Brian Roberts has become a key contributor off the bench for the New Orleans Hornets. He is a 27-year-old rookie after playing four seasons overseas following his career at the University of Dayton.
Brian Roberts could have comfortably played out his career in Germany.
The former St. John’s Jesuit star carved out a nice life the last three seasons in Bamberg, an ancient riverfront city of 70,000 — and eight breweries — where he lived in an upscale team-furnished apartment with his wife and daughter and a basketball-mad community regularly packed the team’s 6,800-seat arena. A U.S. military base even kept the local grocery store stocked with the tastes of home.
“That was kind of a lifesaver for us,” he said, laughing.
But Roberts has never been one to settle. This year, he decided to make one last run at his American dream — the one he is living today as a 27-year-old NBA rookie.
Undrafted out of Dayton, the former Blade player of the year spent his first four professional seasons overseas before accepting an invitation to play for the New Orleans Hornets’ summer league entry.
Roberts was one of a dozen or so first or second-year players scrapping to fill the team’s last roster spots, though if you ask him, he liked it that way. He knows something about long odds.
This was the same guy who as a St. John’s sophomore scored 10 points in an 87-second span against Scott to rally the Titans from an 18-point deficit with 4:27 left to win the City League title. The same willowy 6-foot-1, 160-pound guard who was seen as too small by the college blue bloods, only to become the fourth-leading scorer in Dayton history.
So playing this summer with that inherent dark-horse edge — a “desperate mentality,” he said — Roberts not only made the New Orleans roster but earned a nonguaranteed two-year, $1.26 million contract.
He has since proved a steal. Though the Hornets are 5-13, the team’s second-oldest player has emerged as a feel-good storyline in the throes of another rebuilding season.
Roberts forced his way into coach Monty Williams’ rotation early last month with 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting and eight assists in a 107-99 win over Charlotte, and he has remained a reliable stand-in for starting point guard Greivis Vasquez. He is the team’s second-leading scorer off the bench — 7.9 points — and put up double digits in three of the last six games.
“It’s been a great experience so far, to be able to live a dream that every young kid has playing basketball,” Roberts said in a phone interview last week. “I knew I could make a great living overseas, but I didn’t want to relinquish the NBA goal just yet. At age 26, the hourglass was getting low. I wanted to give it one more try.”
Among those glad he did is St. John’s coach Ed Heinstschel.
“Hey, I’m so proud of you,” he texted Roberts over the summer.
“He showed great perseverance,” Heinstschel said. “A great success story, and a great kid.”
Where does the story go from here?
If the past is any indication, it will continue on an upward arc. Roberts has made a career of defying expectations shaped by his undersized frame. (In the Brobdingnagian world of the NBA, he is the Hornets’ shortest player by two inches.)
At St. John’s, he earned top Blade honors in 2003 and was named Division I co-player of the year a season later after leading the Titans to the state title game, then burrowed deep into Dayton lore. The three-time MVP scored 1,962 career points and set a school-record in both 3-pointers made (293) and 3-point percentage (44.1).
After Roberts’ 31-point burst led Dayton to a rout over No. 6 Pittsburgh in 2007, then-Flyers coach Brian Gregory said, “I've been saying for a long time he's the most efficient guard in the country, but now I think he's becoming one of the best.”
Yet come draft time, Roberts was buried behind a deep class of scoring guards that included Derrick Rose, O.J. Mayo, Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, and D.J. Augustin among the top-10 picks alone.
Roberts went to Israel before spending three seasons riding buses across Germany, where the deadeye spent his first year on the Brose Baskets as a shooting guard, then switched to the role that kept his NBA dream alight. By last winter, he was rekindling interest stateside as the starting lead guard on the German League champions.
Those keeping watch included Hornets assistant general manager Tim Connelly, a friend of Brose coach Chris Fleming.
“We felt Brian was a guy that was knocking on the door, the last two years in particular,” Connelly said last week. “He’s a big-time shooter … and while he’s not a traditional pass-first point guard, he’s done a great job the last few years understanding how to balance the playmaking and scoring. He used his scoring ability to set up his playmaking and vice versa. He’s a difficult guy to guard.”
Fleming suggested he call Roberts, who did not have an agent. The Hornets were looking for a veteran to complement the 6-6 Vasquez while rookie combo guard Austin Rivers, the team’s 20-year-old first-round pick from Duke, gained his footing.
“Brian was in a position overseas where he could get a pretty lucrative deal,” Connelly said. “But he wanted at his age to give it one last try. It was now or never. I told him how great our coaches are at giving opportunities. It’s a meritocracy here. There’s no guaranteed money, but come play summer league, see what you can do.”
Roberts showed them, his summer average of 11.4 points and 3.0 assists enough to warrant a contract that included what Connelly calls a “fairly significant” guaranteed sum. (Terms of the deal were not disclosed.)
Finally, on the biggest stage, it is Roberts’ time — and he’s ready to prove he belongs.
“Coming out of Dayton, I wasn’t necessarily mentally ready for the NBA,” Roberts said. “It’s definitely a man’s league, and you have to have a chip on your shoulder every night, especially at my size. I’m not an overbearing guy. But I think playing overseas helped me with that mental side and helped me understand the point guard position. It’s just a blessing that things have turned out the way they have.”
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.