How you know when you've become an NBA veteran

Hours before the start of the 2019-20 season at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, JJ Redick walks off the court after morning shootaround, stopping to chat, and probably doesn’t notice he is standing in pretty much the exact spot where Kawhi Leonard hit his iconic Game 7 series-clinching buzzer beater just five months ago, ending Redick and the Philadelphia 76ers’ season. 

At age 35 entering his 14th season in the league, Redick has seen a lot throughout his career. He was part of an NBA Finals team in Orlando, contended in Los Angeles with the Clippers and helped spearhead Philadelphia’s turnaround the past two seasons. In his first conversation this summer with new teammate Zion Williamson, he told the incoming rookie to not mess up his postseason streak. Redick has never missed the playoffs in his career. 

Along with E’Twaun Moore, he is one of only two players on the Pelicans roster over the age of 30. In experience and age, Redick has all the qualities that makes him a veteran in the NBA. But, when exactly do you become a vet?

“I feel like you’re not a vet until year seven,” Redick says.

He still remembers the 2012-13 season. The Magic had been on a slow but steady decline since making the Finals in 2009. During the summer, the team parted ways with head coach Stan Van Gundy and traded away Dwight Howard. 

The rebuilding process had begun. Redick, at age 28, was suddenly one of the older players on the team. He started mentoring the younger players on the roster, taking rookies under his wing, explaining the importance of having a routine for the 82-game regular season grind. 

As a vet, Redick also became more of a communicator. When the front office or coaching staff felt like there were messages that needed to be communicated in the locker room, it was Redick who was consulted and asked to deliver them. 

The seven-year rule doesn’t apply to everyone, according to Redick, who spent four years at Duke before joining the league at age 22. “If you come into the league when you’re 19,” Redick says, “you’re potentially not a vet until you’re 29.”

The broader definition of a veteran is “a person who has had long experience in a particular field.” In sports parlance, being a vet carries the same definition, except it’s hard to properly define exactly when an NBA player becomes a veteran. 

Age and experience serve as guidelines, but some players are forced into leadership roles early on in their careers, while others can be in the league for over a decade without the experience required to be a vet in the locker room. Across the league, players have differing opinions as to when they become a vet. 

Evan Fournier, 27, is in his eighth season in the league. He’s in a similar role in Orlando as Redick was once upon a time, but rejects the notion that he is a vet. “I have more experience than the younger guys but I don’t see myself as a vet,” Fournier says. “You have to be here for like 10 years to be a vet.”

Seth Curry says he felt like a vet for the first time last season when he joined the Portland Trail Blazers at the age of 28. Yet he struggled to put into words exactly what that means. “I think it’s just a feeling,” Curry says.

Fournier’s teammate, Nikola Vucevic, is in his ninth season in the league, and says he became a vet a few years ago. “It just kind of happens,” Vucevic says. “You just try to help someone the way someone helped you when you first came into the league.”

For the 29-year-old Magic center, it’s less about taking on the role of a vet but whether other teammates start coming to you for on and off court advice. “It comes more from your teammates seeing you [as a vet] than you trying to be one,” Vucevic says.

The timeline of being a vet is different for everyone and while some describe the change as just a feeling, there’s often a tangible difference in day-to-day responsibilities. Blake Griffin spent seven-plus seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers and grew from a high-flying rookie to the centerpiece of a contending team. 

Even as his role expanded, Griffin says he never felt like a veteran in the Clippers locker room. “Our Los Angeles teams were so self-governed,” Griffin says. “We had vets, but we also never really needed that one guy [to take the lead]. It was a collective effort.”

Griffin says he became a veteran when he was traded to a much younger Detroit Pistons team two seasons ago. At his first full training camp with his new team before the start of the 2018-19 season, Griffin made a concerted effort to get to know every single player on the roster. As a vet, he wanted to figure out how to communicate with everyone individually. 

“Some guys you can get on,” Griffin says. “Some guys you have to put your arm around them and take them to the side. Some guys you motivate. Some guys you calm down. That’s the biggest thing for me is learning all of that, and finding a way to communicate with guys on a personal level. On the bus, on the plane, you want to have that one inside joke with everyone. It’s relationship building. If you don’t do that, it seems like you don’t fully care.”

Blake Griffin has taken on more of a leadership role since joining the Pistons. (Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Figuring out when it’s time to speak out as a vet in the locker room is different for everyone too, as Griffin’s former teammate Austin Rivers discovered during the 2017-18 season. After Chris Paul was traded to Houston in the offseason, Rivers was put into a much bigger role with the team, starting 59 games and setting career highs in minutes played and points per game.

As his on-court responsibilities increased, Rivers, at age 25, felt like he had earned the status of being a vet. “Anytime you’ve done stuff in the league, you have a voice,” Rivers says. “If you ain’t done shit in the league, you can’t be out here acting like a vet.”

Rivers cautions against using your vet status to speak to teammates all the time. “Your actions speak for themselves,” Rivers says. “That’s the funny thing, it’s usually the guys who are the loudest ones whose actions don’t really speak for themselves.”

Another young vet in the league is Fred VanVleet, who is 25 and entering his fourth season. VanVleet has been a leader in the locker room since high school, and says he’s studied good and bad vets and agrees with Rivers that speaking out all the time isn’t the best move. 

“Nobody likes the guy who is talking every single game, every single quarter, every single timeout, every single practice,” VanVleet says. “But there are times when I need to speak and I try to choose those pockets wisely.”

VanVleet’s rise from undrafted player to a regular contributor on a championship team last season to establishing himself as a full-time starter this year has earned himself respect in the locker room, especially on a Raptors team that only has three players over the age of 30. In fact, VanVleet thinks young vets can often get through to players better than some of the older vets. 

“I have experiences that young guys are interested in,” VanVleet says. “We can relate to them more so than the older guys. It’s my fourth year. I’m fairly new and I’ve got a good balance of experience and still being young as well.”

Marc Gasol, 34 and in his 12th season, doesn’t believe in any age or experience prerequisites for players to be a veteran presence in the locker room. “It’s basketball,” Gasol says. “Anybody who sees something within the team concept should feel the need to talk. I don’t care if it’s a one-year player or a 10-year player.”

He points to VanVleet as a perfect example. “He sees the game as a coach,” Gasol says. “He’s always thinking about the team. When he talks, he’s always on point. He talks about the right stuff. He stands for the right stuff.”

While no one can agree exactly on when you become a vet in the league, everyone agrees that having vets in the locker room, especially during the early, formative years of your NBA career, can make a huge impact. 

Norman Powell, who is 26 and says he feels like a vet “on some days,” points to veterans like Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll and Bismack Biyombo as players who helped shape him in his first few seasons in the NBA. 

“A lot of guys are trying to figure out what the league is about,” Powell says. “When you have vets that come in every day and do what is asked of them, they help you through the ups and downs. When you don’t have that, it’s tough trying to figure it out yourself. It definitely accelerates the learning process.”

While every player’s path to becoming a veteran in the league is different, Redick does have a definitive answer on what comes after you become a vet. 

“I’ve moved beyond veteran status,” Redick says. “Now I’m just an old head.”

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