Second chance at a first impression
Colton Iverson hopes to earn a spot on the Celtics after playing in Turkey
For Colton Iverson, a 10-month stay in Turkey to start his pro basketball career was one extended business trip. Battling the mental grind of overseas hoops, Iverson often reminded himself that he was working toward his ultimate goal of earning a spot on the Boston Celtics' 2014-15 roster.
The Celtics bought the 53rd pick in the 2013 draft to nab the 7-foot Iverson, but facing an expected roster crunch, they asked the second-round selection to spend a year overseas and fine-tune his game. Iverson returned stateside earlier this month and will soon get an opportunity to showcase his development, all with a hope of sticking with the Celtics this time around.
"I know I still have to prove myself," Iverson said this week from his native Yankton, South Dakota. "It's not going to be easy, but I'm going to be preparing as much as I always do."
It's Iverson's tireless work ethic that ought to help him state a case for a roster spot. Those closest to him often point to a desire to "outwork people" and believe that he's willing to do whatever is necessary to earn his first NBA job.
Celtics director of player personnel Austin Ainge, who visited Iverson during his time with Turkish squad Besiktas, said the team remains high on his game, but it's ultimately on Iverson to play his way onto the team.
"My message to Colton has been, 'Just come in and work so hard that everyone wants to find a way to make it work,'" Ainge said.
Iverson has done his best to impress Celtics decision-makers from afar. Now, he'll travel to Boston as early as next week to join veterans in offseason workouts with hopes of turning heads up close.
Iverson won't be a stranger to the Green, which kept close tabs on him overseas. That includes coach Brad Stevens, who got a glimpse of Iverson during his first days as Celtics coach last July at summer league.
The way the team stayed in touch with Iverson during his extended overseas foray kept him motivated about the future.
"It's always good to hear from [team management], just to know they are following up on you and watching all your games," Iverson said. "Coach Stevens was pretty busy throughout the year, but I stayed in good contact with him and management. It was just reassuring to know that they are still supporting you even though you're halfway across the world."
Iverson averaged 7.2 points and 4.8 rebounds over 17 minutes per game in 47 appearances between the Turkish season and EuroCup, according to foreign hoops site Eurobasket.com. Advanced statistics logged by Synergy Sports show Iverson ranked in the middle of the pack both offensively (0.875 points per play; 45th percentile among all international players tracked) and defensively (0.881, 46th percentile) over 53 appearances (including exhibitions).
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Game film shows a player making strides despite inconsistent minutes, and the Celtics were pleased by much of what they saw.
"The same things that we liked about him still hold true: We love his physical play and his intensity," Ainge said. "I mean, he is a big, strong dude and, when he caught the ball in the paint, it takes two guys jumping on his back just to keep him from dunking it. Now, I thought that he slowly but surely picked up some of the pro concepts on defensive rotations that were different from college, he got better at that; he adjusted to the officiating and learned to play without fouling a lot better. I think his patience in the post improved."
International rules forced Iverson to adjust a bit, as did the amount of time between games. Besiktas often practiced twice on off days, but sometimes played only one game per week. That takes mental focus when you play only eight minutes per contest (as Iverson's game log on Eurobasket.com show for the months of April and May).
And that doesn't even factor in the cultural adjustment.
"Life's a lot different, especially for me coming from the Midwest and having never been to Europe," Iverson said. "The only place I had traveled outside of the United States was Canada and the Bahamas, so those don't even really count. It was a long year. ... The last two or three months, we were one game per week, so those weeks really get long. And just not really having any family and friends, and the time difference, it's tough. It takes a toll on you over time."
The team's schedule did not allow Iverson to fly home during his 10 months away. His parents visited him in Turkey for Thanksgiving, but most of his communication was limited to odd-hour Skype sessions.
Even tracking the Celtics from afar was no easy task. Istanbul is seven hours ahead of Eastern time, which means Celtics games typically tipped at about 3 or 4 a.m.
"I tried to follow as much as possible, but it's tough," Iverson admitted. "You have two practices a day, then the games are so late here. ... It was tough to watch the games, but I was following up, reading stories every morning every time they played."
The roster crunch that forced him overseas eased a bit as the Celtics completed two January trades. Playing time opened for some of the team's younger players, particularly when the Celtics were beset by injuries (including season-ending knee surgery for rookie center Vitor Faverani). Boston ultimately filled open spots with D-League call-ups like Chris Johnson and Chris Babb, who inked multiyear (though nonguaranteed) deals.
Iverson couldn't help but wonder what could have been if he had stuck on the roster, but didn't lose sleep over it.
"They had a lot of guys at my position this year," Iverson said. "I know they needed guards, and they really needed [undrafted rookie point guard Phil Pressey] to step up and play this year. They needed perimeter players. I kinda knew that going into the year.
"I talked to [the Celtics on] draft night, before they drafted me, and I said I'd be very interested in going overseas for a year. And they were willing to invest a year in me over in Europe, so I think it worked out. It was a good experience for me and I got a lot of playing time this year."
Iverson earned a decent salary, and despite the obstacles to playing overseas, Ainge joked how he "had breakfast with Colton overlooking the water on a beautiful sunny day in January, so I didn't feel too bad for him."
So what's working against Iverson as he returns stateside? He'll turn 25 (or two years older than Avery Bradley) before summer league begins and he's still a bit raw. The biggest hurdle, as Ainge admits, is that no one quite knows how the Celtics' roster or big-man depth chart will look later this summer.
"That's always the challenge for young players," Ainge said. "It's things out of their control."
But Iverson is a legit 7-footer with a 9-foot-2 standing reach, a chiseled frame, and a desire for contact. He brings an unrelenting intensity to the floor, physicality that Boston needed last season, and, for a mean guy on the court, he's about as nice and polite as they come off it.
Iverson allowed himself only a small break upon returning home. He was preparing to head to Minneapolis for a wedding this week, then he's off to Las Vegas to prep at Impact Basketball. He'll be in Boston and running the floor with the likes of Rajon Rondo as veteran players return to the team's facilities after their own short breaks following an early end to Boston's 2013-14 campaign.
Iverson reflected fondly on his trip to Turkey, calling it the "best alternative to being in Boston." But he'd like to give Boston a shot now, too.
"[The Celtics] wanted me to get some experience and keep playing hard -- that's the big thing," Iverson said. "Work on my rebounding, expand my offense, work on my jump shot, screen-and-roll defense. I know Coach Stevens was big on that. I think he said he saw some good things out of me this year. I'm looking forward to showing him what I got better at."