Former first-round picks trying to find their way back to NBA at Jazz minicamp

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SALT LAKE CITY — For a few players who were on the floor at Zion’s Bank Basketball Center on Wednesday, this wasn’t how they thought it'd play out.

Thomas Robinson was taken with the fifth pick in 2012 (after “falling” there, no less). The power forward was a star in college; he was thought to be a franchise cornerstone. He was out of the league after five forgettable seasons.

Then there’s Cameron Payne, who the Thunder used a late lottery pick on in 2015. He didn’t pan out in Oklahoma City and again disappointed after being traded to Chicago.

Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira was the 16th pick in 2013. He didn’t make it to a second contract.

Justin Patton was drafted at No. 16 just two years ago, but injuries and trades derailed his NBA career before it ever really got a chance to get going.

Each one of them had different expectations for themselves entering the league, but it’s safe to say that none of them ever presumed they’d be at a free agent minicamp just trying to make it back.

And yet, that’s what this week holds for them as they join 26 other players in the Utah Jazz free agent minicamp. It’s a camp full of former first-round picks, players who have spent years playing overseas, and even some younger prospects that are searching for their first real opportunity.

“We do this every year because there are good players all over the world,” Utah Jazz director of scouting Bart Taylor said. In the G League, overseas: we like to bring them in. … We identify the guys and want to give them a chance to compete for a spot on the Jazz roster.”

The most obvious success of the Jazz’s minicamps came in 2016 when one Royce O’Neale participated following his first pro season in Germany with MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg. That helped lead to a spot on the Jazz’s Summer League squad in 2017, and eventually to him signing a three-year deal with Utah.

Marcus Foster and Justin Patton leave the court after the Utah Jazz mini-camp at Zions bank basketball campus in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 5, 2019. (Jeffrey D. Allred, KSL)
Marcus Foster and Justin Patton leave the court after the Utah Jazz mini-camp at Zions bank basketball campus in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 5, 2019. (Jeffrey D. Allred, KSL)

“A lot of these guys played in the NBA, so we definitely have a lot of NBA talent out here today,” Taylor said. “Royce, in particular, stood out a couple of years ago, and that’s why he’s on the roster.”

The Jazz aren’t alone in doing free agent minicamps. It’s become just another part of the summer slate for many NBA teams. But getting the right guys in is crucial. While Utah has filled its summer league squads with guys from the minicamp, and a number have landed on the Salt Lake City Stars (Utah's G League team), that’s not the goal. The Jazz want to find players like O’Neale — players that can come in and help them win.

“I think there are a lot of things on our roster that are up in the air still,” said Jazz assistant coach Mike Wells.

That means an opportunity to make an impression for Robinson, Payne, Nogueira, Patton and any of the others.

“Some of these guys, as they fall out due to injury or bad play or whatever, have to get better and humble themselves,” Taylor said. “This is a way to show they’ve improved and that they are ready to contribute back on an NBA team.”

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