The Rookie Transition Program Builds Longevity In And Out Of The NBA

Davion Mitchell knew he’d be learning some lessons at Summer League in Las Vegas this past August, with the NBA’s Rookie Transition Program (RTP) taking place for the first time in tandem with the tournament, but he didn’t think he’d be put through lectures both on the court and off. In Mitchell’s first practice with the Kings Summer League roster the rookie ran through the typical reps and drills but when it came time for the team to scrimmage, Mitchell wound up with cramping intense enough in his left hamstring that he had to sit out.

Questioned by his coach, Bobby Jackson, Mitchell admitted that he’d worked out twice already that day, once in the morning and again around noon, before the team practiced at 5pm. Jackson was impressed by Mitchell’s work ethic, but shocked, and let his new star know he’d have to ease off his workaholic approach to training. It was a lesson that would soon be repeated to Mitchell by Cam Johnson of the Phoenix Suns, a 2019 NBA draftee and one of the current players who offered their time and advice to Summer League’s RTP class.

“I remember Cam Johnson saying like, there’s 82 games, you can’t work out like you did in college, like every day,” Mitchell says over the phone, “You can’t do that. Sometimes you got to take days off ‘cause you gotta have a back to back, then you got traveling on top of practices, things like that are going to put wear and tear on your body.”

One of the panels offered in the RTP focuses on sleep and nutrition. Asked if he’d taken any tips from that class and Mitchell chuckles, “For me, being a part of this organization with the Kings, they’re telling me you gotta slow down.”

The NBA’s Rookie Transition Program has been one beam on the bridge the league hopes to engineer for its newest players to give them a smooth and structurally sound a transition as possible to a life, and career, in the pros. A four-day program that began in 1986, RTP is one of the most comprehensive introductions to life management tools, with panels on finances, character building, professional development and new this year, sessions focused on mental health and wellness, as well as social justice. The league runs RTP jointly with the NBPA, and hosts current and former NBAers in order to give as full and realistic a picture as possible when it comes to expectations and reality of an NBA career.

“This is on or about the 35th year of the program, but for at least the last 30 years, the program has been run with with a pretty simple goal: to acknowledge the fact that that rookies coming in are at a moment of significant transition into their lives as professionals,” Jamila Wideman, SVP of Player Development at the NBA says, “And that comes along with both opportunity and challenge.”

After running last year’s program remotely online, the challenge this year was to bring the 2020-2021 NBA rookie class together in person once more, but to limit excess travel in what was a condensed offseason and with the reality of Covid and the Delta variant looming. The decision was made to move RTP to Vegas from its traditional home in Secaucus, New Jersey ahead of the season, where players would attend sessions on their off days from games.

“Our belief is that there’s really a thin, if no dividing line between our ability to acknowledge and embrace players holistically as who they are, both on and off the court, as opposed to just who they are as the athlete, right? So much of our programming is built around this notion that in order for guys to perform at their best on the court that that necessarily requires an intentional focus about who they are off the court, as well. So that connectivity, I think, in a sense became even more literal this year because the program marched alongside the playing experience,” Wideman says, adding, “Summer League is the basketball epicenter.”

“I’ve been watching Summer League all my life, so just to be a part of it, to be a part of it and actually compete in it is a blessing,” Mitchell says, when asked what he was looking forward to most between Summer League and RTP. Turns out it was both.

“And then just the rookie meetings, it was a blessing just to be a part of this group. I learned a lot of things from the NBA vets, NBA current players, and also like Hall of Famers. So just listening to them, and them taking the time out to teach me things that, I mean,” Mitchell pauses, emphasizing, “‘Cause I didn’t know a lot of these things, so for them to take the time out to do that, I’m just thankful for that.”

This year’s RTP guests included Robert Covington, RJ Hampton, Grant Williams, Derrick White, Antoine Walker and Tracy Murray, as well as Johnson, who ended up being the player who stood out most to Mitchell because of the parallels he could draw between them.

“The things that he’s been through, with the mental side when he was a rookie, are some things that came up with me. There’s a lot of things that you got to deal with,” Mitchell says, “Especially being a rookie, you gotta do things for vets, the vets ask you to do things, but also you got to make sure you’re on top of your game. You can’t make a lot of errors, because you’re a rookie. So, you gotta make sure you’re always on top of your game and also be a sponge. He said that he was a sponge coming in and learning from other guys, even though he’s competing for the spot, but he’s still learning and it helped him get better.”

It’s often repeated that the internal community of the NBA is a tight-knit one, given the relatively small size of the league. And while Wideman acknowledges that there can be nothing “more impactful than guys hearing from folks who stood in their shoes”, as with what current and former players offer rookies, that sense of community is also one that the league’s Player Development arm wants to emphasize as starting even before new players walk in the door.

“I think our ability to embrace the fact that in some ways they’ve already built a sense of community among each other and to sort of lean into that strength, is a core part of RTP,” Wideman says, noting that many rookies arrive having known each other for years, “It’s important to highlight to the guys just what a resource they can be for each other.”

Mitchell echoed that same sentiment, and that it was in some ways stronger knowing that the NBA’s previous rookie class didn’t get to have the same experience.

“To be around the guys, like off the court too, just to get a good connection with those guys,” Mitchell stresses, “This is our class, we’ll always remember this class and I think just to do it with them is important too.”

Perhaps because Summer League skipped a summer, or RTP went remote last season, this year’s condensed and back-to-back schedule for rookies didn’t appear to be something that fatigued players, rather, it energized them.

“I don’t look at it as if, oh, I got classes. I’m like, I get to learn something that I didn’t know before, and is going to help me right now as well as help me in the future,” Mitchell says, when asked if the schedule of classes on off-days ever felt hectic, “I mean, of course people are tired from the games and things like that, but we’re here for a reason, to learn things and have fun.”

Wideman says that the rhythm Mitchell described was what her team had been hoping to achieve, and that what she described as the “cadence of on-court, off-court in a scheduled period” is familiar to many players, whether they’re coming from college, the G League or training programs like Ignite.

“That kind of routine is a really helpful thing to have. And it’s actually one of the things that we talk about that rookies should try to create for themselves as they enter into their first seasons,” Wideman says.

Routine, and its undercurrent of rhythm, is something intrinsic to the NBA — in a player’s game, in how their off-court routine compliments that game, in a season’s familiar schedule beats. That rhythm is so ingrained that the league’s programs, especially those offered by its Player Development team, wind up mirroring the same methods. For an incoming player, RTP is just one touchpoint of their player development that for most, starts formally around the draft combine and for some, Wideman gives the example of Scottie Barnes, it goes back even further to their involvement in player development programs in tandem with USA Basketball. Wideman describes that initial exchange as informal, mainly encouraging young players to “take a moment before that spotlight gets as bright as it does” during the formalized process of the NBA Draft, but notes that this past summer her team amplified their focus “around empowering players to think about and tell their own stories”.

“One of the truths that attaches to this transition moment is that the guys are thrust into the public spotlight and are asked to share not only their own stories, but in these days and times, to share their ideas and thoughts and perspective on evolving national and world events,” Wideman says of the way her team’s approach evolved, “and oftentimes events that are sort of uniquely and intimately impactful in their own lives.”

One of the understood but tricky things about programs like RTP, at least to Wideman and the NBPA, is that in terms of success metrics, nothing is immediate. Wideman called engagement at RTP itself, like how many guys were raising their hands or participating in class discussions, “a discreet metric,” but overall the point of development, as anywhere, is that it happens over time.

“Nobody gets this in seven or eight days, nobody gets it in one year,” Purvis Short, former player and current Chief of Player Programs for the NBPA, says, “Our approach to what we do with the players is not designed to be a one-off, if you will. [After] the Rookie Transition Program, we move into doing team meetings year in and year out, reinforcing a lot of the information that we’ve started giving them within the Rookie Transition Program. And so over time, players get it and they understand the information and how to use it, how best to take advantage of the resources that are available.”

“The goal is when they are mid-career, that there’s a relationship and a trust built, which means that we have access to understand what guys are aspiring to next, and that lets us and informs us how we should build something for a mid career guy that’s curated and sort of targeted to his interests,” Wideman says, emphasizing that relationship building itself is another piece and that success is “probably only visible in a larger timescale” and that the result of the partnership between the league and its players is the way in which the NBA itself evolves.

For a 35-year program that caters to rookies, typically young players at the forefront of social, technological and economic trends with ingrained B.S. detectors, evolution is crucial to RTP. For the program to keep current, useful and impactful, it needs to speak to the young men it aims to assist about their actual concerns, in language they understand. This year, it would have been impossible for the program to get underway without a large component looking at social justice and the reckoning NBA and WNBA players have been at the forefront of.

“After the two years that we’ve had, both looking at the COVID pandemic and the racial reckoning that’s been happening in the country. And the fact that current NBA and WNBA voices have played such a big role in conversations around mental health and about social justice. We really felt like if we were going to be where players were, then we needed to come to the table with those conversations,” Wideman says.

“You have your fundamental components that may not necessarily change a whole lot, but then you have new areas over the last several years. The social media component is huge. The mental wellness component, people are more open to talking about it now,” Short says, when asked how questions from RTP participants are changing, “Then, how you manage your relationships and how you manage your time, these things, although they may be constant, they do change somewhat over time because the time that an NBA player has today looks quite different than what it was 10 years ago.”

Short says that when he came through the league in the 80s, many of the resources players have now just weren’t available. It’s been one of his favorite things about working with young players in the capacity he does, and was one of the reasons he made a commitment, once he retired from playing, to “making life better for NBA players”.

“Having been in this environment as long as I have, players evolve,” Short says, “These kids coming in, they’re, in a lot of ways, a lot more knowledgeable just given access to all of the information that’s out there. We just try to fine tune that.”

“Players are after all at the core and epicenter of the league, and who they are, communities they come from and the things that they care about are ultimately going to be the imprint of the league,” Wideman says, “And their passion and their resiliency and how they decide they want to fashion the image of the league is going to be what the league is.”

For Mitchell, one of the biggest surprises wasn’t in what he was learning at RTP, but in the volume of what was to come after. “Just the amount of work you go through, the amount of work that NBA players go through with the mental side and the financial side,” he said, alluding to the not so distant future of his first NBA game and the career expanding beyond it.

More than the classes, or the tangible skills young players gain, it’s the sense of community that young guys get and the confidence that inevitably comes with it that makes RTP as resilient and important as it is.

“We have a lot of different people throughout the course of our life that pour into us,” Short says of conduit RTP offers, “And so we’re just happy to be one of the folks in that line where we can provide these young men with resources and guidance and oftentimes, just an ear.”

“One of the extraordinary things that I get the privilege to see is just how smart, how curious, how open and how willing these young guys are to be vulnerable to themselves, to each other,” Wideman says of the unique view she and her team have of so many careers starting at once, “And I think what’s exciting and inspiring about that is that you realize that the talent that you’re seeing on the court is the beginning of something, and not the full culmination of something. Because every one of those guys, no matter when it happens, and for some it’ll happen in training camp, for some it’ll happen 10 years from now, but their time on the court is going to end.”

While it might seem a cruel cut forward to consider the end of careers just beginning, it’s a realism borne out of understanding not only the stakes at play, but the necessary care required in setting players up for success and longevity, whether that’s in the league or not.

“And the truth is if we can’t find a way to help guys continue to translate during the careers and afterwards, what is truly extraordinary about what they’re capable of then we’d be missing out. And so I think that this preview of what’s possible and what I think that makes possible for our world, and the ways in which we may be able to grow as a community, the basketball road being just one small microcosm of that. I find incredibly inspiring.”