What a difference a few months makes.
For aspiring professional athletes, opportunities are few and far between and when one comes calling, players are prepared to make whatever changes or decisions necessary to make their NBA dreams happen.
For Gary Neal, that included relocating his honeymoon to Las Vegas for a week’s audition at the Thomas & Mack Center instead of a few weeks in Cabo San Lucas relaxing by the beach.
if you think the change was a drastic one for Neal, imagine how the newly-wed Leah Neal must have felt about changing her vacation plans, no doubt the contents of her Samsonite luggage.
“I got married on Saturday and my first summer league game was on Monday,” Neal said recently.
But for Neal, he didn’t mind making alternate travel arrangements and he said his wife didn’t mind doing the same, especially considering the results his summer league performance yielded.
“No no, she’s living the dream like I am.” Neal said.
After signing a multi-year contract once summer league ended, Neal wasted no time in getting to work. He spent long hours in the practice facility working with George Hill and DeJuan Blair, two gym rats in their own right.
While most Spurs players take a year to really find their comfort in the Spurs’ system, Neal looked like a three-year Spurs veteran by opening day, something he attributes to the tireless summer days in the practice facility.
“That played a role in it. Being able to come in and meet the guys and get a comfort level with the guys,” Neal said. “You know with Timmy being here and Manu coming in in September and just getting that understanding of how guys are and just the understanding of who the guys are, that definitely helped.”
And it definitely showed. Just as he wasted no time going to work this summer, he did the same early in the preseason.
Neal scored seven points in 12 minutes in his first preseason game and was called on to hit a last-second, game-winning shot against the Clippers in Mexico City.
Slowly people began to take notice, Spurs fans included.
The Spurs regularly play pre-game clips of a game played with Spurs fans where they have to guess a different player’s jersey number. To no surprise, early in the season when asked what Gary Neal’s number was, most of the reactions were “who” and “does he play with us.”
By December, fans had no problem identifying the man wearing number 14 dubbed the “sniper.”
You can hardly blame them. Through the month of December, Neal averaged over 11 points per game including three games where he scored over 20 points.
One of those games was a narrow win over the Dallas Mavericks. Neal led the Spurs with 21 points on 60 percent shooting from the field, including five-of-eight on three-pointers. That night, Leah Neal took to Twitter, gushing with pride about her husband.
“So proud of my husband! Leading @Spurs w/ 21 pts and 5 reb in a huge game against the Mavericks. STILL the best team in the @NBA !(sic)”
If anything, this season Neal has proven he’s not your typical undrafted rookie, and not because he’s a 26-year-old rookie either.
For the season he is averaging 8.7 points, 2.5 rebounds and one assist in just 19 minutes per game, not an easy task considering the talent on the Spurs roster. He’s also accomplished an even more daunting task, being a rookie and gaining the trust of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
His contributions this season have earned him that trust, not to mention respect, even outside of the 210 area code.
Neal is currently seventh in ESPN’s rookie rankings, above several players that were actually drafted and many that were even taken in the lottery.
When I talked to him a few weeks back, I told him about the rumblings that he might make it to the rookie game, something he said would be an accomplishment, but he had alternate vacation plans just in case.
“If I’m fortunate enough to make the rookie team, that would be great,” Neal said. “It would be an accomplishment for what I’ve done for the first half of the season. That’s something that I hope I can make but there’s a lot of time left so I’m just really taking it one game at a time because a lot of things can change between now and then.”
“If I don’t make the rookie game we’re going back to Baltimore and just relax in our new house and enjoy the days off,” he said.
Just days later, it was announced Neal would be a member of the rookie squad for Friday’s T-Mobile Rookie Challenge.
Travel itinerary and luggage changed once again for a trip to Los Angeles, instead of Baltimore. Sound familiar?
But don’t expect a complaint from either Mr. or Mrs. Neal, especially if he’s wearing a championship ring aside his wedding ring this summer.
Wedding photo by Bella Pictures.