Former Winthrop men’s basketball player Michael Jenkins is on the Brooklyn Nets’ NBA Summer League roster, which begins play Saturday morning at 9 a.m., and runs for about a week.
Jenkins played at Winthrop from 2004 to 2008, going to four NCAA tournaments under Gregg Marshall and Randy Peele. Jenkins went undrafted by the NBA in 2008, and played a season with Albany’s CBA team, before taking off for Europe. He’s suited up for teams in Montenegro, Germany, Belgium and Italy since, soaking up an unforgettable experience, complete with late paychecks, beautiful scenery and high-level hooping.
Jenkins averaged 10.3 points per game for Pallacanestro Cantu last season, but is currently a free agent. At 27 years old, Jenkins’ NBA dream is not yet fully extinguished, though there is a high possibility this is his last chance of becoming Winthrop’s first ever NBA player. The Kinston, N.C., native spoke with Herald sportswriter Bret McCormick on Thursday morning.
Q: You’ve been quite a globetrotter the last five or six years, where are you right now?
A: Currently, I’m in Orlando. Summer League starts Saturday; we play the first game of the day at 9 o’clock (in the morning).
Q: You recently had a free agent tryout with the Brooklyn Nets – how did that go for you and is that what led to this opportunity with the Summer League?
A: I had just finished my season in Europe, we’d gotten knocked out of the playoffs, and my agent called me and was like, I have a minicamp with the Nets, ‘get back as soon as you can get home.’ The minicamp was June 1st through 4. I just played well and they liked me enough to invite me to play on their Summer League team.
Q: Your current flirtation with the NBA, has this been an annual thing or is this a chance with a different feel to it?
A: Last year I got hurt in the playoffs in Italy, so I wasn’t able to do any NBA stuff. But in the six years that I’ve been out, this is my first chance to really go for the NBA. So, I’m a rookie in that sense.
Q: Was the Nets workout the closest you’ve been to the NBA so far?
A: Yeah, yeah, this is the closest I’ve gotten. I’m just embracing it and trying to make it happen.
Q: What have you heard about the Summer League and what are you expecting as far as the play? I’ve watched it before and sometimes it’s kind of disjointed-looking…
A: It’s a lot of young guys trying to make this team, and a lot of guys trying to show what they can do, so it can look bad, or, unorganized at times on TV when you watch. You only have a couple of days to try and gel as a team. As a professional, especially in a situation like this, everybody is trying to make the team, so it’s kind of individualistic. Somehow you’ve got to stand out, to all the teams, overseas and all the teams from the NBA that will be watching, and hopefully somebody likes you.
Q: You’ll be the oldest by two years on the Nets Summer League roster – what kind of advantage or disadvantage is that?
A: That’s definitely an advantage that I’ve been playing so long, and always played against NBA-level talent in the summer with some of my friends, and over in Europe, just growing each year. That’s definitely, definitely an advantage for me. A disadvantage would probably be, I’m 27 and from 2008 I was undrafted, so I’ve never been on the NBA radar. They have draft picks, so trying to find and make sure you get time on the court.
Q: You played, and played well, with Italian club Pallacanestro Cantu last season – what’s your contract status with them?
A: I’m a complete free agent. I don’t know if my agent has talked to them about me returning or not. I haven’t talked to them at all about it. We’ll see. I know I’ve got interest from some places, but my main focus is trying to do well here, get my foot in the NBA.
Q: European basketball is much different from the NBA – what’s some of the stuff players can do in Europe that they can’t in the NBA, or even American college ball?
A: It’s a lot different. In Europe, there’s definitely more of a college atmosphere when it comes to team-oriented basketball. When it comes to the NBA, besides the Spurs, it’s pretty much superstars and role players. There’s certain rule differences; in Europe you can knock the ball off the rim and it’s not goaltending. In Italy this past year I couldn’t do a spin move; they’d call a travel. They call travel a lot on Americans. But, at the end of the day, it’s basketball; you adjust.
Q: There have been some horror stories about playing overseas – have you found yourself in any of these situations where you’re having a hard time getting paid, or you dealt with racism or anti-Americanism?
A: No, not really. Of course, like here in America, there’s always going to be some type of racism, because you’re in another country. A lot of times over there, it comes from them not liking American basketball players. As far as not being paid, I’ve experienced that before. We had to send letters from my agent threatening to sue and whatever. My first team ever (Buducnost in Montenegro), the year I graduated from Winthrop.
Q: On the same hand, it’s an incredible experience. What are some memories from your Euro travels that you’ll never forget?
A: I played in the Euro Challenge competition with my team and we got to travel to Jerusalem, got to see the Old City and where Jesus was born supposedly, so that was real nice and something I’ll never forget. I’ve been a lot of places, Sweden... ah, I remember my first year we were playing a team in Croatia and we got to bus ride along the Adriatic Sea for a long stretch of time. So that was pretty amazing.
Q: How has playing overseas changed your style of play, or were you already inclined to playing in a more European fashion?
A: For the most part, it’s just overall being a professional athlete now. Just being able to work on my game at all times now has made me a completely different player than I was at Winthrop. I’m the same defensively and can score the basketball, but a lot of things that people didn’t get to see at Winthrop – my ability to handle the basketball and sometimes play the point guard position. That’s definitely where my game has advanced; I’m a true combo guard.
Q: What’s the dirtiest thing a European opponent has done to you in the heat of a game?
A: They know all the tricks, man. They’ll grab your arm, they’ll trap your arm, they do all types of stuff. Illegal screens. Flopping – that’s big. There’s probably little tricks in the NBA I haven’t seen. Back in Europe, they need the advantage, they know how to get it. They’re not as athletic as you, so they find a way to hold your arm down so you can’t jump.
Q: Well, I guess nobody in Europe is blowing in people’s ears, like the Indiana Pacers’ Lance Stephenson…
A: No, no, I’ve never had that happen (laughs).
Q: But you’re from Kinston and played for Gregg Marshall, though, so you’ve got to be used to that?
A: Oh yeah, definitely. Coach Marshall was all about toughness.
Q: I guess this summer, you’ll be schooling some of these rookies on that style of play?
A: I’m not a dirty guy so it’s hard for me to do that. I do play hard and I do play tough, so… they’ll feel something (laughs).
Q: You’re pretty far removed from Winthrop days, and yet you’re still plugging away at an NBA shot. What’s prevented you from dropping it and focusing on Europe, where you’ve made a good career for yourself?
A: Just that I’m this close. I have a dream in mind and I want to make it happen. I know I can always go to Europe and play. It’s just, I can’t live with myself knowing I didn’t try.