Every time I step on the court, (I think), I don't want to go back to Italy. I don't want to go back to Spain. Don't want to go back to China (or the) D-League. I feel like I'm at home.
SALT LAKE CITY — John Lucas III has been around NBA basketball for most of his life.
During introductions at the Utah Jazz’s intrasquad scrimmage earlier this month, the 30-year-old told a funny story about dealing with Dennis Rodman as a ballboy when his dad was a coach for the San Antonio Spurs.
“Dennis is crazy,” Lucas said, laughing. “He used to cut his toenails on the bench and I had to go clean it up.”
Despite his up-close-and-personal relationship with the NBA — sometimes too up-close-and-personal — Lucas still draws on experiences away from the world’s most elite basketball league to drive him.
While this John Lucas made a name for himself in the NBA as Derrick Rose’s backup a couple of years ago in Chicago, the point guard stokes his competitive fire by recalling his days with the D-League’s Tulsa 66ers and Colorado 14ers, Italy’s Snaidero Udine and Benetton Treviso, Spain’s TAU Ceramica and China’s Shanghai Sharks.
That topic came up before Thursday’s practice. He smiled talking about playing against Jazz roster hopeful Lester Hudson behind the Great Wall, a place he’d rather visit as a tourist than live as a pro basketball player.
Nothing against China. Lucas just feels cozy in the NBA, and wants to keep it that way.
“Every time I step on the court, (I think), 'I don’t want to go back to Italy. I don’t want to go back to Spain. Don’t want to go back to China (or the) D-League,'” Lucas said. “I feel like I’m at home. I just have that in the back of my head all the time, so when I step on that court I give it everything I have.”
With Trey Burke’s injury situation, Lucas finds himself in the most opportune moment in his NBA career. For the foreseeable future, he will be tasked with the Jazz's starting point guard duties and trusted as a playmaking leader of a young team that has some exciting parts and potential.
In his previous five NBA campaigns, Lucas only has two total starts — both in Chicago during the 2011-12 season.
“You never know what happens in this league — Trey’s injury, stuff like that — (or) when your opportunity is going to come,” Lucas said. “That’s what the whole practice is for. I play like it’s a game, so when your opportunity comes and your number is called, it’s like second nature.”
Although he has a strong basketball pedigree, the path to becoming an NBA starter hasn't been a straight shot.
Lucas wasn’t drafted out of Oklahoma State in 2005 after helping the Cowboys earn a spot in the 2004 Final Four. His pro career began in Tulsa (D-League) where he played for a year, which included a 13-game call-up by the Houston Rockets.
From there, Lucas bounced from Italy, back to Houston, back to Italy, then to Colorado (D-League), Spain and China before finally returning to the NBA with Chicago. After being cut, re-signed and cut again by the Bulls in 2010-11, Lucas found himself back in Shanghai.
His whirlwind tour was back in full force a couple of months later when he was brought back to Chicago, where he finally found a home for a little more than a year in 2011-12.
Lucas was back on the international scene that summer, but at least this time it was in the NBA with Toronto. After one season with the Raptors, the globetrotter was signed by the Jazz, in part to be a veteran mentor for the recently drafted Burke.
Having seemingly traveled enough to be secretary of state, Lucas is happy to have settled into a steady spot in Salt Lake City and the NBA at this point of his catch-me-now career.
“You always want to be back home,” Lucas admitted while talking about playing overseas. “You never want to be away from your family. If you feel like you have the ability to play in the NBA, this is ultimately where you want to be because this is where the best players are and you always want to play where the best players are.”
Point guard scorer
Lucas quickly gave Utah fans a feel of what he does best on an NBA court — score from the point guard position. He led the Jazz in their only preseason win over Golden State with 16 points.
Lucas isn’t a pass-first playmaker, and he’s not afraid to admit it. But he also realizes his role on this Jazz team is to set up players like Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors and Alec Burks for offensive opportunities.
The spunky player admitted it’s taken him some time “to get that balance” between looking for his own shot and facilitating others for scoring chances.
“I know how to put the ball in the hole,” he said, “but I also know who’s got it going (and) what plays to run for them people to get going.”
Lucas said he isn't going to attempt to be a flashy, creative scorer like Allen Iverson and take on too much scoring responsibility. He has talented teammates, and he knows it.
“That’s my whole thing,” Lucas said. “Just always play the right way, don’t force the issue, and just let the game come to me.”
Lucas said he talks to his dad every day — “That’s my best friend" — and one point the former NBA player made was that the current NBA player should “pick and choose when to attack.” Lucas doesn’t necessarily have to rework his game to be a John Stockton passing machine. He just needs to find a good mix of attempts and assists.
“The offense we have here, everybody is an option,” Lucas said. “It’s all about reads, and being a coach’s son I was always taught how to read how the defense is playing. So I feel like this offense fits me perfect.”
The younger Lucas is grateful to Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau (and Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin now) for letting him play the style of basketball that best suits his talents — providing energetic bursts of offense combined with distributing to teammates.
“Overseas, I felt like if I ever had that opportunity to show what I’m capable to do in this league that the rest of the (NBA) would see what I’m able to do,” Lucas said. “Thibs did that and now Ty’s letting me do that. Coach (Dwane) Casey let me do that (in Toronto). Now everybody knows what I can bring to the table.”
Lucas laughed about how Jazz coaches are helping correct another thing he occasionally brings — turnovers. He was upset after turning the ball over three times in a recent game. He has to run sprints for every turnover he makes.
“That’s always in the back of my head,” he said, smiling. “I just hate turning the ball over.”
And running sprints, no doubt.
Corbin, who’s very familiar with his point guard’s dad, has been impressed with Lucas as a player and a person. He has a good chunk of NBA experience — and a world of basketball and life knowledge.
“He’s a great man,” Corbin said. “He enjoys being part of the team. He encourages guys when he’s not playing. It’s not just about him.”
Case in point: During the Jazz’s loss to Portland in Boise, Utah was trailing by 22 points late when camp invitee Mike Harris drilled a 3-pointer. Lucas jumped to his feet off the bench and started cheering as if his teammate had just won the game on a buzzer-beater.
“He’s a team guy,” Corbin said. “He’s genuinely rooting for his teammates.”
That’s just one of the many things the Jazz coach admires about Lucas.
"He’s a fireball,” Corbin said. “He comes off with a lot of energy. He can make shots. He can play the game right."
Along with being one of the most spirited and energetic players, he’s also the smallest. Lucas is one of few NBA players that doesn’t hit the 6-foot mark, in fact. He is listed, perhaps generously, as being 5 foot 11.
“He’s a little guy who had to fight and scratch for everything he’s gotten in this league,” Corbin said. “He knows the battle that guys are going through, especially the guys that are trying to make the squad.”
Both Lucases are quite familiar with overcoming adversity, too. Lucas’ father’s battle — and victory over — drug/alcohol addiction has been well-documented over the years.
Corbin credited the Jazz's Lucas for having the love of basketball, the excellent communication and leadership skills, and the aggressiveness of his father, who played off and on in the NBA from 1976-90. The elder Lucas had multiple coaching stints in the league, including with the Spurs, 76ers and Cavaliers.
“(Lucas II) loved teaching. He loved pushing himself. He loved working hard,” Corbin said of the former NBA player and coach. “(Lucas III) grew up in it. He’s been around basketball forever, so he knows what it takes to be good in this league and knows what it takes to try to be successful in this league, and he tries to share that with his teammates.”
That positivity was in full display in the aftermath of Burke’s injury when Lucas III offered consolation in the locker room after the rookie broke his finger, saying the situation was “a minor setback for a major comeback.”
Just look at Lucas’ passport and basketball resume, and it’s obvious he knows a little something about that.
He knows about seizing opportunities, too.
“I never want to let the (Jazz) organization down, the team down or our coaching staff down,” he said. “That’s why I bring it every night.”
Lucas, who turns 31 on Nov. 21, also feels a responsibility to mentor Burke and other young Utah players. Lucas and Richard Jefferson, 33, are the team's only 30-somethings with guaranteed contracts.
“I haven’t been part of a team this young,” Lucas said. “It’s fun. I’m enjoying it. It keeps me young.”
Lucas knows that some consider professional athletes his age to be ancient relics.
“People start looking at you a little bit different,” he said. “My whole thing is I want to play until the wheels fall off, until I know that I can’t compete at that high level and give that energy I come in with to give night and night out.
“I’m a big kid at heart,” he added, “so I feel like I fit right in.”
Of course, feeling old sure beats playing in China, not to mention cleaning up Rodman’s discarded toenails.