SALT LAKE CITY — There is a back door to the NBA. It might be bigger than the front door.
Yes, we're all focused on figuring out who the best NBA players will be out of the outstanding collegiate athletes that appear on mock drafts everywhere. The path is simple: excel at high school, go to a good college, excel there, then play in the NBA.
But 265 players on NBA rosters at the end of last season spent time in the NBA's minor league, the G-League. That's 53 percent of NBA players who had a much rockier path to achieving their dreams than they expected.
It's those players that the Utah Jazz hope to find this weekend. The Jazz are hosting their annual free-agent minicamp, in which 32 players get three practices on Friday and Saturday to show the Jazz that they belong in the NBA.
Take Royce O'Neale, who used his 2016 mini-camp performance to catapult himself into a three-year contract with the Jazz. Here's a quick run-down of O'Neale's pre-Jazz career:
- Was recruited by no major collegiate programs coming out of Harker Heights High School, so signed with the University of Denver in the Sun Belt Conference.
- At Denver, he averaged 10 points per game in his two years there.
- O'Neale transferred to Baylor to be closer to a family member who was suffering from an illness. At Baylor, in his senior season, he averaged 10 points per game.
- When invited to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, he shot 30 percent from the field and averaged 6.7 points per game. He wasn't ranked in the top 100 of any draft analysis I could find.
- He went overseas, to Germany for one season, then Spain the next, and averaged eight points per game in both seasons.
- And when coming back to the states in the offseasons, he averaged 6.4 points per game in 16 summer league games.
Scoring obviously isn't everything for NBA prospects, but you understand how O'Neale was overlooked. At every level, he's been a role player. But after securing his invite to the Jazz's mini-camp, O'Neale's performance blew away the Jazz's talent evaluators.
"His playmaking, his ability to make decisions, read the floor, his ability to pass with both hands in the pick and roll" all stood out, according to Bart Taylor, Jazz vice president of basketball operations. "We looked back on it, and he was the guy who shot the best in the Jazz 100."
Fast forward to now, and O'Neale averaged 24 minutes per game in a highly successful playoff run for the Jazz, and spent a lot of time guarding superstars like Paul George, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. As O'Neale does, he averaged 7.1 points per game. This time, it's just at the highest level.
"Royce is a great story," Taylor said. "We like to say it puts pressure on us to find another one."
That story is used to full advantage for the Jazz, who tell the incoming minicamp players about O'Neale's success. That leads to ravenous competition among the 32 men, with some of the most physical battles you'll see or hear on a basketball floor. A couple of players after Friday morning's practice came away bleeding, and Taylor called the workouts "intense."
They're much more so than the average NBA draft workout, which usually features at least a player or two who doesn't give the effort or energy that Jazz coaches like to see. Many of the draft prospects have been the best player on their basketball team their whole lives. The free-agent minicamp players have all essentially been told they're not good enough to play in the NBA. They rage against the dying of the light.
But there are victors in these wars.
"There's three to four guys out here that will play in the NBA, and we've got to find them," Taylor said. "We'll see how they do over the course of three practices, and hopefully one of them becomes Royce."