BY BRETT KOREMENOS
Art by Mike McGrath, Jr. Instagram: @michaelmcgrathjr Twitter: @mikemcgrath
The gym is garden-party quiet, the red seat is uncomfortable, and my stomach is in knots.
Las Vegas Summer League can be raucous when, say, the Lakers or Ben Simmons plays. But this is the Warriors against the Spurs, which, in 2016, draws half-full stands. You can hear every sneaker-squeak and coach’s call.
At the far end of the court is a bearded, 6-foot-4 NBA hopeful from Pasadena, Texas: Tom Walkup. He stands near the baseline in his blue and gold Warriors jersey, boxy, muscle-bound, and looking like a linebacker. He almost glows white, with red hair and beard. He is impossible to miss. And in the basketball world, he is having a moment, ever since a 33-point, 20-free-throw destruction of a third-seeded West Virginia team in the NCAA tournament. Tom combined a bulldog’s mentality with a chess player’s brain; equal parts savvy and physicality.
That run catapulted unheralded Stephen F. Austin—that’s a college—onto the radar of NBA front office executives. Over the course of the spring and into June, Tom accumulated some serious frequent-flier miles—working out for nearly half the league’s 30 teams. Executives and draft experts in the media weren’t sure what to make of this undersized forward. The Nets said they had him in the mix with one of their late picks, but Tom ultimately went undrafted. In the end, the NBA—a league where some small forwards are 7 feet tall—doesn’t know what to do with a 6-foot-4 power forward. He was a weird fit.
It was my job to try to fix that. Tom entered the orbit of the two-man training outfit where I worked just two months earlier. For eight weeks, we were tasked with preparing Tom and a handful of other players for the rough-and-tumble world of professional basketball.
And here, today, we would unleash our secret project, our biggest gambit: Tom Walkup, point guard.
It was early April of 2016. My phone buzzed with a text from my business partner. “We’re getting that Walkup kid from Stephen F. Austin. Check him out and let me know your thoughts.”
I had never actually seen Tom play. I had caught just the tail end of that West Virginia game and some highlights. Same for the Notre Dame game that turned out to be his last one in college. So when I hopped on Synergy, the film vault that fueled our preparation process, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
Within a few clicks, I had all of Tom’s college career in front of me. As play after play flickered across my computer screen, I started to understand his essence. Tom’s role was ambiguous. He was basically an offensive Swiss army knife. From post-ups to running the break in transition, Tom did it all.
Something started to stand out to me the more I watched. Even though I tried to avoid it, that cliched, descriptor “feel for the game” fit Tom perfectly. And while a lot of college stars learn to balance out their offensive approach only when they have to, Tom liked to pass. Suddenly a question popped into my head:
Was Tom a point guard?
Over the past seven years, I had been a part of the pre-draft process for dozens of players. But Tom’s case was special. Few players fundamentally change roles.. Maybe they’re unable to change, maybe they’re unwilling, maybe nobody ever asked them to consider it. That doesn’t mean they don’t improve, just that the improvement comes from refining, honing, and perfecting the types of players they already are. Bucket-getters keep getting buckets. Undersized energy guys keep careers by bringing their hard hat to work every day. Playmakers are born, not made.
That’s what we were going to challenge. Against long odds.
In a 2012 interview, Portland Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey said his front office noticed Damian Lillard’s pick-and-roll experience in college. At Weber State, Lillard orchestrated those at the rate of a European veteran—265 his senior season alone, according to the Synergy Sports database. To Olshey, that was a “translatable skill.”
As the best player on a college team, Tom got some of those opportunities. During his time at Stephen Austin, he was involved in just over 200. That was the good news. The bad news was that according to the numbers, he left a lot to be desired as a playmaker. Lillard had left Weber State with a doctorate in the pick-and-roll—the NBA’s staple play. Tom had barely enough credits to qualify for a bachelor’s degree.
It was a sun-soaked, spring day in Arizona when my business partner, Dustin, and I picked Tom up at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport. As Dustin drove, the conversation shifted quickly from the “getting to know you” phase to our standard line of questioning. The headliner query is always some form of “who are some players you could see yourself emulating?”
I have heard lots of answers to that question. But Tom’s stood out.
“Matthew Dellavedova,” he said from the backseat of the black Nissan. “He’s tough, big-time competitor, always seems to make the right play. I can definitely see myself playing like him.”
It’s very rare for a young player to ever mention someone so far down the NBA totem pole. It’s even more rare when the comparison was the same as the one my colleague and I were planning on using as a template for our training. Everyone involved in Tom’s process was on the same page. When that’s the case, how could things go wrong?
Eight hard weeks. There’s a big difference between being the best player and being a point guard. Handling backcourt pressure, holding off defenders while calling sets, managing the game—all are subtle, but vital. Between ball-handling, film, and simulated games, Tom was on a mission to shed the “undersized forward” label attached to his name.
It would mean new habits. On the court and off. The weight room doesn’t feel like home to every basketball player. Tom loves it. He’s fully in touch with his inner Schwarzenegger; being stronger than everyone else fueled his college success. We wanted him to focus elsewhere. He had spent the eight weeks of his pre-draft playfully pining for more of what he likes to call “meathead shit.” Our running joke was that if I checked the security cameras, they’d show Tom sneaking in at night to do bench presses and bicep curls.
But mostly, things looked promising. By summer league, Tom felt confident he was ready to show the NBA world a new player.
The referee handed the ball to the inbounder. Tasked with bringing the ball up court in true point guard fashion, Tom freed himself from Spurs first-round pick Dejounte Murray. Tom caught the ball, turned, and found Murray hounding him full-court. The challenge came early.
Just as he was about to cross halfcourt, Tom succumbed to the pressure; Murray’s long arms tapped the ball away, Tom stumbled. Murray picked up the ball and coasted in for a layup. Other than the occasional wild-man yell, Tom played without showing a lot of emotional highs and lows. But the sag of his shoulders was obvious. This was embarrassing.
My heart sank. This was supposed to be the unveiling of a new act. Instead, the curtain opened to reveal a partially built set and an actor half dressed. As the game wore on, I worried about all the work we’d done, and Tom’s confidence to keep at it. This wouldn’t be easy.
The final buzzer sounded. I pulled out my phone as I worked to find comfort in that intolerable stadium chair. The box score had terrible news: more turnovers than points or assists. My shoulders sagged now, too. I slid the phone back into my pocket and mindlessly gazed out at the next two teams getting warmed up, all these hardworking, eager young players, anxious to take Tom’s spot.
Every journey has a first step. Unfortunately for Tom, this step was in the wrong direction. The process had seemed so fun when we began. That game had been a bucket of cold water. This was going to be a lot harder than I thought.
The next morning, we met Tom at his hotel for a late breakfast. There can be a morgue-like atmosphere to the Vegas breakfast buffet. The room regrets last night. We found a table near the pale white wall. Other than a quick “I sucked”—Tom never has reservations about harsh self-assessments—there was a tacit agreement to leave last night’s game out of the conversation. The opening scene of the great point guard show had been a bit of a disaster. But we jokingly called Tom the Texas Terminator for a reason: He wasn’t going to stop. The show would go on.
Brett Koremenos is a writer, trainer and strength coach who has worked and written about athletes from high school to the professional level for over a decade. He has a newsletter of his own which we recommend. The next part of his series on Tom Walkup is coming later this week.