When I was younger, my father and I would make the 30-minute drive from Norman to Oklahoma City and wait outside the steel doors of Chesapeake Energy Arena, clutching our Thunder season tickets and the thrill of studying superstars' secrets. Ninety minutes until tipoff, we'd march down the stairs, close to the court and get a front-row seat for the pregame training regimens of the best players on the planet.
I watched Kevin Durant balancing his weight shooting on one leg, and then the other. I watched Kyrie Irving pounding his dribble side-to-side. Steve Nash, bending his knees all the way down and rising up. Damian Lillard dribbling full speed, stopping on a dime and rising for a 3-pointer. Steph Curry's shooting routine, including those faraway jumpers and floaters punctuated in the paint. And Russell Westbrook. I was always watching Russ.
I've been preparing most of my life to join the NBA, and that time has come for me now: After an unforgettable year at the University of Oklahoma, I will enter the June NBA draft and fully immerse myself in the pursuit of a pro basketball career.
But before I start to move forward, I feel obligated to stop and take a look back. My story has been of family, a grandfather who taught me to shoot in his front yard, a mother who unflinchingly believed in me, and a father who nurtured, pushed and inspired me beyond my childhood dreams. My story has been of a Norman, Oklahoma, kid allowed to become known throughout the country without ever needing to leave my hometown.
Coach Lon Kruger and his staff started to recruit me as a ninth-grader at Norman North High School, and I trusted him from the beginning. As much as anything, Coach Kruger taught me about poise, about handling pressure and difficult circumstances with calm and clear-mindedness. My teammates at OU were incredible. Sometimes, they absorbed criticism that was beyond unfair. The double- and triple-teams that swarmed me at Oklahoma forced me to become tougher, smarter and more determined as a player and person.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would become a constant topic for national television and radio shows -- never mind mentioned by some of the country's most respected journalists. Closer to home, I am grateful for how fairly the local Oklahoma media always covered me, from high school through college.
The basketball world was studying every move I made, and I am proud of how all of us -- my coaches, my teammates and myself -- handled it.
Before we arrived, Oklahoma had an 11-20 season, so I am proud of the success we had this season. We won a lot of big games and made the NCAA tournament. I'll never regret a moment I spent at the University of Oklahoma, or my decision to stay home and become a Sooner for life.
However, I will regret that I didn't help the Sooners win a national championship. I have always wanted to honor the legacies of Wayman Tisdale, Blake Griffin and Buddy Hield, OU legends who led the program to Elite Eights and Final Fours. I wanted to take the Sooners the distance -- all the way to a national championship. When I chose OU, I imagined I'd have more than one chance at the NCAA tournament, but things changed and this season became my only opportunity.
In the end, I have to make the decision that I believe is best for me, but it doesn't mean I do so without a heavy heart, without some regret that we won't get to run it back together next season.
As a kid at the Norman YMCA, I dreamed of making the shot to lead the Sooners to a national championship. But I dreamed of the NBA too, playing against the best players in the world, and it's time for me. I'll never forget the mornings with my dad at the Y, 5:30 a.m. in the pool, the weight room and getting up 100, 200 shots, before showering and hustling off to school. After high school practice and homework, my days ended at the YMCA too: more shots in an empty gym, more work before going home and watching NBA games until bedtime.
To me, I'll always be the skinny, 5-foot-6 eighth-grader on the YMCA court, trying to get grown men to choose me for pickup games. It wasn't always easy. And that's what drives me.
"In the end, I have to make the decision that I believe is best for me, but it doesn't mean I do so without a heavy heart."
In fact, that would become the common theme of much of my basketball career: overlooked and underestimated. I was blessed to make the McDonald's All American game and play with the USA Basketball Select Team, but those accomplishments always seemed to come with a question mark or an asterisk. I was never the big leaper, the dunker, the long and athletic kid who looked the part of a traditional basketball star. Truth be told, I wasn't even considered a top guard coming out of my recruiting class.
But I was the kid who worked relentlessly, stayed longest in the gym and played with a chip on my shoulder. I wanted to be considered among the great players. I wanted to belong.
And now I know there will be doubts again as I prepare for the draft. I don't pretend to be ready to play in the NBA today, but I am determined to do what I've always done: invest in the work to prepare for the league and the incredible challenges it presents. I'm going to start training immediately for the draft, building up strength throughout my body, sharpening my skills and studying the best of the best.
Within me, there is still so much of that little boy waiting outside of the Thunder's downtown Oklahoma City arena, waiting for the doors to swing open and reveal a star player on the court, preparing for greatness. Those nights made me fall in love with the process of fulfilling my potential as a player, and that becomes my full-time occupation now. Goodbye OU, and hello NBA. As always, I am ready to get to work.