It was nearly midnight on the West Coast, exactly one week before the 21-year-old’s big night.
Rodney Hood was finally back at his hotel in Sacramento. It had been another long day. The sharp-shooting Duke sophomore, who has climbed NBA Draft charts in recent weeks and is now projected as a possible late lottery pick Thursday night, could no longer keep track of how many cities he’d visited in the past month. First to Chicago for the NBA Combine, where he stood out. Then to work out and interview with the Orlando Magic, Charlotte Hornets, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets, among others.
The day before landing in Sacramento, Hood was in Florida, where he’d been training for the NBA Draft at IMG Academy. Today it was a dinner with Sacramento Kings executives, season-ticket holders and several other potential draft prospects. Tomorrow would bring a workout for the Kings, then a flight to Minnesota, where he’d interview with and work out for the Timberwolves.
The journey has been full of exhaustive and occasionally oddball interviews. (Weirdest question: “How many pennies are in a million dollars?” His answer: “I have no idea.”) There had also been exhausting, never-ending workouts and plane flights. As of seven days before the draft, Hood’s brain hadn’t even considered the most important question of all: What kind of suit should he get for draft night?
It’s the same exciting, nerve-wracking whirlwind faced by 19 other future NBA players who’ll join him Thursday night in the green room at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. It’s a wait that will end the moment his name is called. Then the real adventure will begin.
Except Hood’s journey is unique among those who are projected to go in the first round of one of the deepest NBA drafts in the past decade. One reason is that Hood – a six-foot-eight, 208-pound wing who averaged 16.1 points and made 42.0 percent of his three-pointers and 80.7 percent of his free throws at Duke – is one of the biggest draft risers since the college season ended. A few months ago, he was considered a late first-round pick. But he so impressed scouts during May’s Combine and subsequent workouts that some now see him as a late lottery choice.
“It’s exciting just to be in that position, especially since before the process started I was projected as a late first-rounder and am now invited to the green room,” Hood told me. “It’ll be a little bit nerve-wracking through. You don’t want to be the last guy in there.”
Aside from the fear of becoming the next draft-night Brady Quinn – something that, according to my latest mock draft, won’t happen – there’s another thing that sets Hood apart from the pack. Instead of the Mississippi native being the one-and-done type whose skills are rushed through college and to the NBA, Hood has embarked on a journey that has been slower, more focused on fundamentals, more contemplative.
That’s because Hood transferred to Duke after a freshman year at Mississippi State – becoming only the fifth transfer Coach K has ever taken — and unlike any other projected first-round pick in this draft, he spent one of his college years on a redshirt season.
During a draft in which player development seems an afterthought and all projections are based on potential and raw talent, a redshirt year in Durham, North Carolina, might be seen as a lost year. At the time it was painful for Hood to have to watch his team from the bench and not be able to show off all the new skills he’d worked on in practice. But Hood, 21, now considers that year a blessing. He added weight and strength. He worked on his ballhandling. He put up extra shots with then-Duke associate head coach (and new Marquette head coach) Steve Wojciechowski and watched untold hours of tape with Wojo to learn the finer points of the game. He transformed from simply a spot-up shooter at Mississippi State to a more complete offensive player at Duke, coming off ball screens, posting up, working off isolation plays. His work ethic was so impressive that Coach K and Duke players voted him a team captain before he ever played a game at Duke.
By the time Hood played for Duke last season, he was a different player than the one who spent his freshman season at Mississippi State.
In addition to all those added skills, there is the intangible benefit of Hood’s year of working, observing and learning.
“As a person, I just became more patient,” Hood told me. “I learned some new habits. I learned I could go through a tough situation. A normal kid couldn’t go through that, just sitting out and not playing. I became a lot tougher from sitting out.”
In a league in which 18-year-old Dante Exum, a dynamic Australian combo guard who’s all potential but little resume, is considered a top-three pick, that lost year could be considered a detriment. I believe the opposite. I know a Rodney Hood or a Doug McDermott or a Shabazz Napier doesn’t have the ceiling of an Andrew Wiggins or a Joel Embiid, who are jumping to the NBA after one year in college. But the guys who’ve been in college for longer than a minute are proven commodities. You know what you’re getting – physically and, just as important, mentally – with those young men.
When I spoke with Hood the other night as he was unwinding in a hotel room in Sacramento, he brought up another benefit of the redshirt season that could pay off when he reaches the NBA: Rookies often have a tough time of it.
After sitting out and struggling to stay positive and keep working hard in practice, Hood will be prepared for the inevitable bumpy road of an NBA rookie.
“Most of these guys haven’t dealt with adversity as far as basketball,” he told me. “They’ve always been the most talented player around. I had to humble myself when I got to Duke because I didn’t play. This next year, some guys will not play as much in their rookie years as they’re used to. If that be the case with me, I’ve had to deal with that. And I just know I have to keep working.”