The NBA dream first gets realized when your name is called by the NBA Commissioner. But along the way there are a few smaller milestones. One of those includes getting your photo taken by Panini for your first NBA trading card. Even in an age of grams, snaps and pics, having your image emblazoned on cardboard still means something. We caught up with a few rookies during the annual Panini rookie card photo shoot to get their thoughts going into their inaugural run.
Milwaukee Bucks, Forward
What was life like growing up in Sudan?
It’s tough man. If you’re from there you basically live to survive. It taught me a lot of survival skills, which, in the long run, made life much easier because it taught me how to take care of myself.
How did you get introduced to basketball?
I first got introduced to the game by my coach. After a while, I got the basics of the game and I never stopped playing since then.
You were the first natural high school player to enter the NBA Draft since 2005. Do you feel any pressure holding that weight of a high school player?
It means I have to play with a lot of weight on my shoulder. A lot of people came out of high school and played great, players such as Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett, and Kobe Bryant. Those guys were special, and I feel I have to be special too in order to be ranked alongside those players.
What did it feel like to get drafted by the Bucks?
I was very happy. It was a good feeling, and I’m very blessed.
How do you see yourself fitting in the Bucks?
It’s great, it’s a perfect fit. I think Coach Kidd can bring the best out of me and put me in the best position to succeed.
Can you address the age controversy that’s been following you?
Honestly, I’m getting tired of it and all the lies that came with it. I don’t waste any bad energy on that. It’s done in my book.
How will you feel to see yourself immortalized on a Panini basketball card?
It’ll be forever. I can’t wait to see my first edition basketball card! It’s a culmination of my work thus far in my career.
Did you collect any basketball cards growing up?
Not much. I have a few cards that I got my hands on but I wasn’t a big time collector.
Do you have a favorite card?
I got this pack that featured a lot of Michael Jordan cards. That was my favorite pack because it was Jordan and it featured some of his iconic moments.
New Orleans Pelicans, Guard
What was life like growing up in the Bahamas?
Life was good man, it was real laid back, and fun. Anything you need you can get it in five minutes. If you want food you can get it quick. It’s not like America where it takes 20 minutes to get a meal. You can’t beat life there. The Sun is always shinning, cool breeze, the ocean. It was an environment I didn’t regret growing up in as a child.
How did it feel to hear your name being called on draft day?
It was a blessing man, a dream come true. It’s something I worked hard for and something I always wanted. I can’t thank God enough because he blessed me with a talent. This is a stepping stone for me and my family.
There’s a big difference between the college game and the NBA game. How do you see the transition thus far in your NBA journey?
It’s been fun but there’s also a learning curve. It’s cool, as the days go on, you get better at what you’re doing. I’ve only been doing it for a short period of time. I’m still learning and I hope to get better.
How do you see yourself fitting in with the Pelicans?
I see myself fitting in great, I want to be a more efficient scorer and try to be the best two-way player I can be. Everyone knows I can score the ball so I want to bring some defensive intensity to the team.
Are you excited to play alongside Anthony Davis?
For sure, he’s a special talent and a top-five talent in the NBA. We can do wonders together. Once I get more mentally focused and move past the learning curve, we’ll be fine.
What are your team and individual goals for the season?
My team goal is to make the playoffs. They were a few wins away from making the playoffs a few seasons ago, and I think we’ll be in the hunt this year. My individual goal is to be Rookie of the Year. Why not compete for that?
Are there any players you are excited about going up against?
I’m looking forward to playing against everybody, especially the two-guards. You can’t pick and choose who you want to play against in the NBA. Everybody is going to bring it to you.
Which player would you compare yourself to?
I don’t see a lot of players like me, but I watch a lot of Bradley Beal, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson. I watch a lot of guys who can score a lot and shoot well.
Did you ever imagine yourself on an NBA basketball card?
I never imagined myself on a card, but it’s a good feeling. I hope casual or hardcore card collectors enjoy them.
You just signed with Nike. Can we expect any special releases?
No, you have to work for that. You have to be an All-Star to get it. One day I’ll get there.
What are some of your favorite kicks?
I love Huaraches, Air Max, and Kobe’s for sure; Jordan 1, and Air Forces. Everyone should have a pair of Air Force Ones in their closet.
During the NCAA tournament, you received some unexpected praise from Kobe Bryant. How much would it mean to you if you carried his line for Nike now that he’s retired?
I’ll be honored to do that for sure, especially because he’s a guy I really looked up to. I can’t preach how much he made me better through his work ethic, and things he did on and off the court.
Boston Celtics, Forward
How does it feel to be drafted by the Celtics?
It felt good. Boston is a good city with great traditions. This is something I’ve been working for since I was 13-years-old. I was happy to get selected.
Do you feel any pressure being drafted third overall?
I don’t feel any pressure at all, and if there is any pressure, it builds diamonds. I’m with it!
How do you see yourself fitting in with Boston?
I see myself adding to what they already have. They were already a playoff team. I just see myself learning from some of the vets, being a hell of a defensive player.
How has life changed since the draft?
Nothing much has changed. I live a very simple life. My status probably went up a little bit by being an NBA player, but I live by the same rules.
Growing up, who were some players that you looked up to?
Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, those are two players who I kind of idolized. I molded my game, my mentality after them. Tracy on offense, his size and versatility, he can play the one, two, or three; Kobe and his mentality, playing both sides of the ball, he wasn’t the biggest or the strongest, but mentally he was the toughest. [Right now], I‘ll say Russell Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard. I like Russ and his mentality. He plays with a chip on his shoulder. He plays like he doesn’t have a $90-million-plus contract. Kawhi, he’s just quiet. He’s a silent assassin and stays to himself. My mom always told me it’s the quiet ones that you have to look out for. He’s a killer.
You’re known for your dunks. Any chance of entering the dunk contest?
It’s a possibility. I have something planned, especially after last year. If you’re going to do it, you have to do it big.
How does it feel to see yourself in a Panini basketball card?
It feels great to be on basketball card.
Did you collect any cards growing up?
I had a Kobe rookie card, I had an Oscar Robertson card, I had a bunch of cards. It started just being cards as I got more into sports, but when I was younger, you couldn’t tell me nothing.
Do you still have that Kobe rookie card?
I do but it’s in storage somewhere. It might be worth some money in time, but I’d rather keep the card because time is worth more than a few bucks.
You just signed with adidas. Do you have anything special coming out with them soon?
Hopefully soon, I’m excited about being with adidas. They have amazing artists, and players. They do a great job with the visual representation they have.
What are your top favorite sneakers?
Jordan is really popular, but I stopped wearing Jordan a long time ago. I’m with adidas, so I’ll say my top adidas are the T-Mac’s, the one with the three lines across the front.
Minnesota Timberwolves, Guard
How did it feel to make it into the NBA?
It was an honor. I worked hard to get to the NBA, and to play in the NBA, it’s a dream come true and I’m looking forward to my opportunity.
How do see yourself fitting in with the Timberwolves?
I think I’m going to fit in well. We have a young group, and we’re talented in our own way.
Are you excited to play alongside Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Wiggins, Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine?
We have great players and we’re very experienced. KG is a former MVP and All-Star so he’ll help me develop my skills, and Karl-Anthony Towns is one of the best up-and-coming big men in the League. The future is bright in Minnesota.
At Providence, you were under the tutelage of one of the best guards in NYC history, God Shammgod. How did he influence your career?
Shammgod, he helped me a lot. He helped with my dribbling and he helped make my passing accurate.
Can you do the Shammgod?
Of course I can. It’s an easy move to pull off. I think anybody can do it.
Which sneakers are you wearing these days?
Right now, I’m an adidas guy. That’s all I wear.
What type of music do you listen to?
Drake, Future, etc. I listen to a lot of them.
Phoenix Suns, Forward
What was life like growing up in Croatia?
It’s a beautiful country. My childhood composed of playing with friends just like any other child.
What’s the difference between basketball in Europe and basketball in the United States?
It’s a bit of a difference. It’s a different mentality, obviously different players on the court.
How did your life change after you were drafted by the Suns?
Not much, getting drafted is great, but at the end of the day I’m the same guy that I was prior to the draft. I have the same friends and same family.
How do you see yourself fitting in with the Suns?
It’s a great organization. It’s a great place to be. I’m just happy to be here and looking forward to the start of training camp and the pre-season.
Did you collect basketball cards growing up?
Kind of, I collected a lot of Croatian guys. Basketball cards in Croatia isn’t popular in Croatia so we didn’t collect it as much as they do in the United States.
Denver Nuggets, Guard
You were a known high school prodigy in your early years. From HS you went on to have a successful one-and-done season at Kentucky. Before any of this happened, how did you get involved with basketball?
I fell in love in with basketball from the beginning. When I was kid, my dad brought a ball home. I started to play with it and from there I started to develop my skills.
How did your life change after draft night?
It didn’t really change. There’s a lot more people to talk to. My schedule is a little busier. It just added to my responsibilities.
What are your individual goals, and the team goals for your rookie season?
Man, I just want to keep improving. We’re a team that’s very young. We have to keep improving and once the playoffs come, we’ll see what happens from there.
How do you see yourself coexisting with Emmanuel Mudiay in the same backcourt?
It’ll be cool. We will complement each other very well. He slashes and gets to the rim a lot. I’m a willing passer. I’m looking forward to gelling with the entire team.