, ‘It’s just social media,’ but another part of me went, ‘What would make another human being say something like that?’ It can be quite testing when you’re alone reading this shit.
I see a sports psychologist regularly to help me process everything on and off the court. There are so many distractions in this era. I need assistance to focus on what’s important and to cut out all the bullshit.
BLAZING THE TRAIL
Where I grew up, our team consisted of 10 players because there were only 10 guys in the area who wanted to play basketball.
None of us spoke about playing in the NBA. There had never been a kid from Horsham play in the biggest league in the world. It just didn’t happen. My goal wasn’t to play for the Mavs or another NBA team. It was to do 50 push-ups!
But on reflection, we were wrong. These stories happen all the time. Matt Dellavedova is from Maryborough, Joe Ingles is from way down south in Adelaide, Patty Mills is an Indigenous Australian and Thon Maker is South Sudanese-Australian.
All these guys have been trailblazers in their own unique way. I feel like I could be one for my area, too.
I’ve gone from being the last player picked on an NBL roster to MVP at the Adelaide 36ers. Now, I’m close to being on an NBA roster.
The NBA is more than basketball. That’s why so many people are spat out the other end. Only the best make it. I’m doing everything I can to be among them.
I’ll find out on July 26.