For a handful of basketball players, the NBA seems to be their calling. They receive countless scholarship offers, attend the best universities, have scouts follow their every move. Some are even nicknamed ‘King' while still in high school.
Then there's Ronnie Price.
Unrecruited out of high school as a 5-7 senior, he had to walk on to the Nicholls St. basketball team in 2001. A year later, Price transferred to Utah Valley St., where he led the team to the NCAA Division I Provisional Championship as a junior and was named NCAA Division I Independent Player of the Year as a senior.
Despite his success in college, he went undrafted in 2005 and had to earn a 2-year deal from the Sacramento Kings out of Summer League. Since then, Price has spent the better part of 10 years clawing to keep his foothold in the NBA. For a third-string point guard with career averages of 3.6 points and 1.7 assists, that is a lot of clawing indeed.
"I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason," Price told Tom Leander and Greg Esposito during the suns.com Media Day livestream. "If I would have been this size and this strong with these abilities in high school, I probably would have been content with that and probably not have the chip on my shoulder that I carry around."
That chip has helped him stick in a league that sees far more talented players wash out every year, but that alone will not keep a player on an NBA roster for over a decade. For a player with poor individual numbers to continually earn a place in basketball's preeminent league, he must be exceptional in areas stats don't measure. Luckily for Price, he is.
At last season's training camp, Lakers coach Byron Scott raved about Price's ability to play within himself and within the system while calling him "a pitbull" defensively. And even as the season unraveled in LA, Price remained a good teammate, never taking shots at the team and even suggesting he'd be open to returning if wanted. Those intangibles are a big reason why Phoenix opted to bring Price back into the fold this season, and if early reports are any indication, his presence may already be paying dividends.
During voluntary workouts and into training camp, Price has been credited with bringing out the best from his new backcourt teammates with his non-stop defensive pressure. "That's what is making me a whole lot better to be honest," Bledsoe told Paul Coro of azcentral.com. "When I'm fatigued, he comes in the game and picks up full-court. It kind of gets me because if you play around with the ball, he's going to take it. So it put me in a different mind-set."
For Price and the Suns, that was the idea from day one. "I just wanted to come here and help out the young guards," Price said when asked by Leander and Esposito about why he chose to return to Phoenix. "I just kind of want to be more of a guy that they can lean on and talk to and, you know, try to push them every day in practice. And I told them, ‘Look, I'm not gonna take any days off in practice, and my main focus is to help you get better,' and that's my goal. My goal is to push those guys every day, and if they can handle me every day in practice, then hopefully the opponents they face won't be tough at all."
Price is fully aware that his role on the team is to "defend and be a hustle guy" while taking the young guards under his wing the way Tyson Chandler has done for Alex Len, but he could also possess an added wrinkle that many aren't expecting— a shot. That is a possibility after he underwent surgery to remove bone spurs and bone chips from his right elbow in late February. The procedure cleared up an issue he had dealt with since his early days in the NBA.
"You don't realize that just one little tweak in the shooting elbow can tweak your shot," he said. "Now when I get those open looks, I'll be more confident and comfortable taking them."
The surgery, along with health tips he picked up from Grant Hill and Steve Nash during his first stint in Phoenix, has Price feeling younger than he did back in 2011. Combine that with a team he sees as being filled with potential, and Price's excitement for the upcoming season is justifiable. But that shouldn't be mistaken for contentment.
"I don't take anything for granted when I'm on the floor," Price said, "because I know that at any given time the game can be taken away from me, and just the thought of not being able to play basketball, of having the gift that I was blessed with taken away from me and not being able to play this game, it frightens me."
Nothing has come easy for Price in his hardscrabble basketball life. Since leaving the Jazz, he has drifted through Phoenix, Portland, Orlando, and Los Angeles on a series of 1-year contracts, battling every day to stay on teams' radar. Now he finds himself back in the desert — a place he finds comfortable.
"Since we left, me and my family, we kinda wanted to get back here," Price said. "We love it here.
"Things always work out, so I'm just happy to be back."
From the way others in the organization talk about him, the feeling appears mutual.