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By Sopan Deb and Scott Cacciola,
When the Houston Rockets selected Auburn’s Jabari Smith Jr. with the third pick of the NBA draft Thursday, it continued a tradition of basketball as a family inheritance.
His father, also named Jabari Smith, played in the NBA in the early 2000s.
“My dad just told me it was time to amp it up a little bit, time to work even harder,” Jabari Smith Jr. said of his father’s reaction to the draft. “It’s a new level, whole new game. Just trying to get there and get to work.”
For a cadre of NBA players, having a parent or being related to someone who played in the NBA or WNBA isn’t particularly unusual. And many players who aren’t related to someone who played professionally have parents who played college basketball.
This past season, 30 second-generation players appeared in at least one NBA game — a total that represents 5% of the league, and is nearly twice as many players as about two decades ago.
Smith was one of several players drafted this year whose father had NBA experience. Among them was the University of Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis, whom the Washington Wizards picked at No. 10. His father is Mark Davis, who played in the NBA briefly after the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted him in 1985. There was also Duke’s A.J. Griffin, picked at No. 16 by the Atlanta Hawks. His father is Adrian Griffin, who played in the NBA from 1999-2008, and has since been an assistant coach in the NBA. The other was Colorado’s Jabari Walker, a late-second-round pick for the Portland Trail Blazers, the son of Samaki Walker, who played a decade in the NBA and won a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers.
WNBA connections could also be found among top picks. Rhonda Smith-Banchero, mother of the No. 1 pick, Paolo Banchero, played in the WNBA. Banchero, who was drafted by the Orlando Magic, said his mother “stayed on me, always held me accountable and made sure I was on the right track.” The Detroit Pistons selected Purdue’s Jaden Ivey with the fifth pick. His mother, Niele Ivey, played in the WNBA and was a recent assistant coach for the Memphis Grizzlies. She’s now the coach of the Notre Dame women’s basketball team.
“It’s actually an amazing story to have a mother who’s been in the league,” Jaden Ivey said. “You don’t see too many stories like that, and the bond that we have is special. I thank her for all the things that she’s done for me. I know I wouldn’t be on this stage, I wouldn’t be here, without her.”
Sometimes the connection to professional basketball players isn’t parental. Midway through the first round, the Charlotte Hornets drafted Mark Williams out of Duke. His older sister Elizabeth Williams has been in the WNBA since 2015. In the second round, the Cavaliers picked Isaiah Mobley out of the University of Southern California, which will be convenient for family visits, as his brother, Evan Mobley, is already on the team. (Brothers are common in the NBA. See: the Lopezes, Antetokounmpos, Balls and Holidays.)
In some cases, there were recognizable names who weren’t drafted but nonetheless received contracts. Scotty Pippen Jr., who played three seasons at Vanderbilt, is expected to sign a two-way contract with the Lakers. His father, Scottie Pippen, won six championships with the Chicago Bulls. Ron Harper Jr., a Rutgers alum whose father, Ron Harper, won three championships alongside Pippen, is expected to be offered a similar deal with the Toronto Raptors.
But while the NBA’s father-son connections were highlighted by this year’s draft class, the phenomenon is nothing new. Consider Golden State’s roster, which featured four second-generation players during the team’s championship run this year: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Gary Payton II.
And some of their fathers were front and center.
As Payton got set to check into Game 2 of the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics, he spotted his father, Gary Payton, a nine-time All-Star, sitting courtside with Detlef Schrempf, one of his former teammates. Father and son made eye contact — no words needed to be exchanged.
“He just shook his head,” Gary Payton II said. “I know that means it’s time. You know, go to work.”
And as the final seconds ticked away in Golden State’s championship-clinching win in Game 6, Curry embraced his father, Dell Curry, along one baseline. Stephen Curry broke down in tears.
“I saw him and I lost it,” he said. “I just wanted to take in the moment because it was that special.”
In fact, the NBA Finals offered up a smorgasbord of generational talent. Among the Celtics: Al Horford, whose father, Tito Horford, played for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Washington Bullets, and Grant Williams, whose cousins, Salim and Damon Stoudamire, both played in the NBA. This season, Damon Stoudamire was able to keep a close eye on Williams as one of the Celtics’ assistants.
Players and coaches have cited a number of factors in the steady, decadeslong emergence of father-son pairings, starting with genetics: It obviously helps to be tall.
But many sons of former players also benefited from early exposure to the game, from top-notch instruction from the time they could start dribbling and from various other perks. For example, Stephen Curry and his younger brother, Seth Curry, who now plays for the Brooklyn Nets, had access to a full-length court in their family’s backyard, complete with lights.
But with certain privilege comes pressure — especially when you share a name with a famous father. Gary Payton II recalled how his father had learned to back off when it came to basketball so that his son could develop a passion for the game on his own. They simply stopped talking about hoops, and that has remained the case.
“Nowadays, he really doesn’t say anything,” Gary Payton II said. “We just talk about life, family, other sports and whatnot.”
But sometimes it can cause strains, like the one between Tim Hardaway Jr., a Dallas Mavericks guard, and his father, Tim Hardaway, a five-time All Star who played from 1989-2003. They have both publicly spoken about how their relationship was made more difficult as a result of how hard the elder Hardaway was on his son about the game.
It can also be a strain if your father is the coach, a situation that Austin Rivers was faced with when he played for his father, Doc Rivers, on the Los Angeles Clippers. Doc Rivers played in the league from 1983-96 and is also an accomplished NBA head coach. The younger Rivers called it “bittersweet.” Doc Rivers had his back as his father, but Austin Rivers told The Ringer that “everything else, man, was hell,” because it created an awkward dynamic with his teammates.
A similar situation may repeat itself next season: The Knicks hired Rick Brunson, a former NBA player, as an assistant coach and are expected to target his son, Jalen Brunson, one of the top free agents, as an offseason acquisition.
Of course, it could work out just fine, as it did for Gary Payton. In the hours after Golden State won it all last week in Boston, he celebrated his son’s triumph by dancing through the hallways at TD Garden.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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