NBA Rookies 2006
 
 
By Matt Wong | ESPN.com

TARRYTOWN, N.Y. -- Never before has a charter bus seemed so crowded. Each seat is occupied by an NBA rookie -- or a long, outstretched leg belonging to an NBA rookie -- on his way to a league photo shoot, where the Class of 2006 will pose for their first-ever trading cards.

Tyrus Thomas and Rudy Gay sit in the second-to-last row acting like class clowns. Only Thomas is quick to point out this is no act. This is who they are, "goofballs," as Gay puts it.

Thomas gets the aisle seat. Gay sits to his left in the window seat with Thomas' arm around his chair in a way that shows off the No. 4 pick's ridiculous wingspan -- his left hand leans against the window even though his arm is bent at a sharp angle. They're in their own world, as if they've known each other for years. However, the two met for the first time when LSU visited UConn last season, and they didn't bond until they were at a predraft camp.

Thomas reels off the similarities between the two who many believe possess the most NBA potential of the lot.

"Some people say we look a little bit alike, a lot of people say we play alike," Thomas says. "We born on the same day, we the same age ...

"At the draft our families hung out together. They clicked. My mom's like, 'I want you to meet somebody,' she was like, 'This is Rudy's mom.' And I was like, 'Well, I was about to introduce you to them anyway.'

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"Rudy's my family."

Says the more laid-back Gay: "We act alike, it's weird."

Other than Gay and Thomas, most of the seating arrangements are predictable, with former teammates or conference cousins sitting near each other.

J.J. Redick sits in front of the long-lost brothers, a complete contrast in demeanor. With a newspaper in his hands, he looks like he could be headed to a job on Wall Street, only his Orlando Magic shorts give him away.

At times, he chats with his former Duke teammate, Shelden Williams, who sits across the aisle, and Jordan Farmar, who sits directly in front of him. They shoot the breeze about summer league and cars, and recite lines from "Talladega Nights" with the giddiness of middle schoolers.

Diagonally across from them, Randy Foye talks on occasion to his former Villanova teammate Kyle Lowry who sits a row behind him, but mostly stays occupied with the Sidekick in his hands.

Meanwhile, a couple of sleepers -- Shawne Williams of the Pacers and Ronnie Brewer of the Jazz -- choose to catch up on some rest rather than the lives of their peers. Williams has his head on his lap, unable to find any other position that would allow his 6-9 frame to fit comfortably in his seat. Brewer, on the other hand, is fully slumped over in his chair.

And when word gets to the middle of the bus, where Brewer's new teammate Dee Brown chats it up with Maurice Ager, Mardy Collins and LaMarcus Aldridge, they all get a good laugh out of their younger classmates.

But soon the busload of rookies is on swivel alert for a different reason. The ride's taking too long. And, wait, didn't they just pass that gas station five minutes ago?

Before they know it, the bus busts a U, and it's official -- they're lost (turns out some construction on the road caused the extended detour).

But it's all good, Marcus Williams and Hilton Armstrong, the resident jokers, have fun with the bus driver. Just call it another obstacle on their long journey to the NBA.

* * *

Zoom in on Tyrus Thomas. Unlike his buddy sitting next to him who was highly recruited coming out of high school, Thomas wasn't even recruited by LSU.

"My road here was hard," he says. "I was actually packing my stuff from home and my grandmother saved all my recruitment letters; I helped LSU get to the Final Four and I didn't have not one letter from them. It's crazy. But everything works out for the best. I'm happy I went there, they're happy I went there."

It's a part of the reason the back of his left arm is inked "No Struggle" and the back of his right arm "No Progress."

Listen to the gratitude in his voice as he reflects on how far he's come since being the kid who used to get kicked out of the barbershop for dribbling the basketball inside. He talks about how his grandmother had to clean toilet bowls for a living. How his mom was a corrections officer who had to break up fights every day.

No way is he taking his NBA gig for granted, he says. In fact, he's already embracing his role as an example to younger kids.

"You gotta finish school," he says, getting his preach on. "Ain't everybody gonna be 6-9, ain't everybody gonna have 39-inch vertical, ain't everybody gonna have a 15-footer.

"School is important. You gotta get your grades. I'm taking Internet classes this fall. I'm trying to finish, man. It'll make me feel more complete. Can't nobody take that away from me. If I get hurt they can take basketball away from me."

He continues, his eyes urging someone, anyone, to believe: "You gotta understand, this is a once in a lifetime thing. It's a blessing."

* * *

Now zoom in on Redick, who is as polished as Thomas is raw. Homeschooled by his mom growing up, he was always one to seize an opportunity -- shooting hoops in the driveway whenever she was on the phone. Now he's arguably the most accomplished player of this class, having set numerous school and ACC records.

"I was talking to my friend the other day," Redick says. "People think professional athletes are given everything. But we've been working for this moment for 15 years now. This is the fruition of it. Hopefully we have lengthy careers."

Unfortunately he's not off to the smoothest of starts, thanks to a summer of questions about his character and health.

In June, Redick was arrested for drunken driving, a mistake he admits and regrets. And in July, he was in Vegas for Team USA tryouts but couldn't even participate because of a back injury. "I went to the first day of practice, an hour in I left," he says. "It was too frustrating."

Still, the sharpshooter did take advantage of hanging out with Team USA's elder statesman, Bruce Bowen. Though he wonders if that, too, will come back to haunt him: "He was just suckering me up for when he has to guard me."

Redick is bracing himself for the work ahead, he knows things won't get easier once the season begins. Despite his reputation as a shooter with unlimited range, he hears the criticisms that his game is too one-dimensional.

"I've tried most to pattern my game after Reggie Miller, Ray Allen, Rip -- move without the ball," he says. "But they're thought of as scorers, not shooters. That would be the ultimate compliment for me."

* * *

Actually, zoom in on any of these rookies. Because each one has his own unique story to tell about how he made it to the league.

There's Aldridge's story about how he could've entered the draft out of high school but decided to go to Texas, where he suffered a hip injury during his freshman year. After surgery, instead of choosing to pity himself, he worked on his shooting form by sitting on a stool in the gym for hours at a time.

There's Brewer's story about how he was born two months premature, how he had hernias and stomach surgery and a broken arm when he was young. But now he has a chance to follow in the footsteps of his father, Ron Brewer, a first-round pick of the Blazers in 1978, and play in the NBA.

There's Foye's story about how he lost both of his parents at a young age; his father died in a motorcycle accident when he was 3, his mother disappeared when he was 5. But thanks to his grandmother and other family members, he's had the support he's needed.

Some tell their stories while shaking their heads in disbelief, others use their tattoos to explain their path. All of them deliver the message that the hard times have made them stronger.

In terms of the game of basketball itself, this class as a whole has had a tougher road than most. There are no LeBrons or Greg Odens; there are only a few McDonald's All-Americans on this bus. Thus, the expectations aren't very high for them. No one is being touted as bona fide superstar material. That's because questions seem to surround each rookie.

Is Adam Morrison athletic enough? Can Thomas learn to shoot? Does Gay have the drive? Is Aldridge too soft? And so on.

"I've been slept on my whole life," says Quincy Douby of the Kings. "I keep proving people wrong."

It is the common sentiment of this group. And it is only fitting that his No. 8 jersey actually looks like an hourglass. It's time to convert -- or at least shut up -- the haters.

* * *

The bus pulls up to the Knicks' training facility, where the photo shoot is to take place. They've arrived. Finally. In more ways than one.

There are 34 rookies present in all -- Andrea Bargnani, Morrison and Brandon Roy being the absent notables -- ready for their close-ups with Topps and Upper Deck.

The setup is similar to last year, with curtains, backdrops and cameras galore. The only thing missing is a court for guys to compete on. But no matter, in the middle of the room are two flat-screen TVs and two Xboxes hooked up with NBA Live '07, where they'll find their video-game counterparts for the first time. It's the obvious hangout spot, where teammates clash and where Renaldo Balkman takes on a 5-year-old in an Allan Houston jersey.

Redick, looking plenty winded from doing action shots, describes the scene as a petting zoo. Aldridge likens it to an auto show. Others describe it as a family reunion.

"It's like a dream," says James White, the Pacers' second-round pick and the favorite to win next year's slam-dunk contest. "'Cause you know, stuff don't hit you until being with guys around the league, putting the uniform on, looking at other guys with their uniforms on...

"Damn, I finally made it."

Watch them walk around at the end of the day with a box of cards in one hand and a pen in the other, trading autographs with each other without many words. There's an appreciation for their new surroundings.

That's why Thomas is making the most of this day. He's bobbing to the beat of almost every song that comes through the speakers while taking pictures. He's taking a turn at the deejay table, his head tilted to the right with his headphones half on, spinning a Busta Rhymes beat with a TI lyric for a few minutes.

He's even freestyling for the cameras, with Gay as his hype man.

Gotta work on my jump shot to get the touch
Work on my stamina so I won't sit down much
See what I'm saying, dude, I ain't playin'
Every night before I go to bed I start prayin'
Asking God to bless my class
Other people hating they can kiss our ---

On cue, Gay bleeps his buddy, much to the amusement of those listening. Hey, they're goofballs. And they're living up the moment.

"It's not about where you end up," Farmar says. "It's about the process. Enjoy it step by step, that's how I look at it."

Adds Foye about their journey: "Lot of hard work. Lot of ups. Lot of downs. Lot of times you thought to yourself that the game wasn't for you but just kept on going, kept believing.

"And it's all turned out good."

Matt Wong is an NBA editor at ESPN.com. He can be reached at matthew.wong@espn3.com.

Photos by: Chris Bisani, Garrett Ellwood, Jesse D. Garrabrant, Jennifer Pottheiser, Terrence Vaccaro of NBAE/Getty Images.

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