For many, college is a struggle: a short four (sometimes more) years to figure out a life path. But after college, it seems, is when the real struggle begins.
For two former Gophers men’s basketball players — Damian Johnson and Lawrence Westbrook — the pressure to find work in their profession looms large.
The problem is that positions aren’t readily available in their field, and with the scarcity, available positions go to the elite.
Many of those elite will be announced during Thursday’s NBA draft. But with only two rounds and 60 picks to go around among the world’s top basketball talent, players likely to go undrafted like Johnson and Westbrook must impress teams in workouts and hope for a free-agent contract. Both players worked out for the hometown Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday, with head coach Kurt Rambis looking on.
Westbrook, who led the Gophers in scoring his last two seasons, has worked out for several NBA teams, trying to impress them with his ability to find the open spaces on the floor and create his own shot.
Johnson’s biggest asset is his defense. His length and quickness give him the ability to guard multiple positions, but Johnson said he is most suited to guard “a 2 or a 3” — a shooting guard or small forward.
Timberwolves assistant coach and Minnesota graduate J.B. Bickerstaff ran a group of five players through individual and team drills to get a better look at each player’s skill set.
Bickerstaff said the staff looks for a combination of physical tools, mental toughness and “coachability” throughout the course of the workouts.
“Can you listen? Can you learn? How quickly do you pick things up?” Bickerstaff said of the traits he looks for. “Those things are all as important if not more important than the physical part of it.”
The Wolves own three picks in the first round and two in the second, but they likely won’t use any on either of the former Gophers.
Experts say the team’s biggest needs are length and scoring, and while Westbrook is a strong scorer with over 1,000 points in his Gophers career, the team already has a similar player in Syracuse’s Jonny Flynn .
While either player’s skills could be a commodity on an NBA team, there is immense depth of talent relative to the space available on NBA rosters. As such, the two are sitting back and gathering information about their options, should the NBA dream not come true.
The NBA Development League is the NBA’s official minor league affiliate. The league currently consists of 16 teams with direct affiliations to the NBA, and is considered a backup option for the “second tier” of basketball talent.
Another option would be to play overseas in Europe or Asia.
“You can’t shut out anything. Overseas, the NBA — I just want to play basketball,” Westbrook said.
Johnson wasn’t willing to rule out any option either.
“The NBA is not a guarantee at all, so hopefully it works out. But if overseas is the [best] option, I’ll take it,” he said.
Johnson’s agent has received numerous phone calls from teams overseas wondering about the availability of his client, Johnson said.
In addition to Friday’s workout with the Wolves, Johnson worked out last week with the Miami Heat, and said his agent scheduled a workout for Monday with the Atlanta Hawks. He also hoped to squeeze in one more workout with the New Jersey Nets before Thursday’s draft.