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Brandon Paul’s perseverance finally leads him to Spurs

Former Illinois standout achieves NBA dream at age 26


Brandon Paul was four years removed from college and playing in the NBA summer league for the third straight year when his dream to make the league finally came true at age 26.

Paul was in the midst of scoring 21 points and nailing four 3-pointers for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ summer league team against the Golden State Warriors on July 10 in Las Vegas when, unbeknownst to him, his life was about to change drastically. Paul’s agent, Adam Pensack, had agreed to terms for his client to sign a one-year guaranteed deal with an option for a second year with the NBA power San Antonio Spurs during the game. When Pensack gave the new Spurs guard the news after the game, Paul broke down with joy in a moment caught on video.

“That was crazy. I could kind of tell something was up because [Pensack] texted me and told me to come out of the locker room,” Paul said. “He called me three times and told me to ‘hurry up and come out.’ I didn’t know if it was a China team wants to give you $1 million or $2 million. It could’ve been anything.

“When I came out, [Pensack] gave me this look. When he told me, I was shocked. I broke down a little bit.”

To understand Paul’s emotions, you have to know his entire journey.

Paul was a two-time All-Big Ten selection at Illinois and was just the second player in school history to compile 1,500 points, 500 rebounds, 300 assists and 100 steals. The 6-foot-4, 200-pound guard averaged 16.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists as a senior for the Fighting Illini. Paul is pleased with his overall career at Illinois but believes he could have been more consistent with his play.

Brandon Paul while playing for the Illinois Fighting Illini in 2013.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Paul said he worked out for 17 NBA teams, beginning with the Spurs, and believed he would get drafted. He had a big 2013 NBA draft party with friends and family at his suburban Chicago home of Gurnee. Nearby, there was also a draft party in his honor for some other friends and fans at Timothy O’Toole’s Pub Chicago. Paul bounced back and forth between both parties, but through the entire draft of 60 picks, his name was never called.

“It’s definitely disappointing to go undrafted,” Paul said. “I saw the support I received, and for everyone to come out to watch, my high school coach was there and kids I grew up playing with and people who followed me throughout my career. … But it definitely was a little disappointing. People were definitely still disappointed. Some of my friends were more upset than I was.

“I knew it wasn’t the end of the journey. I knew it was the beginning. It was just part of the experience that matured me a little bit more.”

Paul played in the 2013 NBA summer league with the Minnesota Timberwolves in limited action. He considered several NBA training camp options that eventually were expected to lead to a D-League affiliate assignment. Instead, he signed to play in Russia for BC Nizhny Novgorod over an opportunity in France during the 2013-14 season, hoping to gain experience and financial stability. Paul’s time in Russia didn’t last long after he averaged 6.4 points and 2.7 rebounds in 13.8 minutes per game.

Paul believed the head coach didn’t want him around and the team was trying to get him to make a mistake to breach his contract. The African-American also acknowledged there were some language barriers and racism that plagued him in Russia.

“I faced some of it there, and there was the other [issue] of being a foreigner,” Paul said. “When you go to Russia, there are not a lot of African-Americans there. People are either happy to see you because they know you play or are confused as to why you are even there. That is part of the reason I left. It was so tough. I didn’t even want to leave my apartment. I just had a routine. I’d go to practice in the morning, come home to take a nap and go back to practice at night and do it all again the next morning.

Brandon Paul of Anadolu EFES

Albert Llop/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

“One time I got pulled over, but that was partly my fault. I didn’t understand the street signs and went down a one-way. The cop was kind of getting aggressive. I kept telling him in Russian that I didn’t understand. I had to call a guy from the team. You get a lot of different looks as a foreigner in another country. I didn’t think about it much from a racial standpoint, but there was definitely some racial stuff there.”

Paul got out of his contract in Russia and next joined the Cleveland Cavaliers’ D-League affiliate Canton Charge. But his stint with Canton lasted two games after he suffered a left shoulder injury that required season-ending surgery. He returned to the Charge during the 2014-15 season, averaging 15 points and 4.4 rebounds in 43 games. But on March 29, 2015, Paul’s season ended with a left shoulder injury before the playoffs. He has had two left shoulder surgeries and one right shoulder surgery since leaving Illinois.

Paul recovered and went on to Spain, where he averaged 13 points per game for Joventut during the 2015-16 season. He believed he had a “legit shot” to make the NBA after signing with the Philadelphia 76ers on July 25, 2016, but he was cut after four preseason games. He went to Spain to play for Divina Seguros and to Turkey last season to play for Anadolu Efes, where NBA scouts watched him closely.

Through it all, Paul kept the faith that the NBA would eventually call.

“I have a good, small circle around me,” Paul said. “My friends were all supportive. I would see how guys had different routes in the NBA. At this point, I just wanted to continue to play. Mentally, the surgeries took a toll the most, more than physically. It kept happening, and you’re wondering why it is happening to you. I didn’t want to keep questioning, ‘Why me?’ So I kept a positive mindset.

“There are other guys with tougher stories than me, so I didn’t feel sorry for myself. I just kept telling myself, ‘This is another block in the road. Just stay the course.’ It ended up falling in place.”

Brandon Paul of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots the ball against the Golden State Warriors during summer league action.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Paul was back in the NBA summer league last July playing for the Dallas Mavericks in Orlando, Florida, and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Las Vegas, where he “made the most of it” by scoring well and defending strongly for both teams. The Spurs noticed Paul from a defensive standpoint after losing Jonathan Simmons in free agency and offered a two-year contract paying $815,615 this season with a team option paying $1.3 million next season.

Paul is the latest in a long line of diamond-in-the-rough free agents whom the longtime creative Spurs and their general manager, R.C. Buford, have signed.

“[The Spurs front office], they work very hard all around the world to find guys,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “[Spurs guard] Bryn [Forbes], he is not brand-new. Brandon is not brand-new. They have been cut several places along the way. But they have come here and figured out a niche for them. Our guys have worked with them. R.C. and his group bring in guys that can look and see if we can find some diamonds in the rough.”

Paul returned home to Illinois with an NBA deal in hand after playing just three summer league games with the Cavaliers in Las Vegas. He was told to keep the deal quiet until the Spurs released it, but he did tell his mom, Lynda, when she picked him up from the airport in Chicago after an unexpected short trip to Las Vegas. The Spurs announced it July 14.

“It was definitely an emotional time for me. I teared up again when I told my mom because the Spurs are her favorite team. That was icing on the cake as well,” Paul said.

Soon afterward, Paul headed to San Antonio to begin preparing for the 2017-18 NBA season. He says he will never forget his first day at work with the Spurs, who immediately made him feel welcome.

“It took weeks for it to [set in]. This was crazy,” Paul said. “I wasn’t supposed to meet ‘Pop’ [Popovich] yet. He was there when I walked in, and I said, ‘What’s up?’ to him. He gave me a hug. I met with R.C. and he gave me a hug. It was surreal then, and it still is for me.”

Brandon Paul (No. 3) of the San Antonio Spurs drives past Draymond Green (No. 23) of the Golden State Warriors.

Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

The Spurs certainly are happy to have Paul, who has been a contributing role player while NBA All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard and starting point guard Tony Parker are out with injuries.

Paul played in his first NBA game on Oct. 23 in seven scoreless minutes against the Toronto Raptors. He is averaging 4.5 points and shooting 44.4 percent from 3-point range in 14.3 minutes per game while playing in 15 games for the Spurs. He scored a season-high 18 points in a loss to the Boston Celtics on Oct. 30 and ranks third among all NBA rookies in 3-point shooting percentage. Popovich likened Paul defensively to ex-Spurs star forward Bruce Bowen and added that he is working hard to become a better offensive player.

“He’s intelligent. He’s got a great desire to carve out an NBA career. And he has got some skills, so that is a good combination,” Popovich said.

Paul called his time with the Spurs “very humbling” and said he is ready to give his all in any role.

“I went in and played seven minutes in my first game, and I played my a– off in those seven minutes. And I am going to continue to do that,” he said. “If I play five minutes the next game, I am going to play those five minutes [hard] every possession. If I come in and play 25 minutes, it’s the same deal.”

Liner Notes

ESPN.com reporter Michael C. Wright contributed to this story.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.