The three rookies have been flooded with congratulatory texts and tweets. The ignominy they might have felt on draft night, when their names were not announced among the top 60 picks, has been expunged by the joy Friday night when the Washington Wizards picked Danuel House, Sheldon McClellan and Daniel Ochefu to their 15-man opening night roster.
“The best moment of my life,” said McClellan, summing up the emotions. “I felt like that was my draft night (Friday) night. It just took a longer time for our names to get called. I’m just blessed to be in this position.”
The trio can now boast of officially making it to the NBA.
“Don’t rest because there are a lot of guys who want your job,” Coach Scott Brooks has told the trio, “you can’t ever rest.”
Brooks should know. He started as an undrafted free agent and stuck around the league for a decade, picking up a championship ring while he was a backup point guard in Houston and earning the floor burning, three-point shooting, loose-ball hunting reputation that carried him through his next life as a head coach.
With this mindset, Brooks has become a basketball sensei of sorts for young, undeveloped players, quite like the four rookies he’ll have on the Wizards’ roster (2012 draft pick Tomas Satoransky rounds out the quartet).
“I can’t remember having three undrafted rookies making the team [but] they came in and made the team … which is rare,” said Brooks, who admits he had not heard of House, McClellan and Ochefu before their June workouts in Washington. “Ernie [Grunfeld] and his staff did a great job of searching out guys who would potentially be late second-round picks and not get drafted. And we basically got the 61st, 62nd and 63rd picks in the draft.”
While coach in Oklahoma City, Brooks guided a 2009-10 roster that should have been sponsored by juice boxes and animal crackers: five rookies which included James Harden as well as second-year point guard Russell Westbrook and a 21-year-old “veteran” in Kevin Durant. Yet from that playground of promising talent sprung a slew of maximum-contract superstars. Next summer, big man Serge Ibaka will likely ink a massive deal. For now, however, he remembers the coach who helped guide him to prominence.
“[Brooks] is one of the guys I really appreciate a lot,” said Ibaka, who currently plays for the Orlando Magic but was one of the several first-year players on that 2009-10 Thunder team. “This year is going to be my eighth year in the NBA and I think everything I learned from him, everything he told me, that’s why I’m still here playing in the NBA.”
Though Ibaka, a 6-10 power forward adept at blocking shots and snatching rebounds, speaks of his personal experience, he offers clues as to what the undrafted trio can expect in the first year under Brooks. Ibaka came to Oklahoma City with a limited command of the English language — his career began in Europe though he was born in the Republic of Congo — so Brooks simplified his role.
Just box out, play defense and run the floor, Brooks instructed. With that came the promise of playing time, which leaped from 18 minutes per game his rookie season to 27 in the second year. By Ibaka’s third season, he was a full-time starter who led the league with 3.7 blocks per game.
“He didn’t want to complicate things for me. It kept things so easy for me my first year,” Ibaka said. “He gave me my chance to be a starter and an NBA player.
“He’s a great coach for young players,” Ibaka continued, “since day one, he got us in the right way. He [gave] us the toughness mentality and [knowledge on] how things go on in the league … that’s one of the best gifts I got from him.”
Ochefu, similarly built as Ibaka at 6-11 and with a similar skill set, should take note.
Ochefu became more attractive to make the cut after the Wizards’ backup center Ian Mahinmi needed knee surgery. Mahinmi would have been the team’s only rim protector but will be sidelined until mid November. Now Ochefu, who averaged 1.5 blocks per game during Villanova’s NCAA championship season, can become Washington’s Serge-like protector. His first-year instructions sound familiar: grab offensive rebounds, defend pick-and-rolls, block shots.
“Unfortunately when [Mahinmi] got hurt, I’m the next biggest guy on the roster,” Ochefu said. “Obviously we don’t want him to get hurt and [want him to] get back to 100 percent as soon as possible but in this time now I have to be able to step in whenever coach needs me to and provide whatever the team needs me to do.”
For the three undrafted rookies on non-guaranteed deals, the relief came Friday night. Now, their early careers are in the hands of Brooks.
“When you coach two of the best players in the league in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, you know you can grow [as] a young player with him being your head coach,” McClellan said of Brooks. “It’s very exciting. I’m looking forward to it.”