Every player remembers their 'welcome to the NBA' moment

Yahoo Sports Canada
Welcome to the NBA, kid. (Ciaran Breen/Yahoo Sports Canada/Getty Images)
Welcome to the NBA, kid. (Ciaran Breen/Yahoo Sports Canada/Getty Images)

After getting passed on at the 2019 NBA Draft, Terence Davis took an invite from the Denver Nuggets to play at summer league. After scoring 22 points and hitting five 3s in his debut, his agent Adam Pensack called. 

The defending champion Toronto Raptors were offering a fully guaranteed contract. 

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This was Davis’s making it to the NBA moment.

A few months later, with the Raptors in Saitama, Japan for two preseason games against the Houston Rockets, he got his welcome to the NBA moment. 

Inside a sold out crowd at Saitama Super Arena, Davis watched as Russell Westbrook shot 1-for-6 from 3. Sitting on the bench, the rookie guard couldn’t help but chime in. 

“I yelled out to Westbrook,” Davis says. “I said, ‘That shit broke.’”

Westbrook overheard and walked over to the Raptors bench to address Davis. James Harden was not far behind. Both of them fired back.

“They let me have it,” Davis says. “They were talking to me bad. I’m talking about bad. They welcomed me to the league.”

***

Around the NBA, everyone has their first moment in the league they still remember. Everyone starts out as a rookie and when you’re a first-year player, whether it’s a trash-talk exchange, getting owned by a more experienced player, or scoring your first point in the league, those memories stay with you forever. 

NBA rookies are also not above being starstruck by sharing the court with players they grew up watching.

Meyers Leonard was a 20-year-old rookie when he entered the league with the Portland Trail Blazers in 2012. 

On opening night, the Blazers hosted the Los Angeles Lakers. Leonard played 21 minutes and scored four points in his NBA debut, but that’s not what he remembers from that evening. 

“I checked into the game,” Leonard says. “And a few possessions later there was a foul. It was my first game, I’m going 100 miles an hour, and I’m preparing to block out and I look to my right and Kobe Bryant is standing right there.”

After the game, Leonard was excited to share the moment with his family and friends. That evening, he was also named an honorary captain and shared an exchange with Bryant at center court prior to tip-off. After Bryant passed away a few weeks ago, Leonard shared a photo of their exchange on Twitter. 

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m standing next to Kobe Bryant right now,’” Leonard says. “I’m just a dude from the middle of nowhere in Southern Illinois. How am I here right now?”

Leonard isn’t the only player who followed Bryant’s career growing up. Austin Rivers, part of the same rookie class, was another. Years later, the Houston Rockets guard remembers breaking his hand in a game against the Lakers during his rookie season. 

“But it wasn’t about that,” Rivers says. “Just playing against him was unbelievable.” For the 27-year-old guard, his welcome to the NBA moment came in the locker room before New Orleans played the Lakers. 

Head coach Monty Williams wrote up defensive assignments on the whiteboard prior to tip-off. “They were like, ‘Austin, you have Bryant,’” Rivers says. “It was surreal. That was the guy I looked up to. That was my welcome to the league moment.”

***

Austin Rivers will never forget his first encounter with Kobe. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Austin Rivers will never forget his first encounter with Kobe. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

When Kevin Love joined the NBA in 2008 with the Minnesota Timberwolves, he played in a league filled with all-star power forwards. “One night I would be going up against Dirk Nowitzki,” Love says. “Then the next night it would be Kevin Garnett.”

But no one left an impression more than Tim Duncan. In the fourth game of his NBA career, Love matched up against the five-time champion and future Hall of Famer. Duncan went to work on Love right away, facing up against the rookie and hitting one of his signature mid-range jumpers.

“He didn’t really talk much,” Love says. “He put the ball off the glass and I was like, ‘Man, what can I even do about that,’ and Tim said, ‘Young fella, there’s really not much you can do.’”

Other first NBA moments now escape Love’s memory. When asked about his first basket in the NBA, Love only remembers that he scored within the first few seconds of checking into the game. 

After playing in four NBA Finals, winning a championship, and scoring countless other baskets on a much bigger stage, it probably makes sense for Love to no longer hold on to the memory of his first NBA points. 

For other younger players who have yet to establish themselves, it’s still a moment that is worth taking a trip down memory lane for. 

To date, Raptors guard Malcolm Miller has played in 47 career NBA games, scoring 93 points in total. It is why he will always remember his first NBA basket. 

Miller made his NBA debut during the 2017-18 season, but went scoreless in eight minutes in his first two games. His third game came on national television, on a Thursday night TNT broadcast when the Raptors and Cavaliers faced off in a match-up of two Eastern Conference contenders. 

In the fourth quarter, the Raptors were running away to a 133-99 blowout win when Miller checked in with less than six minutes left in the game. “I remember telling C.J. [Miles], as soon as I get it I’m shooting the first 3 I get,” Miller says. 

On the first offensive possession after checking in Miller did just that, taking a pass from Pascal Siakam and hitting a 3-pointer from 24 feet. The 26-year-old guard still remembers the exact details of the play like it was yesterday. “Kyle Korver was guarding me but he was a little far off,” Miller says. “I shot it from pretty deep.”

Miller finished with six points and two 3-pointers in six minutes that evening, and remembers friends and family teasing him afterwards because Reggie Miller had joked on the broadcast that the two were cousins.

“Everybody thought I was related to him,” Miller says. 

***

Mike Conley learned some hard lessons going up against Tony Parker. (Photo by D.Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images)
Mike Conley learned some hard lessons going up against Tony Parker. (Photo by D.Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images)

Some of the more established players in the league now find themselves on the other side of a rookie’s welcome to the NBA moment. 

Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic declined to name specific players, but says he gets a particular kick out of teaching incoming guards a few tricks of the trade. 

“Every time when I see a young kid, I have something up my sleeve,” Dragic says. “Pump fakes, drawing a foul on them. You just have more experience and it’s a little easier to trick them.”

For older players, there’s some satisfaction in reminding rookies that despite their draft hype, nothing can replace experience and veteran savvy. 

Mike Conley, now in his 13th season in the league, has seen the influx of talented point guards joining the NBA in recent years. He was once the wide-eyed rookie who remembers his welcome to the NBA moment going up against Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs. 

“I was way younger, I could move, and I figured I could get around him and do all these things,” Conley says. In their first match-up, Parker scored 24 points in a 111-87 win. Conley finished with six points in 20 minutes. 

“Just seeing a guy that’s around my height and my size dominate a game was a spectacle to me,” Conley says. “I learned a lot from that experience.”

Over a decade later, Conley says he now plays the role of being the Tony Parker to rookie guards.

“You just want to show the world that you’re still here,” Conley says. “Sometimes people overlook people who are consistent over a long period of time. They just get used to them.”

As much as the veterans might think they have an edge on the rookies, even some of them admit the clock is ticking. 

“They learn so fast,” Dragic says. “You trick them, and then it doesn’t work anymore the next game.”

***

If there is anyone who can relate to Davis’s path to the NBA, it’s his teammate Fred VanVleet, who also went undrafted before turning himself into a core piece on a championship contender in Toronto. 

Just like Davis, VanVleet remembers all the verbal abuse he received from opposing teams whenever he would check in during his rookie season. 

“Everybody’s bench is talking shit,” VanVleet says. “When you check in, they’re licking their chops.”

For younger players, there’s nothing more satisfying than taking that disrespect as motivation. As VanVleet has become more established in the league, he also notices much less noise coming from the other team’s bench when he’s shooting 3s in front of them. 

“Now, it’s quiet,” VanVleet says. “It went from when you caught the ball in front of their bench, everybody would yell, ‘hell yeah.’ Now, when I get a wide open 3, everybody’s like, ‘fuuuuuuck.’ You can feel the difference from being wide open now to being wide open then.”

Davis, who has been one of the most surprising players of this rookie class, is slowly getting the respect he deserves from the rest of the league too. 

When he looks back on the welcome to the NBA moment he received from Westbrook and Harden, he can’t help but laugh at the inaccuracy of their trash talking. 

“They were saying I needed to make the team,” Davis says. “They didn’t even know my contract was already guaranteed.”

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