January 6, 2022
G League Hoop Dreams
If you tuned in to an NBA game recently, you might have been left with some questions about who you were seeing on the floor. The last few weeks have seen the NBA flipped upside down with a majority of rosters being decimated by players entering the health and safety protocols as COVID-19 rapidly spreads through the league. Well over 200 players have tested positive for the virus in addition to a handful of coaches and referees.
While the horde of cases has certainly left an unfortunate stain on the season, it has also opened the door for a mass of G League players who have been waiting in the wings for an opportunity to play on the big stage. The League responded to the surge by allowing teams to sign additional 10-day hardship exception contracts. As a result, a silver lining of the omicron outbreak has undoubtedly become the collection of longstanding journeymen who have seen their NBA dreams become reality over the last three weeks.
Call-Ups By the Numbers:
As of January 5th, there have been 103 call-ups of 98 G League players, by far the most of any season in the league’s history. 11 different G League teams have had five players called up to the NBA: the Capital City Go-Go, Cleveland Charge, College Park Skyhawks, Fort Wayne Mad Ants, Lakeland Magic, Maine Celtics, Motor City Cruise, Oklahoma City Blue, South Bay Lakers, Westchester Knicks and Wisconsin Herd. The NBA teams that have been heavily reliant on their call-ups include the Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons and Los Angeles Lakers, while top contending teams like the Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Brooklyn Nets have also been significantly impacted. In the month of December alone, 544 different players appeared in an NBA game, which is more than appeared in any other entire NBA season in league history.
As seen in the graphic above, a large chunk of the high-usage G League players have been called up to the NBA already. Over 60% of the players with 200 or more scoring chances in the G League are now seeing action in NBA arenas, getting a shot to prove that their success in the minor leagues can carry over to the majors.
While seasoned veterans like Lance Stephenson and Greg Monroe are included on the list of G League call-ups, many others have made their NBA debuts over the last three weeks, and some have been through incredible journeys to get there. The elusive dream of playing in the NBA has driven them around the world and back, sometimes several times, decorating their basketball passports with stamps from every league but the NBA. And now these persevering journeymen are getting the shot they have been seeking. Here are a few of our favorite stories among the crop of inspiring call-ups.
After going undrafted out of Green Bay in 2015, the 5’11 Sykes began his professional career in the G League with the Austin Spurs. However, when his number was never called for an NBA contract, Sykes began a journey that touched every corner of the globe. He started with Anyang KGC in the Korean Basketball League, where he showcased his offensive versatility, scoring 1.02 points per possession overall in his lone season. Sykes then spent a year with Ankara DSI in the Turkish second division, before moving on to Sidigas Avellino in the Italian Serie A League, where he led the team in scoring, assists, and steals. From August 2019 to December 2020, Sykes signed with teams in China, Italy, Turkey, Greece and Australia. He separated himself as a knockdown shooter with the South East Melbourne Phoenix in 2020, scoring 1.29 points per possession on all catch and shoot jump shots, before finally landing back in the G League with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants last fall.
Sykes scored 12 points per game with the Mad Ants While leading the G League in total assists. His NBA dream came true when the Pacers called him up on December 27, 2021 for the remainder of the season. One day before his 28th birthday, Sykes made his NBA debut against the Hornets.
A recent outbreak among the Pacers thrusted Sykes into a prominent role just a few games into his career. He made his first start on January 2nd, scoring 10 points and dishing out 5 assists in 35 hard-earned minutes. Two days later, Sykes erupted for 22 points and 6 assists against the Knicks, putting on a show in Madison Square Garden. A story that began all the way in South Korea has reached the World’s Most Famous Arena, and may open new doors for the journeyman floor general moving forward.
From #NBACallUp to NBA starter!
Keifer Sykes just lit up MSG for a career-high 22 POINTS and 6 assists. He’s averaging 16.0 points over his last two games.🗽 pic.twitter.com/gppqGm9jV2
— NBA G League (@nbagleague) January 5, 2022
In the third quarter of the Knicks-Thunder game on New Year’s Eve, Mike Breen stopped his play-by-play announcing for a two-and-a-half-minute monologue detailing Scotty Hopson’s story, calling Hopson one of his “heroes.” That’s some high praise from one of the legendary voices of the NBA, but Hopson’s tenacity warrants it.
Coming out of Tennessee, Hopson went undrafted in the 2011 NBA Draft before signing with Kolossos Rhodes of the Greek Basketball League to continue his pursuit of an NBA contract. He spent one season in Greece, followed by a year with Hapoel Eilat in Israel, and another with Anadolu Efes in Turkey before that contract finally came from the Cleveland Cavaliers. His first NBA stint was short lived, as Hopson saw just 7 minutes of action in two games during the 2013-14 season. In the offseason, he was traded four times in three months, including an improbable three times in four days before being waived by the Sacramento Kings.
Hopson spent the 2014-15 season in the G League playing for the Sioux Falls Skyforce, where he finished 13th in total points, scored an efficient 1.05 points per possession and recorded a franchise-high 52 points in a single game. Despite that, a call-up to the NBA never came, so he went back overseas. He played in Spain, China, Croatia and Turkey over three seasons before signing a 10-day contract with the Mavericks. Hopson appeared in just one game in Dallas and was not offered a second deal.
Hopson spent another season in the G League during the 2018-19 campaign, where he again scored an impressive 1.04 points per possession with the Oklahoma City Blue. He nonetheless returned overseas, playing in Israel, New Zealand and Australia before returning to the Blue full-time to start the 2021-22 season.
Now 32, Hopson finally got a legitimate opportunity to play in the NBA when the Thunder signed him to a 10-day hardship deal in late December. He played 18 minutes against the Phoenix Suns, scoring 4 points, grabbing a rebound and dishing out an assist. 10 years, 8 different countries, 95 G League games, 5 Summer Leagues, 3 10-day contracts and 1 global pandemic later, Hopson got the moment he had been chasing. Mike Breen hit it right on the nail: Scotty Hopson is a basketball hero.
Scotty Hopson’s basketball journey.
(sound on) https://t.co/QZjVQg2VrZ pic.twitter.com/49tAK3lDjn
— Todd Whitehead (@CrumpledJumper) January 2, 2022
After two seasons at two different community colleges and two more under Bob Huggins at West Virginia, Paige went undrafted in 2016. He signed his first professional contract with Oettinger Rockets of the ProA, Germany’s second division. After just a few months in Germany, Paige moved on to Karpoš Sokoli in North Macedonia, where he played in just four games. His career began to take off when he signed with the Newcastle Eagles, one of the powerhouses of the British Basketball League. Paige was named to the First-team All-BBL, averaging 22.1 points, 5.6 assists and 5 rebounds in his lone season with the Eagles. The 6’2” point guard’s shooting ability shined in England as he finished fourth in the league with 256 points from perimeter jumpers and led the league averaging 1.29 points per possession when running off screens.
Paige spent the next year with UB Chartres Métropole in France, where he averaged 12 points per game. He finally returned to the United States in 2019, signing with the Maine Red Claws of the G League. In 42 games in Maine, Paige averaged 10 points and honed his pick and roll skills. On all offense derived from pick and rolls with Paige as the ball handler, the Red Claws scored 1.23 points per possession, which led the league that season. Despite his efforts, Paige would have to wait for his NBA debut.
He went back overseas for two stints with Indios de Mayagüez in Puerto Rico, where he shined as an off-ball shooter, shooting 43% on spot up threes. He played one season with Atomerőmű SE in Hungary before coming back to the States for his second act with the Red Claws, now called the Maine Celtics, in 2021. Paige impressed in the G League this season, scoring 14 points per game on 0.93 points per possession, earning him a 10-day hardship contract with the Detroit Pistons. The 27-year-old Paige made his NBA debut on New Year’s Day, contributing seven crucial minutes to help the shorthanded Pistons beat the Spurs in overtime for just their 6th win of the season.
Hill’s professional career kicked off in the 2017 Philippine Basketball Association Governors’ Cup, where he averaged 26 points and 12 rebounds for the Star Hotshots. Hill then spent the 2017-18 season with Telekom Baskets Bonn in Germany, where he scored an efficient 1.04 points per possession, raising his profile significantly in Europe. He returned to the United States in 2018 to play with the Utah Jazz Summer League squad and excelled in a role as a perimeter shooter, scoring 1.33 points per possession in spot up situations.
The St. Louis native went back to Germany for the 2018-19 season, joining MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg. Hill was efficient from all over the floor in his second run in the Basketball Bundesliga, scoring 12 points per game on 1.04 points per possession. His 1.83 points per possession when cutting to the basket led the league that season. Hill, who has always been an exceptional on-ball defender, continued to improve his offensive skills with BC Astana in Kazakhstan, where he averaged 20 points per game on 40% shooting from three as the team’s first option. His last stop overseas came in 2020, when he played with Hapoel Jerusalem in Israel.
Hill finally got his shot back in the United States when he signed with the Birmingham Squadron of the G League in October of 2021. He’s been one of the most efficient offensive players in the entire league this season, shooting 52% from the field and 40% from three while continuing to be a high energy contributor on the defensive end. This two-way ability earned Hill a 10-day contract with the Atlanta Hawks, and the 26-year-old made his NBA debut on Christmas Day in Madison Square Garden. A few days later, he played 29 well-deserved minutes, scoring 13 points and adding 3 steals. Unfortunately, Hill entered the health and safety protocols shortly after his breakout performance, but if his journey to this point has demonstrated anything, this minor setback won’t hold him down for long.
Malcolm Hill came off the bench for 11 PTS (3/4 3PM).
Presented by @Verizon pic.twitter.com/iC6rgSaIy6
— Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) December 30, 2021
Xavier Moon & Paris Bass
These two players have two things in common: they both made their NBA debut within the last two weeks and they both began their 2021-22 seasons at a local G League tryout event. That’s right, just a few months ago Xavier Moon and Paris Bass were participating in a tryout that anyone off the street with $200 to spare could play in. Now they’re suiting up for NBA teams.
Moon was already being pursued by several G League teams when he showed up to the Birmingham Squadron tryout, eventually choosing to sign with the Agua Caliente Clippers. Moon had previously made a name for himself and more in the Canadian Elite Basketball League. In three seasons in the CEBL, he built a dominant resume that included three league MVPs, two championships and two finals MVPs. Moon shone in the G League this season, scoring 1.52 points per possession when spotting up, leading to a call-up to the Los Angeles Clippers. Through 4 games in the NBA, Moon has logged 67 minutes, pouring in 23 points, 6 assists, 9 rebounds and 5 steals. On January 4th, two days after his 27th birthday, Moon signed a second 10-day contract with the Clippers.
“It’s still unexplainable to me… it’s been a dream come true.” @xavier_moon on seizing the opportunity to play in the @NBA. pic.twitter.com/Lob5A0ecw0
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) January 4, 2022
Bass began his pro career in the G League in 2017, where he scored just 3.9 points per game in 15 appearances. He then went down a road that saw him play for multiple teams across multiple leagues in the Dominican Republic, picking up an MVP and a Finals MVP along the way, two seasons with Atléticos de San Germán in Puerto Rico, and a year in Taiwan with the Kinmen Kaoliang Liquor before finally returning to the United States to attend an open tryout for the South Bay Lakers. Bass earned a roster spot and has been a force in the G League ever since, averaging 17.9 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. A few days after being named to the G League All-Showcase Team, Bass signed a 10-day contract with the Phoenix Suns. He made his NBA debut on January 2nd, scoring 4 points and grabbing 2 rebounds in a win.
As you watch the rest of the 2021-22 NBA season, you may continue to see faces popping up that you don’t recognize. But just know, many of these talented, hard-working and deserving players have traveled a long road, both literally and figuratively, and have never given up on their hoop dreams along the way.
Sam is a member of Synergy Sports’ Strategy Team, working on new initiatives and content that expand Synergy’s brand awareness and fan engagement. You can follow him on Twitter @squad209.