Catching up with former Illini guard Brandon Paul
Champaign – Former Illini and current NBA free agent Brandon Paul remembers the exact moment his dreams came to fruition.
Paul had finished an excellent summer league game against the Golden State Warriors, July 12, 2017, where he scored 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting (4-of-7 from three) in 20 minutes of play for the Cleveland Cavaliers. After the game, Paul received a call from his agent, informing Paul that his NBA experience would carry on into the fall.
Paul, in fact, was going to be a member of the San Antonio Spurs for the 2017-2018 season.
“I almost broke down right there,” Paul said. “To finally get that call from the most winningest team in NBA history was truly a blessing. The fact that I now have that under my belt; I only have up to go, just need to keep playing and hope for the best opportunities.”
The road to the NBA wasn’t an easy one for Paul, having to battle several injuries while bouncing around European basketball leagues (Russia and Turkey to be specific). Paul managed to get stints in the NBA’s D-League (now the G-League) and summer leagues but couldn’t get picked up to a 15-man NBA roster.
But a great summer league run with the Dallas Mavericks and Cavaliers, in 2017, solidified himself a spot on the Spurs.
The 26-year-old rookie played 64 games for San Antonio that season, starting in two of them. Paul averaged 2.3 points, 1.1 rebounds, 0.6 assist and 0.4 steals in 9 minutes of play per game. He shot 43.3 percent from the field and 27.8 percent from three.
Paul put together a couple strong performances during that year, scoring 18 points against the Boston Celtics, Oct. 30, and scoring 15 points on the Chicago Bulls, Nov. 11.
That offseason, the Spurs elected to not pick up Paul’s option on his contract, making him a free agent once again. This time it’s different though, with Paul saying he’s had offers overseas and two-way NBA contract offers, but he said those aren’t what he’s currently interested in.
Paul said he’s waiting for the best opportunity possible before he makes his decision where he will continue his basketball career. One that’s more than likely a more stable NBA contract, such as a 1-year deal with a team.
NBA front offices gave out positive feedback of Paul’s time with the Spurs.
“They love my energy. They love that I was a great teammate, great locker room guy,” Paul said. “They just told me to stay consistent and continue to work on my jump shot and be able to be a knockdown defender and shooter.”
Looking back at the experience, Paul reflects fondly upon his time in San Antonio.
“It was great, I had a great time there,” Paul said. "I got to play behind some Hall of Famers, obviously Coach Pop was amazing. Just the atmosphere in San Antonio was truly a blessing and definitely something I didn’t take for granted.”
He spoke highly of just recently retired guard Manu Ginobili, who Paul said showed him how to be a professional and always took the time to pull him aside and help him improve. Paul also added that retired forward Tim Duncan still has some game to him and that current Toronto Raptors and former Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard is one of the strongest players he’s ever played against.
Paul couldn’t help but smile when talking about his relationship with head coach Gregg Popovich.
“It was great, coach is a great guy. I talked to him many times, he was always open to speak to you. It was literally like a family,” Paul said. “To be coached by him; God willing I’ll be back there at some point. Either way, I’m going to be family with them forever.”
With a little under a week before the start of the 2018-2019 NBA season, Paul took the time to come back to Champaign and watch an Illinois basketball practice, Oct. 13.
Paul gave advice to a young basketball team that’s trying to rebuild the program back to an NCAA Tournament appearance, something Paul managed to do when he led the Illini to a berth in 2013.
“Be coachable, listen to constructive criticism and always be eager to learn,” Paul said. “It’s such a big difference between pro and college when you’re playing against grown men. So they have to come in and show up.
“It’s a new ball game once you get to the Big Ten. These guys have a chance, but it’s not going to be easy.”