Basketball fans know the Las Vegas Summer League, if they know it at all, as a place to see promising lottery picks for the first time, and observe less-than-sober Los Angeles Lakers fans in the wild. But for the players on the court, most of whom will never play in the NBA, the Summer League is something different—part job fair and part audition, the world's highest-stakes open run. People come to Las Vegas to gamble, but players like Josh Magette go there to bet on themselves.
After graduating from the University of Alabama-Huntsville in 2012, Magette has bounced back and forth between Europe to the D-League, which he led in assists per game last year; his Los Angeles D-Fenders made a surprising run to the finals. This summer, he headed out to Vegas to take another shot at the NBA call-up that's eluded him for four years. It's part of a year-long process that encompasses both Magette's lifelong dream of playing in the NBA and the mundane economic realities of being a basketball player in a global marketplace.
For a veteran free agent like Magette, each offseason is essentially a less-hyped version of the pre-draft meat market college players go through every summer. Shuttling to and from team practice facilities for mini-camps with 20-25 other players at a similar stage in their careers, Magette attempted show executives what he could bring to their team, always in just a few hours over a few days. It's not any easier than it sounds, especially when everything is so heavily based on the age-old "eye test."
And here is the obligatory mention of Magette's appearance. Magette can play, but as a skinny, not especially tall, baby-faced white guy, he's unlikely to pass any version of basketball's eye test. Magette looks like someone who got a finance degree from college a few years ago and keeps in good physical shape. He actually is that person.
It's probably why his 35-year old brother Jay, who played one year of high school basketball, jokingly claims he can still beat him, even now that Josh has played four years in the pros. Magette is more than aware that the eye test has hurt him at times in his career. "You go places and people ask why you're here, and you have the conversation. 'Oh, I'm playing in NBA summer league, and they go 'oh, you're playing? You're not a coach or a trainer?' 'No, I'm playing.' That conversation kind of wears on you after the 99th and 100th time," Magette said. "[People] see a 6-foot-1, 170-pound white guy, they don't think basketball player."
Despite that, Magette managed to catch the eye of Brooklyn Nets' scouts at the D-League Elite camp in Chicago, ultimately accepting an offer to join their Las Vegas Summer League team over several other interested organizations. "Brooklyn was the best opportunity," Magette said on a late June afternoon. "I looked at their roster, and just looking at it up and down, they don't have any point guards coming back … It just seemed like a pretty obvious choice."
What seemed obvious at the time became more complicated less than a week later. The Nets let Shane Larkin and Donald Sloan go, but opted to throw a combined $86 million at point guards Jeremy Lin and Tyler Johnson in the opening days of free agency; Lin signed with the team, but Johnson ultimately returned to the Miami Heat. This is life for many veteran free agents like Magette: the roster holes they see when agreeing to join a team's summer roster might be filled by big spending just a few weeks later. The window is never open much more than a crack, and it is always closing.
Like most players, Magette keeps a close eye on social media for the latest updates; they're not quite job listings to him, but they do provide a sense of the market. "I got Woj tweet notifications set up, so I'm not missing anything," Magette said. "Those three days when the offer sheets [Brooklyn] signed for Johnson and Allen Crabbe (offers ultimately matched by the Heat and Trail Blazers, respectively), I was paying attention to all of that." Magette knows he can't do anything about those moves, and focuses on trying to "control what I can control." And so, instead of sitting on Twitter all day, Magette fully dedicated himself to training with the team in Brooklyn.
Every Sunday during their three week training camp before summer league, Magette would board a commercial flight from his offseason home base in Alabama to Brooklyn to work out at the team facility with the rest of the summer league roster. A shuttle picked up the team from their hotel in the morning and brought them to the Nets' practice facility, where they ate breakfast before hitting the weight room. This was followed by highly competitive scrimmages between players battling for the same roster spots. "Guys are competing for jobs and they're competing for playing time and everyone out there wants to win," Magette said. "You're not trying to chase somebody and hurt them on the fast break or anything, but everyone plays very hard, and I know the coaches [refereeing the scrimmages] get their work cut out for them trying to keep everything equal."
After these battles, the team finishes up with lunch at the practice facility before shuttling back to the hotel around 2:30. It's a four-day routine that continues until they fly back home and come back to repeat the process the next week. As the team's time in Las Vegas drew nearer, Magette got one last weekend with his family before flying back to Brooklyn on the Fourth of July for the last week of training camp. "I've kind of gotten used to it," he said. "It's my fourth year, I've missed Christmases and birthdays. It's hard. But you kind of get used to leaving on holidays when the rest of your family has plans to do something, or you already were doing something. It's just kind of part of the process."
Magette is doing what he loves and making a living, but it's still a job. Like any other job, it has its drawbacks. "Over time, you're missing all the events in your friend's lives, and all the stuff that's going on in the world that you have to put basketball in front of because for the entire seven, eight months of the year it's basketball, and then everything else," he said. "You've got to make a decision about what you're going to put first."
Magette's parents have done their best to make sure he's not out there alone. The pair flew out to watch him play in Las Vegas, and it's far from the furthest they've gone to watch their son play. Like many players on basketball's fringes, Magette has piled up quite the collection of passport stamps. There was his first year as a pro, in the Netherlands for Lanstede Zwolle of the Netherlands DBL, when Peggy and Jimmy spent two weeks with him over Christmas. Or his second year playing in Greece for ASA Koroivos Amaliadas, when they had trouble finding HEBA A1 box scores until a day later, and relied on Josh for updates on his play.
During Josh's two seasons with the D-Fenders, the Magettes watched all of Josh's games, either in their basement or at a local sports bar that would stream D-League basketball for them. They also took advantage of him playing stateside, driving his car out to him on the west coast and road-tripping to Texas to watch him play in road games around his birthday. The two acknowledge the difficulty of watching their son jet around the globe in pursuit of his basketball dream.
"The worst part of it was his first year out of college, and Labor Day weekend we put him on an airplane to go to Holland," said Magette's father, Jimmy. "And we knew he was going overseas … "
"And we didn't know when we'd see him at that point in time," Peggy said.
"That was hard," Jimmy said. "Just putting your kid on an airplane, that tore me up."
Before the Nets kicked off the Las Vegas tournament against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Magette skipped the team's patchwork training room in a rented-out ballroom at the Wynn hotel and casino. He was eager and ready to show the Nets—and whoever else might have been watching—what he could do. "Knock on wood, I'm fully healthy," Magette said after the game, although he would've been unlikely to sit out with any injury anyway; he played ten weeks of the D-Fenders' season with a broken right hand last year.
If that sounds insane, that's because it is. But it's also a reality for players in the minor leagues—if you can't get on the court, you won't get seen, and won't get a call-up. "You make it work," Magette said with a laugh. "Luckily it was on my right thumb, and I'm left-handed so I like going left to start with. The hardest part was just catching the ball, getting it in the shot position that you want, because a lot of times that thing will move around and not be stable all the time."
Magette played just over 15 minutes in a sloppy 79-73 win for Brooklyn in the Summer League opener, producing three-points on three shots to go with three rebounds, three assists, two steals, and two turnovers. It was far from the best game he's ever played, but Magette was unfazed. "When we win, it makes us look better. All these scouts and GMs are looking for guys that win, and as many games as we can win the better we look," he said. "I had the two turnovers, that'd be a good stat not to have, but I felt good about the way I played."
The crowds for games not featuring the Lakers tend to be sparse in Las Vegas, but representatives from each of the NBA's 30 teams are among those who don't miss a game. "Warming up, and kind of on the outside [of the court], you look around and there's guys that you see on TV," Magette said. His previous Summer League experience was with the Orlando Magic at Orlando Summer League, where there are only executives and coaches allowed in the gym. It makes for a pressure-cooker of an experience.
"You definitely think about turnovers a little more, you think about decisions you make a little more, defensive rotations, and you know there's a stop and you kind of think 'oh, dang,'" Magette said of playing in front of these player evaluators. "Everything's kind of amplified, the good things and the bad."
To take his mind off of those basketball-related pressures, Magette and his family spent the majority of their nights in Las Vegas together doing what they enjoy most: watching basketball. It may not seem like the ideal way to detach from his day job, but Josh and his family's love of the sport has made obsessives out of the whole Magette clan, dating back to when Jimmy would record all of Josh's high school and college games on his camcorder and send them to his and Peggy's parents. In the Nets' second game, Josh again found himself a spectator, winding up with the stat line that every player in his situation dreads: DNP-CD (Did Not Play, Coach's Decision).
Magette said Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson told him he would sit before the game, and he cheered on his teammates as best he could through a 72-65 Brooklyn win. Still, he acknowledged the situation wasn't ideal. "It stinks, to be honest," he said. "Everybody wants to go out there and play, but that's part of it. I just have to make the most of the opportunity when I'm out there tomorrow. I'll play when they tell me to."
Magette's parents, who would only receive one more chance to watch him play before leaving town, tried to look on the bright side. "He seems to be okay with it, so if he's okay with it, I have to be okay with it," Peggy said. She admitted that it's hard for her to watch her son play because she gets so nervous. On Tuesday, the Magettes, joined by Josh's D-Fenders head coach Casey Owens and his family, were there for his best game of the tournament. Magette played nearly 16 minutes against the Washington Wizards, and although the team lost on a buzzer-beating layup from Jarell Eddie, his three points, five assists, and two rebounds were a positive.
"It's unbelievable [playing with Josh]," said excitable Nets forward Beau Beech, who was on the receiving end of several of Magette's assists. "Josh is a real good point guard, has a great vision of the floor, it makes my job a lot easier just to catch and shoot because he creates so much space with his dribble."
Not one for self-praise, Magette was less enthusiastic about his play, stating simply "I thought I was okay." He was more comfortable talking about how much the support of his family and former coach meant. "I heard them up there," he said with a smile. "Especially my mom, she's loud."
Magette's play deflated once his family left. "It was pretty brutal, I thought it was about as bad as I could play," Magette said of his showing against the Sixers: 0-for-3 shooting, two turnovers, and one foul in about 10 minutes of playing time. He also wound up with a gash on his chin after being thrown to the floor by Philadelphia forward James Webb III, who has eight inches and forty pounds on Magette.
Magette did more with his 10 minutes in the team's final game, a 91-83 overtime loss to the Cavs, but still managed just three points (sinking his only three of the night), two rebounds, and two assists. After that, all that was left was to wait and see if he'd done enough to earn a training camp invite. "You make do with what minutes you get," Magette said. "And I thought I made the most of the minutes that I got throughout the week."
Magette did enough to draw praise from Nets' summer league coach Kenny Atkinson, who said he was pleased with what he saw from Magette throughout the training camp, practices, and the tournament. "Heck of a competitor," Atkinson said. "We watched him in the D-League even when I was in Atlanta. He's perfect for our team, his attitude has been impeccable, I think he does a great job running the team. Just a very good player."
But that is the problem, or at least part of it. Magette is a very good player, but he also didn't play a ton of minutes in Las Vegas. At age 26, in a league fixated on upside and youth, Magette knows his options may be dwindling. Still, as long as he's in the game, Magette believes he has a shot. And to stay in the game, you have to stay in the game.
While his agent waited for calls about training camps and fielded exploratory contract from a few teams, Magette headed back to Alabama, where he'll split time between Birmingham and Huntsville to train with his college coach and a few former and current players at his alma mater. If an NBA spot isn't in the cards, Magette said, he would be willing to return to the D-League, or head back overseas if an attractive enough opportunity presents itself. And if one doesn't?
"Obviously I try not to think about it, but those thoughts creep in your mind," he said. "Hopefully we'll never have to get there, but it is a possibility, a real possibility. We'll see what happens."
There are players who broke through in the NBA after similar travails—Kent Bazemore, Tyler Johnson, and Jeremy Lin, among others, got very rich this offseason—but there is also the future. There might be coaching. There's Magette's finance degree, if he decides he wants to use it. It's an industry he'd finally pass the eye test for, with a higher pay median pay than a max contract in the D-League, not to mention very little chance of getting thrown around like a rag doll by co-workers nearly a foot taller than him. "Yeah I'd be perfect for that," Magette said with a laugh, considering the possibility. "I'd fit right in."
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