Shooting for Another Chance, Hoop Dreamers Keep Hopes Aloft in Round Rock
By Aaron Torres
Photography By John Flynn
Mareik Isom drove to the Round Rock Sports Center for another chance at basketball.
The former 6-foot-9 forward for the Texas Longhorns was one of 165 hopefuls who auditioned one Saturday morning in September for the Austin Spurs, the NBA G League affiliate of the San Antonio Spurs. With his father at his side, he completed his registration form, filed a release and paid $150 for the annual open tryout.
“I’m just trying to get a job anywhere where I can play,” Isom said.
Isom played at Arkansas Little-Rock for three years before joining Texas in 2016-2017. But he went undrafted and wasn’t invited to the NBA Summer League. He attended a Pro Day in Los Angeles and a tryout with the Brooklyn Nets. Nothing came of those. So to Round Rock he went.
The tryout was organized with a number of drills across six courts – three-man weaves, a fast-break drill, a number of shooting drills, one-on-one drills and, finally, five-on-five scrimmages. Spurs staff members were stationed at each court.
“There’s a lot of guys who have maybe slipped through the cracks or haven’t had opportunities,” Spurs head coach Blake Ahearn said. “You look for someone to just kind of wow you and impress you.”
The tryout has been a pathway for some. Orlando Magic guard Jonathan Simmons won a spot in 2013, and, this past summer, signed a three-year, $20-million contract with Orlando.
Like Isom, Simmons played in college. But not everyone at the September tryout did. And not everyone was looking to continue a basketball career.
“I came here to see if I still had it,” said Payton Simon, a 24-year-old guard who played at Concordia University. Simon is a basketball trainer, and he went to network and build connections. “If I made it, I could add that to my training resume,” he said.
The hopefuls ranged from the highly-skilled – with flawless jump shots and astronomical verticals – to the not-so-skilled – those air-balling jump shots and unable to catch chest passes. They ranged from 19 to 51 years old.
Only five would be chosen.
Friends and family of those attending sat and stood in the stands above the court to take pictures and videos. They cheered words of encouragement.
Dominique Lanier, a 23-year-old guard who played at Hope International University, a NAIA school in California, flew in from Long Beach. Robert Moore, a 25-year-old guard who didn’t play college basketball, traveled from Arkansas.
Kendal Yancy had a shorter trip.
Isom’s former teammate at Texas drove from Dallas for his chance. Yancy, 23, had been working out twice a day and playing pick-up basketball with current NBA players in Dallas. The weekend prior to the tryouts, he tried out for the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks affiliate in Frisco, and he’s doing whatever he can to keep playing.
Yancy didn’t do much scoring in the tryout, but that wasn’t a strong part of his game – he averaged only 4.5 points in his four years at Texas. Instead, he focused on rebounding, making the extra pass, and playing solid defense – things he knew would help him.
“(The Spurs) were looking for guys who can play basketball,” Yancy said. “It’s not about scoring, and I wanted to show them that I don’t need to just get myself a shot to play.”
While Lanier, Moore and Yancy hoped to get their first real opportunity at continuing their careers, Jason Carter arrived as a journeyman. Carter had played professionally overseas for two years, but had never played in the G League. He was released by the Westchester Knicks, the affiliate of the New York Knicks, in November 2016.
He refused to give up. He has options to play overseas this season too, so if he doesn’t make a G league team this time, he says he will, “go back overseas and continue with the process.”
But while Carter had his own process, there were many who didn’t. That included Isom, who was looking for any chance he could get.
At the tryout, Isom knocked down three point shots, set screens, blocked shots and gathered a handful of steals. His height, combined with his skillset, should provide him with opportunities. Teams are looking to sign tall forwards who can stretch the floor.
“He’s a 6-10 shooter,” said his father, Kendall. “You can’t tell me he can’t do what half the players in the league are doing but can defend multiple positions.”
When the tryout ended, Isom met with some Spurs staff members and with Ahearn. Isom has been working out two to three times a day, either at Texas or Concordia or any other gym he can find.
“I thought I did well,” Isom said. “Hopefully I did enough stuff the right way and played the right way to get somebody’s attention.”