He’s made the team, providing the best story of the Pacers’ training camp, but Damien Wilkins doesn’t feel like he has it made. He’s taken too many detours into remote outposts, endured too many disappointments, to feel that way.
“I never have,” he said following Monday’s practice. “That’s why I’ve always kept fighting. But it’s a step in the right direction.”
Barring unforeseen circumstance, Wilkins will be in uniform when the Pacers open their season Wednesday against Brooklyn at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. It will mark the first time he’s been in uniform for a regular season game since April 17, 2013, when he played for Philadelphia against the Pacers at The Fieldhouse. That’s a four-season break if you’re counting at home, making his one of the most impressive comebacks in league history.
Bobby Brown was out of the league for six years before making Houston’s roster last season. But he was a relatively-sprightly 32 years old then, five years younger than Wilkins is now. P.J. Tucker played 17 games in 2007, then was out for five seasons before getting back in at age 27.
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There are a couple of outlier situations, too. Magic Johnson sat out four seasons after contracting the HIV virus, then returned for 32 games in the 1995-96 season at age 36. Bob Cousy had been retired for six seasons, then activated himself as a player-coach for the Cincinnati Royals at age 41 and played seven games.
Wilkins’ story is unique because of his age and the places he had to go to revive his NBA career. He wasn’t bouncing around Europe or China, where the competition and money are still of the major league variety. Last season was typical: he played for the Greensboro Swarm in the Development League, and then with Brujos de Guayama in Puerto Rico in the Spring.
No glamour. Almost no money. But enough to keep hope alive.
“I never stopped believing I was an NBA player,” Wilkins said. “I kept working, playing in places most people probably won’t go to play to stay sharp.”
Wilkins came to the Pacers with the promise of a fair shot at making the roster, but no guarantees. He had begun his career playing for coach Nate McMillan in 2004, making Seattle’s roster as an undrafted player because of his standout performance in the Chicago pre-draft camp. Now he might be ending his career with McMillan as well, an appropriate full-circle revolution. Same coach, same longshot opportunity.
He got his fair shot, and made the most of it. He’s been “just a body in camp” for other NBA teams and knows of the futility of that exercise. You rarely get a chance to prove yourself, in games or practice, and when opportunity does knock it’s so sporadic and brief that it’s nearly impossible to perform well.
Wilkins performed well, in both practice and games. He averaged 7.8 points in 19.2 minutes in his three preseason appearances, hitting 50 percent of his field goal attempts, including 42 percent of his 3-pointers. Aside from that, he didn’t look at all like a soon-to-be 38-year-old trying to keep up with the kids.
Still, he didn’t know what to expect when the final roster cut was made. And he doesn’t take it for granted that he’ll be in uniform on Wednesday. How could he, after chasing it for so long?
“I’m extremely excited about it, I can’t even put it into words,” he said. “I’ve worked my butt off for four years to get to this point and I don’t want to let the organization or teammates down.
“It still feels surreal.”
Wilkins got an assist from Glenn Robinson III, who suffered a severely sprained ankle during training camp. That left a hole at small forward, Wilkins’ position. Robinson’s injury is expected to keep him out until mid-December, so Wilkins’ position appears safe until then, at least.
But that’s precisely the kind of situation that inspired McMillan and team president Kevin Pritchard to invite Wilkins to camp in the first place. Wilkins is a happy-to-be-there veteran who won’t complain about playing time but will be able to lend advice to younger players. And, if called upon, he’ll be able to contribute.
Better him than a young, unproven player who wouldn’t get an opportunity to prove himself at the end of the bench, and might become frustrated by lack of playing time.
“This was the scenario we were thinking about,” McMillan said. “It’s very difficult to think about having a young player in that role who would not play. To have a young guy sitting there trying to develop him when he’s not getting reps, that’s difficult to put someone in that position.”
Wilkins is much like Rasual Butler, who played 50 games for the Pacers in the 2013-14 season after sitting out the previous NBA season. Butler, 34 at the time, revived himself in the Development League, made solid contributions to the Pacers despite averaging just 2.7 points, and went on to play two more seasons, for Washington and San Antonio, before retiring.
Wilkins is older and was away from the NBA for longer, but seems perfectly capable of making at least that kind of contribution.
“Honestly, as ironic as it sounds, I think I’m a better player than the last time I was here, because my confidence has grown so much,” he said. “I’ve sharpened up a lot of things in my game. The game is a whole lot slower to me now. I’ve watched the game from afar. When I wasn’t playing in the NBA I was watching NBA games, so I’ve learned so much, and I feel so much better.”
Wilkins has never suffered a major injury and has kept himself in shape, so the physical part of the game is covered. Perhaps the mental challenge was a bigger hurdle. He happens to be the son of 13-year NBA veteran Gerald Wilkins, and the nephew of Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame member Dominique Wilkins. They’ve helped him immensely with individual instruction and advice, but also set a standard that was difficult to achieve, and posed a potential identity crisis as he tried to establish his own reputation.
Damien is, in a sense, like the son of a great musical artist or entertainer trying to make it on his own. People were always going to wonder, is he there because of his name or his talent?
“He had his father and his uncle, both high level players,” Gerald Wilkins said by telephone from his home in Atlanta. “It was kind of tough for him to balance where he fit in that trio. I used to always tell him, ‘Son, if you can’t beat us, join us. Be the best you can be.’ That’s what he started doing the last five years or so. He started to really gain knowledge and understand what the NBA game is all about; what it really takes, the development side of it.
“He was trying to separate himself a little bit to be his own man. I was always compared to my brother when I came into the league, but I said if I can only be half as good as my brother I’ll have a career. I’m not going to try to go away from it.
“It’s even tougher for the third one.”
Now, it’s safe to say, Damien has established his own niche in the family. He won’t play as many seasons as Dominique or Gerald – this will be his 10th, for his seventh team – and he won’t have played as well as they did, but he’s displayed perseverance that will forever impresses his father and uncle.
During his four years out of the NBA, his dad kept telling him, “Stay with it. Stay with it until they tell you you can’t be in this league anymore.” Their mantra was “four years and nine months.” Meaning, he had put in four years of hard work to try to get nine more months in the NBA.
There will be future challenges to his roster spot, but for now he’s made it. And regardless of how long the opportunity lasts, the journey and destination can’t be taken away.
“He never gave up,” Gerald Wilkins said. “To his credit, he never felt he was done.”
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