Norvel Pelle hopes to take road less traveled to NBA

LOS ANGELES – There are a million of them, some old men, others long dead, others feeling the tugs of middle age by now. There will be more to come, more boys turned men too quickly, their hoop dreams long abandoned, long forgotten.

Norvel Pelle is hardly special.

Plenty have gone down his path before. Plenty of basketball stars, the darlings of their AAU circuits and the biggest men on their high school campuses, have deviated from the plans that seemed almost preordained every time they took the court. For every one who has made it, a dozen have failed, missed a deadline or a grade point or found themselves in one too many brushes with the law.

All too often, that’s it, another bust, if even that. Usually, they’re just forgotten. To be a bust is to be remembered.

When Pelle showed up at a Los Angeles College Preparatory Academy basketball game last fall, Michael Miller had never heard of him. Pelle was a tall, skinny kid sitting in the stands behind the bench. He had long ago shed the distinction of being one of the top two centers in the high school class of 2011, one of the top 25 players in the nation that year. St. John’s, the school he’d committed to, had moved on, as had tiny Iona, his second attempt at the NCAA. No one cared that if things had gone as Pelle had planned two years before, he’d have been on the verge of making his NBA debut that fall.

No one cared, that is, except for Norvel Pelle. That night in the gym at Cathedral High School, the then-19-year-old was looking for a way back into basketball, and as he watched Miller’s team, he realized he might have found it.

What he didn’t realize was how quickly this all would escalate. What he didn’t realize was that not six months after suiting up for LACPA for the first time, he’d be declaring for the 2013 NBA Draft and attempting to be the first player picked without having played in college or internationally since the current eligibility rules were instituted in 2005.

On May 4, representatives from a dozen NBA teams arrived at the Spectrum Club in El Segundo to watch Pelle work out alongside Jordan Henriquez, a forward out of Kansas State, and Josiah Turner, a guard who played at Arizona before personal problems sidetracked his college career. Both Henriquez and Turner are long shots to be drafted, but at least there is film. At least there are stats. At least there were attempts to conform to the system.

Not for Pelle. What few stats the 6-foot-10 big man accumulated over the past two years were meaningless, his competition essentially nil, and highlight tape for him is just a grainy, minutes-long YouTube clip. Yet there they were, everyone from Mitch Kupchak to Jerry West. There they were, there at least in part for Pelle, and only one player received an invite to the draft combine in Chicago after the workout.

It was Pelle, and when he flew east last Tuesday, it was for yet another beginning after so many that had failed, yet another chance to prove himself. This one, though, mattered more than every other beginning combined.

The system that produced Pelle and the thousands of other high-level players of his generation is a tricky one. It begins with AAU ball in its various permutations, and then high school, with the former at times determining the latter.

If you’re not quite good enough, you fall out of the system. If you’re good enough, things can proceed as expected. If you’re good – really, truly, good – then the path becomes less linear. It’s no longer about going to the high school down the block; instead, it’s about finding the school with the shoe contract and the exposure and the men who tell your family that yes, they’re the ones who are going to make you a star.

Some variant of that system explains how Pelle, who played AAU ball for Team Odom and the Compton Magic, attended three high schools in four years. He started at Lakewood as a freshman, transferred to Compton Dominguez – the one-time powerhouse that produced Tyson Chandler and Tayshaun Prince – and then finally ended up at Price after Dominguez’s longtime coach, Russell Otis, was accused of molestation, forgery and theft. Those transfers, as much as they seemed to make sense, were the first warning signs. Too often, they’re signs of a lack of power, of a kid getting caught up in something bigger, something that doesn’t, at its core, give a damn about him.

In 2010, though, things seemed to be on track. Pelle was invited to the USA Developmental National Team training camp, and soon he was playing for Price after a year sitting out, debuting on Dec. 13 with 14 points and 15 rebounds. Scholarship offers were rolling in, from USC, UCLA, Texas, Arizona and Washington, and Pelle was becoming a player to watch.

Soon, however, it became apparent that his grades weren’t going to hold up to the scrutiny of the NCAA, and schools pulled back. That led to the St. John’s commitment and a summer spent in Philadelphia taking classes to get his core GPA in line. Come fall, the classes weren’t approved, and eligibility was delayed past the start of the semester – and then permanently.

Next came a few failed prep school stints and a return home to Los Angeles, where Pelle’s mother, Darlene, was suffering from strokes. Once his second attempt at a college commitment – this time to Iona – fell through in 2012, Pelle was officially off the map – no college and a year removed from what was looking more and more like it might have been the peak of his basketball career.

There were problems at home, too, beyond just Darlene’s illness, which led Pelle to “somewhat kind of move out” and then eventually leave for good. His older sister, Cherisa, paints her brother’s time away from basketball as solely due to his mother’s health, but Pelle admits to problems both at home and with his own outlook as a factor in his falling out of the system.

“I was finding myself, trying to get my head back on track, making sure everything was good with me,” Pelle said of his year away from the game.

In fact, he barely played basketball at all in those months, worried about getting injured and derailing his future career, even as the chances of that career transpiring  sank by the day. Throughout it all, the teenager clung to what was supposed to be: St. John’s, one-and-done, the NBA.

Once the Iona plan failed, Pelle began to realize he needed something else. He was tired of sitting around and waiting for basketball to come to him, waiting for permission, and so one night in December, he tagged along to his best friend’s game.

That friend, Brandon Tanter, had caught on with L.A. College Preparatory Academy, a brand-new program that was established in 2012. The school charges students about $350 per month to take core classes and play basketball, and all of its employees serve on a volunteer basis. It’s something of an experiment, led by coach Michael Miller, whose resume includes nearly two decades at Los Angeles City College, where he served as basketball coach and athletic director.

Miller paints himself as something of a low-level basketball kingpin in Los Angeles and certainly was a get for LACPA, considering he, like everyone else, isn’t paid. There was some controversy surrounding his departure from L.A. City College – allegations by and against him and an eventual dissolution of the athletics program – but Miller seems to have landed on his feet, touting his connections and the players he’s sent to the pros. (By that, of course, he means guys like Randy Holcomb, whom he sent to San Diego State and who was eventually picked by the Spurs in the second round of the draft but never played a game in the NBA.) Pelle is Miller’s newest project. He’s also his best.

That first night, though, he was just a kid wearing glasses who didn’t say a word. Pelle was taking it all in, weighing his options, and he was pleasantly surprised by what he saw. It didn’t take him long to approach Miller and state his case: He wanted to enroll at LACPA and play. Miller said yes and gave him the requisite information, without a clue to his talent or any idea if what he was saying would stick.

“You’ve seen this before,” Miller said. “It’s not a new thing. You wonder if you’re ever see him again, or if he’ll show up. All that goes through your mind.”

But Pelle showed up. He signed up for English and math classes and slogged his way through intense four-hour practices. At the first one, he threw up after 15 minutes. Miller told him to do as much as he could and then stop, and every day, he did a little more. Three weeks in, Pelle was starting, and in his first such game, he blew through the paint and dunked on the two players attempting to double-team him. “I thought, okay, I’m back now,” Pelle said.

Soon thereafter, Miller sat down with Pelle’s parents, Norvel Sr. and Darlene, to start outlining the process by which their son could move on to Division I ball the next year. During the hour-long meeting in January, Miller gave the family a checklist of things they’d need to do to ensure Pelle was eligible and that the right eyes were on him, and Miller said that by that point, South Florida, Auburn and USC had already expressed interest.

The group agreed to reconvene in the next month or so, but by the time LACPA’s season ended in mid-March, Miller hadn’t heard a peep. Time was ticking for recruitment, and he checked back in with the family.

At the meeting in January, Miller had mentioned as an aside that in order to be draft-eligible, a player needs to be 19 years old and a year removed from high school. It had seemed like an insignificant detail at the time, but he wanted to make sure the Pelles, who moved to the United States from St. Croix in 2000 and are hardly well versed in the intricacies of the system, were informed. Plus, Miller said, college scouts had told him by then that Pelle was draftable. Having turned 20 that winter, the big man was more than eligible, and it was he, not his parents, who took the information and ran with it. Two months later, he’d made his decision: “I just decided to nip (college) in the bud and go to the big leagues,” Pelle said.

Miller suspects that a lingering distrust of the NCAA informed Pelle’s decision, and Pelle will admit to being tired of waiting for others to decide his fate, which only heightened his nagging desire to take care of his mother and the rest of his family financially.

“Now (he’s) looking at a clock, time’s ticking, and this is (his) second year out,” Miller said. “They’ve already stopped him twice, and I think that created in him and even in his family this kind of gun-shy idea.”

And so the decision was made. Pelle quickly signed with Premier Sports, and by early April he was working out with Robbie Davis, the same trainer who’s handling Cody Zeller’s pre-draft regimen this spring and who trained James Harden before he was picked third overall in 2009. That in itself was a feat; Davis screens players with whom he’s asked to work out, because as such a high-profile trainer, working with a prospect with a bad attitude or subpar skill set will reflect poorly on him. After watching clips of Pelle play, Davis demanded a meeting. “He definitely catches your eye, but there’s… five or six minutes of highlights, and that’s it,” he said. “The kid’s tall and athletic, but I’ve seen this a million times.” Between that and Pelle’s unorthodox path, red flags went up, and Davis wasn’t about to blindly say yes.

Something about Pelle in person, though, convinced Davis almost immediately. The 20-year-old has a brand of “yes, sir, no, sir” politeness down to an art, with a soft-spoken voice and easy laugh. He’s as serious as they come, and if he’s learned anything over this past month, it’s that this is a business of marketing himself.

That’s why he’s working out nearly every day, sometimes twice a day, with basketball sessions thrown in to boot. That’s how he’s put about 20 lbs. of muscle in a month, why he eats something, anything, every two hours. (He still weighed in at 207 lbs. at the combine, lighter than every player 6-9 or taller except Nerlens Noel, who at 6-10 and 206 lbs. is almost identical in size to Pelle.) He knows that every other player at the draft combine will have had at least a year of strength training, maybe more, and that he’ll have three months of it when June 27 rolls around.

He knows he has to market himself, to develop a shtick, to be able to tell people with a straight face that he’s “Kevin Garnett with a twist,” more agile and with ball-handling skills that he says are on pace to eclipse those of the NBA’s best power forward in a generation. Miller, too, is in on the sell, tweaking that May 4 workout to include 3-pointers at the last minute and sending emails with lines like “HERE IS A LINK TO NORVEL’S LAST GAME WITHOUT BEING PAID (LOL).”

The insecurities are there, though.

“I’ve played against nobody,” Pelle admitted just a breath after that Garnett comparison, and it’s true. The competition he faced this season was worse than what he saw in high school, and though LACPA did as much as it could in the way of games with other prep schools and junior colleges, that’s simply an obstacle that comes with the path. The best of Pelle’s teammates from last season are committing to places like Western New Mexico and Long Beach State; that’s why these individual workouts and the combine matter so much.

What NBA teams know for now is Pelle’s size, 6-10, 207 lbs. They know his 7-2.5 wingspan is the ninth longest of anyone at the combine, his 9’1” reach tied for eighth highest. They know he’s probably a power forward or a hybrid center with great straight-line speed for his height. They know he’s still undersized, still hoping to put on another 20 pounds in the next six weeks, that a month ago he looked to Davis like a high school kid subsisting off of ramen. They know he can dunk. They know he can shoot. They know he can block shots and that he has the potential to be a good defender.

But they know it all in a vacuum, with no one competing against him and no one about to in the coming weeks. The combine, where the best players often sit out of most of the drills with the belief that they can hurt their stock more than help it, didn’t change that, and according to NBA scout Ryan Blake, it would have taken a major gaffe in Chicago to derail Pelle this early.

“We still don’t know how good he is,” Blake said. “We have no idea.”

The value of the combine, where Pelle met with New Orleans, Memphis, Atlanta, Miami, Portland and Houston,  and the other workouts he’s sure to attend lies in the exposure. With two years away from the game, he fell off of the NBA radar, and it’s just now that scouts are beginning to remember the rangy teenager who committed to St. John’s. It’s all about being tracked, Blake said, and that’s what these workouts will offer.

 “For him, there’s nowhere else to look,” Davis said. “All his eggs are in one basket.”

Realistically, it’s hard to imagine Pelle as a first-round pick, not because of his skills, but because of the uncertainty. First round means guaranteed money, whereas the magical gap between pick no. 30 and pick no. 31 allows room for error. If Pelle does go through with this (he could still technically opt out and sign with a pro team overseas, but that seems improbable) he will likely be far from finished proving himself, whether he has to earn his way onto a roster after being picked or even through catching on with a summer league team. He’s an underdog in every sense of the word.

It’s hard to say what the days leading up to the draft will yield for Pelle. There will be more workouts, the same Los Angeles-based routine, but opinions could sway in any direction as he travels around the country to work out for various teams in group and perhaps even individual settings. There will be plenty of time to think, plenty of time to wonder if this was the right choice and what exactly he’s gotten himself into.

Two years ago, Pelle had a plan, the same plan as future lottery picks like Nerlens Noel and Shabazz Muhammad, the same plan, too, as so many who never made it: A year of college, the draft, the NBA. It was so neat. It seemed so easy.

Now, again, Pelle believes the NBA to be his destination, that he’ll make it in the draft or at summer league. But what about the in-between? What about those months that should have landed him among the millions of forgotten, with no college education and no career in basketball?

You have to wonder if he ever doubted it, if these dreams ever seemed impossible.

Asked this, he pauses. He starts to answer, and then he looks to a representative of his agency, sitting in the room with him. She’s shaking her head no. No, he never doubted it.

And so that’s what he says: “It was always an option. I knew I was going to get there regardless. Some way, somehow, I was going to be in the NBA.”

We’ll never know if that’s the truth, if there weren’t weeks or even months when Pelle gave up. Plenty would have. Doubting would have only been natural.

We’ll never know, and if Norvel Pelle’s name is called on June 27, what he thought on the worst of his days no longer matters.