How hard is it to get into the NBA? We asked three players to find out | NBA

TThe NBA is one of the most exclusive sports leagues in North America. With 30 teams and 450 players, the NBA employs about half the number of players in the NHL, MLB and MLS, and about a quarter of the NFL’s total. It’s harder to get into than Study 54 in the 1970s. In June, the league held its annual draft and welcomed only 60 rookies. It was an elegant affair with expensive suits, paparazzi and celebratory champagne for the elderly. But these celebrations were just the end point of a much deeper story. Making the league requires lifelong effort and sweaty sacrifice.

With the league’s 76th season set to begin October 19, it’s important to remember how difficult it is to develop the skills to play in even a single NBA game. We caught up with three standouts – current collegiate star Zion Cruz, former Mississippi high school standout Brian Adams and two-time NBA champion Earl Cureton – to find out exactly how tough the road is at different stages of a player’s journey.

New Jersey-born Cruz, a shooting guard who committed to DePaul University in February for the 2022-23 season, stands at 6ft 5in and boasts a top-10 ranking in his class at his position (per Still, his path to college ball—usually (though not always) the final step before the NBA—hasn’t been simple, despite his physical gifts and considerable acclaim.

“The work just got harder and harder,” says Cruz. “The long days in the gym sweating weren’t easy when I started, but I just committed and the growth is exceptional.”

Cruz, who is first the top recruit to go to DePaul for years, says his motivation was watching his parents get up to work every day to provide for the family. And he started seriously thinking about playing professionally when he started seeing friends jump to the NBA. But it’s hard to get to where scouts and coaches are paying attention. Instead, Cruz says, it’s about standing out for yourself, and the rest will come. “If you worry about impressing yourself,” he says, “the scouts will see.”

For Cruz, whose path to collegiate ties has involved ups and downs, including commitment and release from schools, it can be difficult to maintain the balance, especially with the full-time work of practicing and playing games. It’s about staying focused and blocking out the noise that surrounds his talents. Cruz says he also cares about building and strengthening his character, a lesson he learned from some Chicago Bulls who visited him and offered advice. Ultimately, if he doesn’t make it to the NBA (or if it takes years), Cruz says he won’t lose sight of the goal. “I love basketball,” he says, “it would just be another part of my journey.”

But while he’s likely headed for a pro roster at some point, others haven’t been so lucky, even those with sparkling basketball resumes. In Mississippi, as a high school player in the mid-90s, Adams was a household name. He was a top-20 recruits the same year as future pros Kobe Bryant, Mike Bibby, Jermaine O’Neal, Tim Thomas and Steven Jackson. But when Adams committed to Alcorn State, a historically black college, he says things went sideways. In 1995, prior to his commitment, quarterback Steve McNair was drafted No. 3 overall out of Alcorn State by the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. Adams believed that this was the plan he should follow.

“A lot of people were upset,” Adams says of his decision to choose Alcorn State over a more mainstream school like Kansas or Kentucky. “To do that at the time was unheard of. I will say a lot of things changed when I made that decision. I wasn’t doing the McDonald’s game, nor was I Mr Basketball in the state of Mississippi. It’s like, come on man, I think I was head-and-shoulders above anybody in my class.”

Adams, who fell in love with the game at six, shooting hoops on a converted bicycle wheel without a backboard or net, attended major recruiting camps as well as the highly regarded Piney Woods High School in Mississippi and won state titles. But once he entered college, his career stalled. Adams averaged approx 11 points per game his first two seasons, even though he didn’t play for the coach who had originally recruited him, but then his scoring dropped off. He broke his foot during his junior year in 1999, the season Alcorn State reached the NCAA Tournament. He averaged just three points that year and eight the next.

Today, Adams is a coach helping kids in Texas learn the game. He works with former NBA star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who has his own tumultuous relation to the league. Adams knows how difficult it can be to sustain a sports career, saying, “You have to have the right people around you … You have to make sure you make the right decisions … One thing, playing at that level, you have to you have luck on your side… [Mine] could have been a sad story, but by the grace of God it was not.”

But even if a player does NBA, the journey does not end there. And that was especially true at a time when guaranteed contracts were harder to secure than an eel in an oil spill. Drafted No. 58 overall in 1979 by the Philadelphia 76ers, Cureton was a standout at Robert Morris University and then at the University of Detroit, recruited by then-coach Dick Vitale. Cureton would later go on to win two NBA championships, in 1983 with the 76ers and 1994 with the Houston Rockets. However, seemingly every season of his 12-year career contained obstacles that threatened his livelihood. So much so that he sometimes had to go abroad.

“I was a journeyman,” says Cureton. “My first three years I had non-guaranteed contracts. Every year in Philly, I had to make the list.”

During his career, Cureton played with Dr J, Moses Malone, Jordan and Isiah Thomas, among others. He knew how to fit in and make teams better. He returned, defended. He also dealt with the league’s Right of First Refusal policy, which stated that when a player’s contract expired, his old team still retained his rights even if the team did not want to re-sign him. They could ask for whatever compensation they wanted from a team interested in signing the player. It was an intricate practice that nearly derailed Cureton’s career.

“It was a lot of mental stress,” he says. “The team had the right to ask for whatever they wanted. I’ve never been a fan of that rule. I had to leave the country to get away from it.”

Cureton played in Italy, France, Argentina, Mexico and elsewhere to sharpen his game. He returned to North America for chances with the Pistons, Hornets, Rockets and the expansion Raptors. In the early seasons, he made $55,000 or $65,000 a year, compared to the 2022-23 league rookie minimum of about $1 million. “It was about survival,” he says. “When I entered the league there were only 24 teams and something like 270 players. It is an elite group.” His salary increased as time went on and Cureton earned about $2 million during his career, good money but certainly not enough to retire on. He now works as a team ambassador for the Pistons.

Along with Cruz, Adams and Cureton is a litany of talented players whose paths to the league have been fraught or ended in disappointment. In 1994, the now infamous basketball documentary Hoop dreams hit theaters and depicts how difficult it can be for young players, often born in the city, to break into the NBA. The film’s leads, Arthur Agee and William Gates, both from Chicago, go through school changes, injuries and serious doubts and ultimately do not make it into the professional ranks.

Even big name players there did make the league endure a lot. Little guards Muggsy Bogues and Spud Webb in the late 80s and early 90s was forever thought of as incapable of making much of an impact. Despite this, Webb won the NBA dunk contest at the 1986 All-Star game, and Bogues became famous for his role with the Hornets, averaging 10.8 points and 10.1 assists per game in the 1993-94 season. A former teammate of both Webb and Bogues, 7ft 7in Manute Bol, who died in 2010, traveled from Sudan, across deserts and oceans to make the league. The list goes on.

NBA champion and seven-time All-Star Kyrie Irving recently shared his thoughts on Twitter about being a young aspiring hooper considering his chances to one day make the league. “My father told me at a young age that I had a 1 in 3,333 percent (0.03%) chance of making it to the NBA and that I should have backup plans for my life whether it happened or no.” he wrote. “I’m thankful he told me the truth, because with or without basketball, I know myself.”

Indeed, earning a spot in the NBA is an almost impossible task, even for the extremely talented. A big part of the league’s draft picks not hold. But if one can somehow hang on and enjoy a long, illustrious career, as Cureton notes, “That’s a serious feat.”

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