Big Dreams & Long Shots: Life On The NBA’s Fringe

Every kid who grows up playing basketball dreams of playing in the NBA one day. However, 99 percent of kids with that dream never actually achieve it. For some, the dream is shattered as they get cut from their high school team. For others it comes when, after a successful high school career, the only colleges willing to accept you are Division III. And for some more, the realization that they will never play in the NBA comes in college when they are sitting on the bench behind players who will likely get a chance to achieve their childhood dream someday.

Then there is another group; this group manifests itself after each college season. This group contains those players who excelled in college, yet get overlooked by the NBA. Some of these players were role players on great teams while others starred at mid-major schools, but what they all have in common? The NBA doesn’t want them.

Whether it be their lack of size or lack of statistics, these players are united because they are so close yet so far from reaching their dreams. They are literally one step away from the NBA, the league of Michael, Magic and Kareem. But the odds are stacked heavily against them as only 60 players get drafted each year with a handful more making teams as undrafted free agents. These guys certainly won’t hear their name called on June 28, but that won’t stop them from dreaming. They have come this far, and there is no turning back now.

They face a crossroads in their basketball career: the intersection of their big dreams and their long shot, existing on the NBA’s periphery, in sight just enough to be noticed, but never the main attraction.

Steve Tchiengang is one of these players.

“I don’t really care what people think about my dream to play in the NBA because at the end of the day if you have a dream, you stick to that dream and it doesn’t matter what people think about that,” Tchiengang says about his doubters.

“I know that I can get the job done myself so as long as I know that, then it doesn’t matter to me what people say I can or can’t do. My dream is to play in the NBA, and I’ve been working out and working hard to make that dream come true so if people want to doubt me that is ok because I feel I am doing everything I can to make my dreams come true.”

While Steve doesn’t care what those who doubt him, including some in NBA circles, think of his of his dreams, it is easy to see why people would be skeptical upon hearing that he wants to play in the NBA. He played for Vanderbilt the past four seasons but never was a regular starter and despite being the team’s sixth man, only played 16 minutes per game this past year. He averaged just over three points and three rebounds this past year, and his stats have never been overwhelming. In fact, the casual observer likely hasn’t ever heard the name Steve Tchiengang. He knows that his stats don’t do him any favors, and he will be the first to acknowledge that fact as one of the biggest obstacles to achieving his dreams.

“I haven’t had any workouts yet with NBA teams because with my stats at Vanderbilt they weren’t great so it’s hard for teams to see what I can do if they just look at my numbers because so much of what I do is not in the stats,” Tchiengang says.

Each year, we see people claim their stats were not indicative of their performance on the floor. Statements like those can be seen at times as rationalizing poor performance or shying away from taking accountability for their performance. For example, many players will say things like My stats don’t indicate how good of a shooter I am, but if you shot 33 percent from three that is a problem when trying to promote yourself as a good shooter. However, in this case, the stats really don’t tell the story of Tchiengang’s impact on the game or what he brings to the table.

The stats don’t tell you that Steve consistently matched up with guys like Anthony Davis, Patric Young and Jarnell Stokes in the SEC each night, and how well he defended them. They don’t tell you that his toughness is a truly immeasurable quality that can only be measured when counting how many charges he takes or physical screens he sets. They also don’t tell people that he is really a natural four man who was forced to play the five the past three seasons because it was the best thing for the team. Despite preferring to be a stretch four, Tchiengang was forced into the backup center role early on where he spent most of his time on the block, and while many players would have complained, Steve assessed the situation and did what he had to do for his team to succeed.

“I don’t think basketball is a game of one position,” he says. “At the end of the day you have to be a basketball player and play whatever position is asked of you. I had to play inside for the last three years at Vanderbilt and I really got a lot stronger and tougher because of it. So even though I am not really a five man, I learned to play that position because my team needed me to and it made me better as a player.”

While all of the things mentioned above – his toughness, team-first mentality and defensive intensity – are things that people can’t measure, the best quality Tchiengang brings with him is his attitude toward the game and toward others. He was always in a battle at the end of practice with John Jenkins for the honor of making sure the managers earned their paychecks by putting up shots for 30 minutes after practice. He made sure that the managers, who rebounded and passed for him, gave the job the same attention to detail and precision he demanded of himself.

He holds people accountable for their actions because he holds himself accountable for his own actions, and tries to be the best at whatever he does. For instance, this past year due to injuries, Tchiengang played frequently in practice with the “Gold Team” which serves as a pseudo-scout team for Vanderbilt. Despite being the team’s sixth man, Steve never complained when assigned to the Gold Team, and in fact relished the opportunity to push the starters to get better. At one point, Steve and the rest of the Gold Team were pushing the starters so hard, with him being very vocal, that the coach told him to tone it down. That was one of the few times he didn’t listen to what the coaches had to say.

Tchiengang was also named to the SEC Community Service team and was always the first person to volunteer for trips to the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. He also did work with African refugees in the Nashville community, trying to help them stay positive and adjust to life in America. I could go on and on about what Steve brings to a team in terms of his intangibles, his attitude, and as a person, but ultimately none of that will land Steve the NBA contract he dreams of. At the end of the day, with only 15 roster spots per team, teams need to believe he can play and compete with the guys at that level. Being a great person will certainly help, but won’t be the deciding factor. That is why Tchiengang has been working hard every day in Houston with John Lucas preparing for that dream.

“I’ve been working out with John Lucas here in Houston,” he says about his training regimen. “He trains a lot of NBA players, guys getting ready for the draft, and guys who are still in college. His program is very structured and he has a lot of great players training here like John Henson, John Lucas III, Ricardo Ratliffe, Rakim Sanders, and Herb Pope and Carlos Boozer has been here a few times. We work out six days a week. Monday through Friday, we work out twice a day, and Saturday just once. Then Sundays we have off. It’s a great group of players who come in and work hard every day to get better.”

Steve is working hard to get better on his own, but knows he needs to do more than just work out to achieve his dreams. Due to the fact that he is so far under the radar right now, he is talking to people in the NBA who he knows and seeking advice and maybe even some referrals. He has talked to his friends Ryan Anderson and Luc Mbah a Moute, who have both told him to stay positive and offered to help. Additionally, he counts R.C. Buford among his family friends, and has been in contact with him throughout the process. He will not leave any stone unturned in trying to achieve his dream because it means so much to him.

“I don’t ever settle for less,” he says forcefully. “I know myself and I know my abilities and I know what I’m capable of doing. It would be totally discouraging for me to give up on this dream just because it is hard to reach.

“There is a quote I really like that says ‘anything that is worthwhile is hard to acquire’. That’s why getting to the NBA is so worth it, it’s the best league in the world. No disrespect to the other leagues in the world, but the NBA is my dream. That’s my dream since 2006-2007 in my junior year in high school. My goal was to get my degree and play in the league. I got my degree and now it is time to play in the NBA and I will do anything to make that happen no matter what anybody says. That’s my dream.”

So while the NBA Draft’s focus will be on guys like Anthony Davis and Thomas Robinson, we shouldn’t forget about people like Steve Tchiengang. These are guys with dreams just as big as those who will hear David Stern call their name, and they are working just as hard to turn those dreams into reality. One disappointment will not deter them from chasing that long shot.

Are there any players you think will go undrafted that’ll have an impact in the NBA?

Follow Daniel on Twitter at @dgm591.

Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.

Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.