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The NBA is the dream. The NBA has always been the dream, and more than four years since he last played out a late-season 10-day contract, James Nunnally is on the precipice again.
Nunnally was between NBA workouts this past weekend. Minnesota Timberwolves coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau ran him through his wringer recently, and Portland Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey worked him out last week. He met with Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey on Sunday, and he’s got two more workouts scheduled with teams this week.
Most teams scout Europe now, even if one general manager didn’t know Fenerbahce — one of the EuroLeague powerhouses capable of competing with lottery-bound NBA teams — played in Turkey. But undrafted Americans who head overseas wear that moniker like a scarlet letter. They’re often overlooked by teams with blinders on for draft-eligible talents with star potential (Luka Doncic) or players who entered their consciousness through international competition (Milos Teodosic).
Teams will give former lottery picks like Brandon Jennings any number of chances after they punch a passport. But players like Nunnally often fall through the cracks of NBA scouting.
“I don’t think that some of the guys they’re sending over to watch are scouting hard enough for guys who are good enough,” Nunnally told Yahoo Sports. “They’ll watch a couple EuroLeague games if they’re watching somebody they want, but I don’t think they’re really going in and taking a really good look, because there are a lot of guys in Europe who can play — who are very good, very talented. But also there are a lot of guys who are not in the right situation to get looked at by someone, so it’s all about timing and where you’re positioned. I don’t think there’s a bias at all. You just have to be in the right place at the right time, and that’s all it takes.”
Nunnally is confident this is that time for him. After years toiling in the D-League and in a handful of international leagues, the 27-year-old UC Santa Barbara product emerged on Fenerbahce as arguably Europe’s best 3-and-D wing — a role so coveted in the NBA that the Phoenix Suns just traded the 16th overall pick and another unprotected first-rounder for the draft rights to 21-year-old Villanova forward Mikal Bridges … and then went out and spent $15 million on veteran wing shooter and stopper Trevor Ariza.
“I feel like I’m the top of the top when it comes to that,” Nunnally said of filling a 3-and-D role on a loaded Fenerbahce team that just lost in the EuroLeague title game to Doncic’s Real Madrid. “That’s just how I feel.”
Nunnally spent every July from 2012 through 2016 on an NBA Summer League roster. He played in the D-League during his first two years out of UCSB, earning all-rookie and all-league honors. Both the Atlanta Hawks and 76ers signed him to a pair of 10-day deals during the 2013-14 season.
“D-League is a really big grind,” he said. “You have to really want to make it, or you can get caught in the negative, when guys are getting called up and you’re not. You feel like you could be doing the same thing. Guys are playing for the numbers. There’s a lot of stuff like that. It’s a crab-bucket mentality. But making it, that just shows your determination, how strong your mind is, because you’re not getting paid a lot in the D-League. It’s not the money. It’s the opportunity.”
From there, he went to Puerto Rico, where he was waived after six games, and Spain, where he left after seven. Eventually, you get written off by most NBA front offices, including one that turned down a recent chance to work Nunnally out because they had seen him three years ago.
But those three years have meant a world of difference for Nunnally, who found his way in 2015-16 under Italy’s top developmental coach, Pino Sacripanti, on Sidigas Avellino, for whom Nunnally captured Italian League MVP honors. That earned him his spot on Fenerbahce.
In two years on one of Europe’s top teams, he owns the second-best 3-point percentage in EuroLeague history (50.7 percent), only a hair behind former Ohio State standout Jon Diebler. A year after helping Fenerbahce to the EuroLeague title, he shot 55.4 percent on almost three 3-point attempts per game this past season — the best high-volume percentage in the league.
Nunnally has taken 400 3-pointers over 120 games between the Turkish and Euro leagues the past two seasons, and he’s made more than half of them. There’s a statistical case to be made he’s the world’s most accurate professional shooter right now, and the 3-obsessed NBA is taking notice.
Granted, the leagues are different, and the 3-point line is, too (23 feet, 9 inches, in the NBA, compared to 22 feet, 1 3/4 inches in FIBA play). But Nunnally produced a true shooting percentage hovering around 70 percent — a number that would have led the NBA. He can shoot off the dribble, around screens or set up in a corner. One look at his film will show a 6-foot-7 athlete who can serve as a pick-and-roll playmaker, scoring at all three levels and adding a couple assists per 36 minutes. He also defends three positions, drawing the likes of Doncic on occasion this season.
“I feel like I’ve defended all the best players in Europe,” he said. The man lacks no confidence.
Nunnally left college knowing he could score with NBA talent. Orlando Johnson, his close friend at UCSB, was drafted 36th overall in 2012 and bounced around the league for four seasons. Finding your footing in the NBA requires a learning curve, and you have to love the game of basketball to take the path Nunnally did to find the other side of it. After spending the past few years learning how to be a role player under some of Europe’s best coaches, he’s there now.
“I knew how to get a bucket,” said Nunnally. “I know the game. I know where to go on the court, where to be, the right places. I feel like I have a fairly high IQ in basketball. I just know how to get the job done. I didn’t really have the fine-tuning I needed until I got to Europe. Seeing the different styles of play and different types of coaching, I feel like that really helped me get to where I am now, knocking on the door again. I feel like I’m ready. I got smarter. I got better.”
The NBA game has changed, too. Nunnally remembers watching “The Beautiful Game” San Antonio Spurs earlier this decade, spacing out the Miami Heat’s defense past its breaking point, and thinking he could play that kind of role. Now, as almost the entire league has adopted that pace-and-space style of play, prioritizing his position, the NBA is coming back to Nunnally.
“Five years ago, it was more isolation and mid-range, but when you look back — when the Spurs were playing the Heat, when Danny Green and Gary Neal were just going off — you saw what they were doing, just spreading the court,” said Nunnally. “It was crazy. They’re not the most coveted guys. Like, Danny Green breaks the record [for total 3-pointers made] in the NBA Finals. You don’t think of guys like that, but then they do it and open doors for guys like me.”
Think Joe Ingles, who averaged 10.1 points (on 47.6 percent shooting from 3), 4.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists per 36 minutes for Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv before the Utah Jazz gave him an NBA roster spot at age 27 in 2014; he’s gone on to become one of the NBA’s most accurate shooters and a vital contributor on a resurgent Jazz team that just made the second round of the playoffs.
In this, his age 27 season, Nunnally averaged 16.2 points (on 55.4 percent shooting from 3), 3.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists per 36 minutes for Fenerbahce.
Utah is one of a few teams drawing from the untapped resource of European role players. Royce O’Neale is another example. The Boston Celtics — who just signed Nunnally’s Fenerbahce teammate, Brad Wanamaker, a year after inking Daniel Theis — are there, too. The Spurs, Toronto Raptors and Oklahoma City Thunder are also among those mining overseas.
The smart teams, basically.
In all, 10 teams have reached out about Nunnally’s availability. Nine of them were playoff teams last season, and the other — the Los Angeles Clippers — just missed the postseason. Are these teams putting out feelers for solid role players because they know they’re a piece or two away from legitimacy? Or are they just smarter than a team like, say, the Brooklyn Nets, who just used a late first-round pick on the hope that 19-year-old Croatian Dzanan Musa becomes what at least one undrafted American already is in Europe — a rotational player in his prime?
Nunnally might answer that question this season.
“The NBA is big on potential, but what happens when potential doesn’t pan out?” added Nunnally. “That’s why a lot of guys who come out of college are quick — three or four years and out of the league. Because I don’t think they’ve been developed the right way … When you come back from Europe or you’re a second-round pick, you’re not going to be thought of as a franchise player. You’re going to be a role player. You have to be able to do your role to a T.”
Nunnally wants a guaranteed deal and a chance to play. If he doesn’t find one, he’ll return to Fenerbahce or another Euro power. Former Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt is calling from Olympiacos. And a world-class shooter will put his NBA dream on hold for another year.
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