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August 23, 2014

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NBA Day 10: … then there were the little guys

Jerryd Bayless emerged from the curtained-off area in the Cox Pavilion which served as the Portland 'locker room' Saturday night completely at ease.

The 11th overall pick in last month's NBA Draft had just scored 36 points - including his team's final seven - in a dramatic 74-73 win over Phoenix. Minutes earlier, he'd done a post game interview on NBA TV for millions to see. Now, he's getting some treatment on his shoulder, responding to a few autograph requests and having a quick hoops-related heart-to-heart with Blazers coach Nate McMillan.

He's 19 years old. He's rich. His roster spot is guaranteed barring a disaster. He's the golden child of the organization.

In a freight elevator just to his left stands a packed-in group of Bayless' teammates, on their way to catch a team bus to the hotel. While Bayless could make his name one of the household variety this coming season - and his showing in the last week certainly hints at that - most of the guys wearing Blazers practice uniforms that day you'll never hear from again.

For every Jerryd Bayless in the summer league, there's 10 Rod Bensons. There's 10 Matt Walshes. There's 10 Russell Robinsons.

Those names don't ring any bells? If not, here's their summer league stories - the stories of three guys who needed the summer league to try and catch someone's attention. For Bayless, the summer league was practice. For several others, it was an audition.

Three guys whose futures are completely up in the air.

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Rod Benson, an NBA hopeful playing in this year's summer league with the Toronto Raptors, sports a T-shirt with what has become his personal logo on it. Though the 'Boom Tho' movement has made him a star in the sports blogosphere, he still has the same NBA dreams as everyone else who played in the Vegas summer league last week.

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Rod Benson, left, stretches his right knee Friday night on the bench while watching his Toronto teammates play. Benson's week was hampered by a sprained MCL, which he suffered in practice on his first day in Vegas.

The man behind 'The Movement'

Rod Benson wears his reputation like an advertisement.

While leaving the Thomas & Mack Center after Friday's summer league action, it's pretty hard to miss. On his black T-shirt is a large orange and blue logo, looking like its straight off the pages of a comic book, with the words 'Boom Tho' in the middle.

Heck, while he's in uniform, the same logo is on the side of his shoes.

Don't bother asking what it means.

"It's a movement," Benson said of the phenomenon born from his Too Much Rod Benson! blog. "It's ambiguity is perfect. You've got to leave it open a bit to interpretation."

Oh, there's more.

"See, no one's really given me a definition," he said of the followers of 'the movement'. "Because the people who know, the people who strive to define it, understand it at a paramount level, and they understand that we don't need to define it. It's like Apple Jacks. Who cares if it doesn't taste like apples?"

Of course, the term 'Boom Tho' is nothing new to those who are regular readers of Benson's two blogs (one of which is featured on Yahoo! Sports) or followers of his video antics which pepper YouTube. He's the most famous basketball player most people have never heard of. Yet despite his writing talents and ever-growing Internet popularity, he was in Vegas last week just like every other NBA hopeful, praying his talent could catch someone's eye and open a slight window of opportunity.

That potential opening never came to fruition, as Benson sprained the MCL in his left knee in his first day practicing with the Toronto Raptors' summer league team.

"The goal here is to play and do well, and I've pretty much done neither," Benson said with a chuckle. "Anybody who comes to the summer league is looking to further their standing, either here or overseas. Basketball-wise, this would be kind of a let down, but it's not like I haven't had fun and I haven't made some new friendships."

With the injury slowing him, Benson played just a total of 10 minutes in two games last week for Toronto. He really didn't have to prove himself to anyone, as NBA execs are already pretty well aware of what he brings to the table. Since graduating from Cal-Berkeley in 2006, he's spent a training camp with the New Jersey Nets, and played the majority of two full seasons in the NBA's Developmental League. Those stops took him to Austin, Texas, and Bismarck, N.D. Combine the remote locales of most NBDL franchises and the minimal pay, they're not places he's in a rush to return to.

"It's definitely an option, but it's not one I'll take," said Benson, who averaged 13.6 points and 12.1 rebounds per game for the Dakota Wizards last season. "No one spends their whole career in the D-league. It's not what you do. The only way I could end up back there is if I went overseas and came back early and I just needed to go there for a second, or went to training camp, got released and just got there for a second. There's no way I'll spend an entire season there."

But just because going to Europe may be his most likely option, it doesn't mean he's close to giving up on pro ball. After all, he's not stupid.

"Either way, my earning potential far exceeds anything I'll do writing in the near future, and I understand that, and I love to play basketball, so why not do both?" he continued.

One reason basketball is still such a strong option for him is that he doesn't let the silly nature of his blog or his quirky sense of humor make anyone take him less serious as a ballplayer.

"I don't think anyone in the basketball community doesn't take me seriously as a basketball player," he said. "Especially since I'm a player who goes off of a lot of hustle and heart and all those things. It'd be hard to say my game is a joke if you see how hard I play and how much it means to me."

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Matt Walsh of the Sacramento Kings, second from right, watches from the bench as his team plays in Cox Pavilion in NBA summer league action. Walsh, who left the University of Florida a year early, has bounced around the pro ranks in Europe since being cut by the Miami Heat in 2005. His goal this week was to hopefully catch the eye of an NBA general manager so that he can work his way back into the league, but playing his time was minimal.

One frustrating week

One thing Matt Walsh got pretty good at last week in Vegas was not letting his frustration show.

It couldn't have been easy, though.

"I expected to play more, to be honest with you," said Walsh, a fourth-year pro out of Florida. "And I'm not really getting a chance to do a whole lot, but that's just the way it goes some times. For me, it's super-frustrating, I'm like the most competitive person you'll ever meet.

"For me, it's torture."

Walsh's story is the same as the ones several college coaches use as cautionary tales to players considering jumping from college early. Along with guard Anthony Roberson, he left Florida with a year of eligibility remaining following the 2004-05 season. He'd become a recognizable college hoops figure, largely because of his signature floppy hair held back by a headband.

From there, he faded from the American hoops radar pretty fast. He made the Miami Heat roster as an undrafted free agent, but was cut early in the 2005-06 season after appearing in just two games for a combined three minutes. He has one NBA bucket to his credit. In the meantime, Florida was winning the first of its back-to-back national championships.

He spent the following season in Greece, and after getting a run with Cleveland's summer league squad one summer ago, he spent last season playing for teams both in Spain and Belgium.

If he was hoping to show just how much his game has developed across the pond this week, that opportunity never really fully presented itself. In four games, he played a combined 40 minutes, scoring a total of 13 points.

"I know I can play in this league," said Walsh, who at 6-foot-6 is both a solid ball-handler and outside shooter. "It's just a matter of getting the right opportunity and a chance."

Roberson is a prime example of that. Earlier in the week, while playing with the Knicks' summer league team, he was inked to a two-year deal by the franchise.

"All it takes is one GM to like you," said Walsh, who does a good job at keeping a positive demeanor.

He's not unlike several prospects from the summer league in that going back overseas could not only be a lucrative option, but it could be the only one. Where the squeeze comes into play is in the coming weeks, when some organizations overseas will put offers on the table which might require Walsh to report immediately. At the same time, there's the temptation to stay for a potential training camp invite from an NBA franchise.

It's nothing shy of stressful. But Walsh has made himself comfortable in the bed he's made. He's had no choice but to do so.

"Obviously, everything goes through your mind, but I don't waste a lot of time thinking about it," he said of his decision to leave Florida. "You know, I've had some amazing experiences because of leaving early. I mean, I got to play with Shaq and Gary Payton and Dwyane Wade, even if it was only for a few months. It's like, people will kill for that. It's hard for me to say I regret it, becausce I had some opportunities. I made the team that ended up being the world championship (Miami won the 2006 NBA title)."

Having achieved that once is what keeps him coming back.

Russell Robinson

Russell Robinson, an undrafted free agent out of Kansas, has a story which at this week's NBA summer league is far from uncommon. Like several athletes on the 21 rosters, he's playing for a job, whether it be in the NBA, the NBDL or overseas.

The unheralded piece

On top of its national championship last season, the Kansas men's basketball program made even more history when it came to the 2008 NBA Draft.

Five Jayhawks - Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur, Mario Chalmers, Darnell Jackson and Sasha Kaun - heard their names called. That tied an NBA Draft record for most players drafted in one year from a single school.

A name which went uncalled upon was, oddly enough, the guy who was widely considered the glue which held that championship club together. He's the only one of the six who as of now does not have a guaranteed contract locked up for next season.

It was senior point guard Russell Robinson.

But still, the exposure Robinson got from a deep NCAA Tournament run certainly didn't hurt him in catching the eye of a franchise for a spot on its summer roster.

"It gives you that look," he said. "You get the exposure so they get to see you. You play hard and play well, that's a good thing.

"You've just got to go out there and play to win, and usually when that happens, good things happen for you."

It's worked for Robinson to this point in his career, and now he's hoping it gets him paid, one way or another. Not known as an offensive threat during his college days, he was a guy counted on to get things done in terms of distributing the ball, handling the ball and playing the role of defensive stopper.

And while some use their time in summer league games to prove they can be an offensive force, Robinson has stuck to his bread and butter. His numbers (2.8 ppg, 2.4 apg, 1.6 rpg) don't pop off the page, but it's clear that the Rockets wanted a good, long look at him last week. He averaged 19.6 minutes per game, and was pulled aside for extra coaching during nearly each break in the game - telltale signs that they see something in him.

"It's the same thing he did at Kansas - he's the consumate professional, hustles, plays defense," said B.J. Johnson, a Rockets scout who has studied Robinson throughout his collegiate career. "You put that in the mix with some pro guys who are really, really good, and that's always going to show up when he's on the floor.

"The thing I like about the dude, is this cat works his butt off. Some people just don't have that in them, they just can't work hard every day. He's got that in him."

But is it enough to realize his dream?

Johnson says that what Robinson provides will get him paid to play ball somewhere next season, be it in the NBA or overseas.

And there again is the uncertainty of it all. Robinson finds himself just like several other recent college graduates - not knowing exactly what's next.

"It's terrible," he said. "The only way I offset that is thinking about somebody that's in a worse situation than I am. I'm grateful for having the opportunity I do have."

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