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Inside the NBA Rookie Transition Program

The transition from college to the NBA is about more than tougher on-court competition. Rookie Jabari Smith provides a glimpse into the NBA’s Rookie Transition Program.

Most NBA fans first get to see league newcomers in a pro setting either at the Draft or in Summer League. But thanks to the NBA and NBPA, the early weeks of a rookie’s career are about more than what’s shown on ESPN. Since 1986, the two groups have joined forces to educate players on navigating the NBA landscape with the Rookie Transition Program.

For many, the transition into the best basketball league in the world is even harder off the court than it is on it. So every year in Las Vegas, rookies break into groups of about 20, gather in classrooms, and listen to former and current players and coaches discuss everything from career development to financial literacy, and league and PA policies. They are then given a security presentation and asked to participate in group discussions to help get them ready for training camp and their NBA journey.

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“I learned a lot of things to expect when you step foot in the NBA and step foot in this world,” Houston Rockets forward Jabari Smith, the third overall pick in June’s draft, told Boardroom. “One of the main things I’ve learned is save your money and watch the people who are around you. We learned about everything from finances to tricks of the trade.”

Pat Connaughton, Jamal Murray, Grant Williams, Royce O’Neale, Chris Webber, Wendell Carter Jr., Matt Barnes, and Rockets head coach Stephen Silas were among those who gave presentations at RTP in July. Connaughton discussed his many real estate holdings, while Williams advised the youngsters to invest money in stocks and other safer places rather than spending so much money on a watch or jewelry. Other discussions centered around how many times you’re tested, what supplements you’re tested for, and how much money is taken away from state taxes for every city you play in.

“We recognize the value of our current and retired players’ experiences, having coaches speak to the guys, and bringing in professionals and experts to speak on the various topics these guys need to know upon entering the NBA,” Purvis Short, the NBPA’s chief of player programs, told Boardroom. “We’re putting together an important program that provides that foundation where these guys can have a long career.”

“It’s a chance to welcome players into the NBA family. And part of that includes having conversations that recognize them not only as athletes and performers, but also as people,” Jamila Wideman, the NBA’s senior vice president of player development, told Boardroom. “This transition is going to [include] all kinds of dimensions of their lives, including their family, their relationships, their ability to manage their finances, and their awareness of aspects of the world that we think are important for them to keep eyes open for.”

Courtesy of NBA Photos

The curriculum has had to change over the years as players have become more entrepreneurial, new technologies like social media, cryptocurrency and NFTs have emerged, and social media have become a larger part of everyone’s lives.

“They just always tell you not to worry about it and sometimes take a break from it,” Smith said regarding social media use. “The negatives are always going to outweigh the positives, so they were just telling us not to focus on it and be aware of what you’re saying to certain people.”

Mental health has also become a larger part of these RTP discussions, especially after the period of isolation we all endured during the early parts of the pandemic.

“We’ve really prioritized making sure that players have access to resources in each of their team markets and that the league is also providing resources not only for players, but for the same culture for coaches and team staff,” Wideman said.

One of the main lessons about entering the NBA that Smith learned from Webber is in finding consistency.

“You have to establish a routine and find something that works for you,” Smith said, “Find something that works that improves your game, and something that works for you to get ready for games. You have to stay consistent with your work and don’t let it fall off, because there’s a lot of free time with this league and just keep the main thing the main thing.”

And a lot of consistency, Smith said, comes with having a strong support system around you. Along with veteran players in Houston like Eric Gordon, Jae’Sean Tate, Kevin Porter Jr, and even Jalen Green who have reached out with advice on what to expect as a rookie in the NBA, Smith now has the vets he met in Las Vegas to learn from and lean on if need be.

“We’ll continue to try to provide these services to all of our first-year players not only at the beginning, but throughout their career,” Short said.

RTP, Wideman said, serves as a reminder that players are in charge of their lives and that this is the beginning of an ongoing educational process where they’ll be equipped to ask the right questions to the right people in service of a successful start to all their careers.

“Each player is going to have their own unique journey,” she said, “and as they take that journey on the court and eventually transition to life off the court after it, which can happen at any moment, we’re there for them.”

Through the Rookie Transition Program, teenagers like Smith are now better prepared for what lies ahead when the 2022-23 season kicks into gear with training camp next month.

 “I feel way more prepared and more ready coming into the league with this program,” Smith said. “And all the connections I’ve made with people around the league can help me if I get in any situation.”

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