FRISCO, Texas — When you’re fresh out of college and you land that first job, the circumstances don’t matter as much as the opportunity to prove yourself. In that respect, former Stony Brook basketball star Jameel Warney is just like thousands of other workers who are filling apartments as fast as they can build them in this booming suburb about 30 miles north of Dallas.
In fact, the studio apartment Warney occupies in a new building in Frisco, where the NFL Cowboys have located their new training facility, is the major perk of his first professional gig with the Texas Legends, who are the NBA Development League affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks. The team pays his rent, which means his primary expenses are food and his taste for shoes. It’s small compensation for his starting salary of $19,000 for a 50-game schedule.
As the three-time player of the year in the America East Conference, Warney had far more profitable options to play overseas after his graduation, but he chose to pay his dues in the D-League after being waived by the Mavericks in training camp. “After the summer league, I had a choice of going to Korea or going to Dallas’ training camp,” Warney said recently. “I wanted to go to training camp. If I had to go to D-League for a year or so, I would do that.
“I had been living in college, so I could deal without having that much money for another year. I think I made the right choice. Even though the money is not there, I’m learning from good coaches, and I’m playing against good competition every day.”
How much more money could he have made? “Let’s just say a month of playing in Korea is equivalent to my whole contract here,” Warney said with a smile.
After playing in the summer league for the Mavs and going through training camp, whatever insecurities he might have had about coming from a lower-echelon basketball school like Stony Brook vanished. He was on the third team and felt they held their own with the vets.
“I learned a lot when I was there from one of the greatest coaches, Rick Carlisle,” Warney said. “There were a lot of great players like Dirk Nowitzki. I figured out I could play with those guys, so that was a great confidence-booster. It’s a realistic dream. I feel like I’m close to making it.”
ABOUT THAT JUMP SHOT
When the Mavs released him, Warney said Carlisle told him “I could make it in this league. I just have to get a jump shot. That’s what everyone tells me. But he told me he loves my IQ. Even though I didn’t play the four in training camp, I knew how to run the plays.”
At 6-8, Warney is undersized not only for the center position in the NBA but for the power forward spot. He spent his life perfecting his low-post moves, excellent footwork and passing ability. Legends assistant Vin Baker, a former All-Star power forward primarily with the Bucks, told him he would have been a first-round choice in 1990.
But in the modern NBA, coaches want big men to develop three-point shooting ability to spread the floor, force defenses to cover more territory and create driving room. Warney works every day to accommodate them, attending optional evening practices to work on his shooting from 15 feet and out after never taking a three-point shot in four years at Stony Brook.
“I’ve been working my tail off to practice jump shots,” Warney said. “I made a couple [mid-range shots] the last few weeks. Teams have to start respecting that jump shot. I’m trying my hardest, but I feel that I do so many things well that if I just get a 15-footer, I’ll be OK.’’
Warney earned a starting spot with the Legends and played well before injuring a hip flexor. He was out from Jan. 11 to Feb. 1. Through 34 games, he’s averaging 15.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocked shots and is shooting 56.0 percent. But after returning from his injury, he went through a 10-game stretch in which he averaged 21.2 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, and his efficiency rating and plus-minus are the team’s best for players with at least 15 games.
PLAYING THE FOUR
A week ago, Warney met with Legends coach Bob MacKinnon. Usually, when Mavs rookie forward A.J. Hammons plays with the Legends, it cuts Warney’s playing time, but MacKinnon told him he would play his full minutes at power forward.
“He said, ‘A.J. is going to play, but you’re going to play at the four because you’re the best big in the D-League right now.’ That was a great confidence-booster.”
The D-League consists of 22 teams filled with players from major universities and former NBA players trying to hang on. “Best big in the D-League” covers a lot of territory.
But Legends assistant coach George Galanopoulos said, “Ever since he came back from his injury, he’s done extremely well. He’s the best big man in the league in my opinion, but specifically in post-ups on the low block, he’s got an array of moves. Now he’s starting to rebound the ball at a high level, too.”
After this season, Warney can catch on with any NBA summer league team and try to make an NBA roster. He came close with the Charlotte Hornets this season before they chose another player.
Carlisle believes Warney is a legitimate NBA prospect who will benefit from being surrounded by top players who create room for him to operate. “When he gets the opportunity, somebody is going to find that even though he is undersized, he’s very resourceful,” Carlisle said. “He has great use of his body and strength. He has a tremendous skill set on the inside. He rarely gets a shot blocked. He elevates higher than you think, and he’s always in the right position on defense.
“He did extremely well in camp. I was impressed with Warney’s play.”
It’s a start — if not to stardom, then to a life-changing NBA contract that will make Warney’s D-League sacrifice worth it in the long run.