Fighting for the NBA dream

Sacramento Kings headed to the bench. (Photo: Steven Chea)

Making an NBA roster is one of the most difficult tasks to achieve in all professional sports.  There are a maximum of 450 players under contract at any one time.  That pales in comparison to the 750 on Major League Baseball rosters or the nearly 1,800 NFL players that collect checks on a weekly basis.

NBA teams are allowed to carry a minimum of 13 players, but through the process of collective bargaining, the league guarantees a 14-man average.  So at least 420 men have the privilege of calling themselves NBA players each and every season.  When you consider that each year, 30 new first-round picks are guaranteed contracts and 30 second-round selections are brought in to compete for roster spots, you quickly see that making the cut is like betting on the state lottery.

“Everyone has their story,” Kings big man Hamady Ndiaye said of the journey to become an impact player in the league. “Everyone had their own way to get to the NBA and everyone has their own way to make it to a roster. Patience and mental strength (are two things) I know (are) a must.”

Beyond the 14 players the Kings have promised a paycheck to this season, there are four young men who’ve been invited to partake in preseason festivities.  While they understand the dire state of their situation, each are hopeful they can defy the odds and somehow crack the final roster that opens the season in Chicago on Halloween.

While these four players fight for their NBA lives, they know the score and so do the Kings.  There is no randomness to their inclusion on the roster.  They each possess a skill the Kings wanted or needed to see while preparing for the 2012-13 NBA season.

“We wanted someone that was going to be physical,” said Kings head coach Keith Smart. “We didn’t worry about him being this skilled offensive player.  I wanted him to be physical because I needed someone Cuz (DeMarcus Cousins) could not easily move around and that was Cyril Awere and he did a great job with it.

“Willie Reed (is an) active, long running big guy (who challenges shots in the paint),” Smart added.  “Great job, once again, finding a guy like that to come in and fit the training camp (with) what we needed.  Ndiaye (is an) athletic shot blocker.  Again, guys coming to the basket are going to be challenged.  He fit the bill; we couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

Awere, Reed and Ndiaye were brought in to battle Cousins, but Tony Mitchell, the fourth non-roster invitee, was brought in to challenge for one of the team’s final roster spots.

“Tony Mitchell has done a great job with being able to start to fit in with (what) our perimeter players can do,” Smart said.  “From an athletic standpoint, from a defensive standpoint – all four of those guys were right on the money.”

Mitchell played for the Kings in summer league, filling a much-needed void left when forward Tyler Honeycutt went down with a stress fracture in his right foot.  The experience in Las Vegas allowed Mitchell to learn the team’s terminology and even a few play-sets.  Another door opened for Mitchell when an additional stress fracture was found in Honeycutt’s lower leg before training camp.

According to coach Smart, all four guys came early to work with their new teammates and they are doing everything right so far.

“They’ve been good,” Smart said of the quartet. “They’ve been right on the money.”

Smart credits the Kings front office for collecting the right pieces for a successful camp.

“I think when we were putting this thing together,” Smart began. “Mike Petrie and Shareef (Abdur-Rahim) and Coop (Wayne Cooper) and of course Geoff (Petrie) did a great job.”

While the players are doing everything right, there are no promises that any of them will suit up in the Kings purple and black.  However, Smart isn’t closing the door of opportunity just yet.

“There’s always a chance,” Smart said.  “We have to see how it all plays out and if they can be consistent in their play.”

It is gut wrenching to watch them cling to a dream. Every year it is a new group, a new set of hopefuls who put it all out there on the floor. Very few make it.

“It’s not the end of the journey,” Ndiaye said optimistically, reflecting on the odyssey of an NBA nomad.  “It’s only the beginning to me. I feel like I slightly opened the door, but I’m going to keep it open and try to open it even more, as hard as it is.

“And it’s an opportunity,” he added with a huge smile. “We’re in America, the land of opportunity.”

With a limited amount of time left, Ndiaye, Reed, Awere and Mitchell have to make an impact if they hope to continue their NBA dreams.  As the roster stands today, there is still a glimmer of opportunity for one, possibly even two of these men, to fight their way onto the Kings’ final roster.

Jonathan Santiago also contributed to this story.

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About: James Ham

James Ham is co-owner and senior editor of Cowbell Kingdom, providing extensive Kings coverage through news analysis, in-depth interviews with players and staff and daily coverage of breaking news. Along with providing original content for the site, including the Cowbell Kingdom Podcast and his weekly Sunday Musings column, James also is one of the producers behind the award-winning, independent documentary film "Small Market, Big Heart".