Every season, a few dozen basketball players head to NBA training camps on a wing and a prayer. Carrying no guarantees beyond their camp invites, these players are hoping to do enough during camp and the preseason to punch their ticket onto a 15-man roster.
This is the path Anthony Bennett and Peter Jok find themselves traveling as the Phoenix Suns begin preparations for the 2017-18 season in Flagstaff, Arizona.
For Bennett, he enters camp trying to shake the bust label that was affixed to him almost immediately after being taken first overall out of UNLV by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2013. The selection of Bennett that high was roundly questioned by draft observers, and to this point the 6’8, 245lb forward has done little to peel away that label, averaging 4.4 points and 3.1 rebounds over 151 career NBA games spent with Cleveland, the Minnesota Timberwolves, Toronto Raptors, and Brooklyn Nets.
Never having spent more than a single season with a club, Bennett found himself waived by the Nets last January before catching on in Turkey for Fenerbahçe. That was until May, when the Turkish club released him after he spent most of EuroLeague competition riding the bench.
“Coming in halfway through the season, I wouldn’t say I was playing catch-up with the plays, but it was definitely a learning experience,” Bennett said of his time with the eventual EuroLeague champion.
His inability to make a significant impact in Europe further endangered his basketball aspirations. As the summer progressed without a concrete contract offer from any of the 30 NBA teams, Bennett opted to take a chance as a training camp invitee with the Suns.
“With Anthony, we just said, ‘Look, we have an opportunity. We have a young team. A lot of the roles are fluid,’” said Suns general manager Ryan McDonough. “He has a great relationship with (Phoenix Suns associate coach) Jay Triano through Canada Basketball, and he was very comfortable here in Phoenix. I think especially with some of the injuries we have…Alan Williams got hurt, Jared Dudley’s coming off an injury. I think Anthony will get an opportunity. He’s young, he’s talented, he hasn’t maybe put it all together yet, but we’re excited to see what he can do.”
Nomadic basketball players — especially ones who have failed to live up to expectations — can find the journey back to the NBA much more difficult. However, it is far from a death sentence for a player’s NBA dreams. The Suns had a success story in the form of P.J. Tucker on the roster for four and a half years and have a new inspiration in the form of 27-year-old point guard Mike James, who bounced around the lower rungs of the college system before continuing the trend by pinballing around Europe. Finally, his persistence paid off in the form of a two-way contract with the Suns this season that could very well pan out into a standard player contract.
“I wanted just to stay close to home,” James told Sporting News’ Sam Vecenie in an August article. “With the way the money is set up in the NBA now, if I play well I think my ceiling is higher in the NBA. But just to be home and not have to go overseas for so long is just a better opportunity for me.”
Bennett would like to wind up a similar success story after drifting into irrelevancy, but he will need to find a way to turn his experiences and untapped talent into something more tangible. He cites his seasons spent in Toronto and Brooklyn as probably his most impactful career stops because of the knowledge he gained from former Sun Luis Scola, who helped the young player understand what it takes to be a professional. “He helped me out a whole lot those past two years with just the work ethic, things you got to do, and just seeing how hard he worked and how early he came to just try to take care of his body.”
If Bennett’s trim physique is any indication, those lessons from his young vagabond career are starting to take root. “Every year, a lot of things happen, a lot of big changes, but for the most part I just got to control what I can control,” he said. “I’ve spoken to Jay Triano, and he’s pretty much saying just do the same things you do at Team Canada, which is run, rebound, and the ball will find you.”
Jok, a four-year rookie shooting guard out of Iowa, finds himself chasing the same dream as Bennett and facing similarly long odds as an undrafted rookie. Last season, only 34 players who never heard their names called on Draft Night made their NBA debuts and only five of those totaled over 1,000 minutes. For players in this position, solid footing is hard to come by.
Still, Jok sees the bright side of chasing his dream as an undrafted rookie. “When I found out that I wasn’t going to go first round or early second, I felt like going undrafted was a better opportunity for me, so I could get to choose where I want to go and what team I feel I could fit in the best. Having the opportunity to choose was really helpful because now I’m in a situation with a young group where I can grow with them.”
Working in his favor is what he brings to the team. Phoenix ranked near the bottom of the NBA for team 3-point percentage last season while Jok shot 40.2 percent and 38 percent from three over his junior and senior seasons with the Hawkeyes despite a high volume of attempts and being his team’s primary scorer.
He won’t be tasked with nearly as much of the scoring burden in Phoenix, allowing a player who believes he was one of the best shooters available in last June’s draft to focus on key areas of his game. “Playing in college my last three years, I was a scorer, so I would score in different ways,” said Jok. “But this next level, I need to be a two-way guy, which is knock down threes and play good defense, so that’s the main thing I’ve been focused on and that’s what some of the coaches tell me that I need to focus on, just be a 3-and-D guy.
“Being on a team like this, I feel like I can bring the shooting to the team — any team, really — but especially with this team. Like the coaches said, we need shooting with this team, and just being able to be in this situation and be able to show my talent…is always just a blessing.”
Despite the Suns already possessing 15 guaranteed contracts, the opportunity is there for the 6’6 Jok to make an imprint on this team, especially with injuries to Brandon Knight and Davon Reed clearing some of the backcourt logjam. With the Suns having no salary cap issues, they can comfortably waive a guaranteed contract to make room for someone if so desired.
“I think last year at this time, we went up to Flagstaff with Derrick Jones Jr. really not knowing, honestly, not thinking he was going to make the team or not knowing what to expect,” McDonough said. “And he surprised us and made the team, and after the All-Star Break played a pretty good role as a wing defender, perimeter defender and was one of our more active players.”
Whether Bennett or Jok can crack the Suns’ roster is a question for a later date, and it is perfectly reasonable that neither might be around when the regular season gets underway in less than a month. That is reality for players on the fringes of the league. But having teammates like James (nomad) and Jones Jr. (undrafted rookie) to serve as success stories can only help if the newest Suns are willing to learn from their examples.