After spending last season competing against bigger bodies, more refined shooters and quicker guards than he ever faced in college, the 6-foot-6 shooting guard is now on the verge of becoming the first player to go from D-League star to first-round draft pick.
“I think the D-League competition is a little better than people think and most of the guys have already been here (team workouts),” Rice said after his latest stop Monday at Indiana. “I think that was one of the biggest helps. All of my teammates have been through this and played in the summer league and they were able to tell me what I needed to work on last season.”
It made an impact, too.
Even Rice admits he’s a different player and a different person than the guy who finished his college career by getting booted out of Georgia Tech for too many off-the-court incidents 15 months ago.
Clearly, it’s not the traditional path to the NBA. Most top players hone their skills in American colleges or work their way up the ranks overseas and if that doesn’t work, they often return to international competition like San Antonio’s Gary Neal or work their way back through the D-League like the Spurs’ Danny Green and Miami’s Chris Andersen.
More than 130 players who appeared on NBA rosters this season spent some time in the D-League though virtually all of them waited until after the NBA draft to sign up. Rice couldn’t afford to wait because he had to prove he could play right away.
After getting benched at the end of his sophomore season in college and being suspended twice as a junior, Rice was kicked off the team in March 2012 following a shooting incident. He left school with career averages of 9.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists.
Initially, it looked like he might be making a mistake. Rice played only 10.4 minutes through the first 16 regular-season D-League games, then finished the regular season by scoring 17.2 points over the final 26 games and dominated in the playoffs with averages of averages of 25.0 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists, leading Rio Grande Valley to the league championship.
What changed? NBA director of scouting operations Ryan Blake believes Rice has matured from being a kid that “enjoyed school too much” by buckling down and focusing on basketball.
The challenge for Rice now is proving his fast finish was no fluke.
“I think when you’ve got size and can play on the perimeter, it really helps,” Blake said. “He’s not a great creator, but he improved his scoring from his days at Georgia Tech just tremendously. He’s become a better defender, but he could be even better. I think the size and athleticism is the key and knowing that system really helps.”
Rice also has something else working in his favor: Bloodlines.
His father led Michigan to the 1989 NCAA championship, was the fourth overall pick in the NBA draft that year and went on to make three All-Star Games and win one NBA title, with the Lakers in 2000. But Rice’s pursuit of an NBA career has never been about following in his father’s famous footsteps.
“I’ve seen him play, but that’s the biggest question, do I remember it? Not really. I’ve seen some of his tapes, but he doesn’t really have a lot of tapes around because his mom has most of them,” Rice Jr. said. “There might be a little added pressure, but that comes with the territory. I don’t really put any added pressure on myself.”
Rice wouldn’t be the first player drafted out of the D-League. League spokesman Tim Frank said there have been several players chosen in the second round.
The question is where does Rice fit exactly in a draft rife with tall, talented shooting guards?
“It’s one of the toughest questions because it’s also one of the deepest drafts,” Blake said. “For certain he’s going to be on someone’s summer league team, there’s no doubt about it. Could he be drafted in the first round? Absolutely. Could he be drafted in the second round? Absolutely. Could he not be drafted? He could be.”
Should Rice go in the first round, it could redefine the way other players view the D-League over time though that will likely take time given the league’s reputation.
Star Butler shooting guard Rotnei Clarke also attended Monday’s workout with the Pacers, and at 5-foot-11 acknowledged he’s unlikely to get drafted next week. While Clarke promised to do whatever it took to get to the NBA, Clarke said he had not spoken with Rice about his D-League experience and that it was unlikely he would follow that trek.
“If I go to the D-League, it would have to be a situation where I would be called up pretty quick,” he said. “I don’t want to spend the whole season there when I could go overseas and make a lot of money.”
For Rice, the decision was no mistake.
“I think he took the correct route because you’re playing in a league with NBA coaches, NBA systems and an NBA environment so you get a great teaching tool,” Blake said. “Most athletes have to pay their dues. They don’t just become top athletes in the world without paying their dues. But think about it. Here’s a guy that didn’t play much till the latter part of the year, but he worked hard and he got that opportunity. It can only help him.”