Chris Copeland: I Do Not Believe in Plan Bs

Chris Copeland: I Do Not Believe in Plan Bs
Dec 20, 2012, 08:45 am
At the start of the New York Knicks' training camp this season, there probably weren't many people with high hopes for Chris Copeland's chances of making the roster. With 13 players signed to guaranteed contracts and Rasheed Wallace a solid lock to be the 14th man, the Knicks only had one roster slot available, and there aren't many American-born players who have found their way into the league as 28-year-old rookies.

Mychel Thompson, a second-year player who played five games with the Cleveland Cavaliers last season and started the Knicks' first preseason game, was probably a safer bet than Copeland. John Shurna and Henry Sims, two rookies who both were projected at one point or another to be drafted in the second round this year, were also more likely candidates in the eyes of most. But the 28-year-old rookie who was never a serious prospect in college and spent the last five years playing in Europe? The undersized power forward who didn't even see the court until the second half of the Knicks' second preseason game?

Copeland was a long shot to make the roster when he played on the Knicks' summer league team, and his odds weren't much better when he made it to training camp. But a player who turns down guaranteed six-figure contracts in Europe to risk fighting to the very end for an NBA roster spot at this stage of his career is one that shouldn't be counted out.

After some standout performances in the preseason for the Knicks, Copeland's risk paid off when he found out he made the roster just three days before the start of the season. Things have taken an even better turn of late, as he's coming off the best three-game stretch of his very early NBA career, including a 29-point outburst against the Houston Rockets Monday night.

Copeland hadn't seen consistent minutes for the Knicks prior to this week, and his playing time could disappear entirely once Amare Stoudemire returns from injury, but he's been extremely productive when he has seen the floor, as his 28.6 points per 40 minutes trails only Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant in the entire NBA.

We had a chance to catch up with Copeland last week amidst a stretch of four straight DNP-CD's, where we spoke about his unconventional journey to the NBA, the improbability of his success, and how he's adjusting to life in the NBA so far.

Joe Treutlein: To start off, for people unfamiliar with your background, can you talk about the route you took graduating from the University of Colorado in 2006 up until the NBA this season?

Chris Copeland: After I came out of school, I broke my foot in the summer during workouts, and I ended up starting off in the D-League midseason, once I got healed to play. I started off in Fort Worth, and from there I went to Spain [editor's note: second division], where I honestly didn't do so well. I then went to Holland the same year, finished off pretty strong, then went to Germany for two years, and then to Belgium, so I bounced around quite a bit, and then just got here [to the NBA] by the grace of God.

JT: You mentioned that things didn't go very well for you initially in the D-League and Spain, but by the time you got to Belgium you were averaging over 20 points per game and you're in the NBA now, so what changed with you over that time span?

CC: Honestly, I think my biggest transformation happened in Germany. I had really strong years out there, got top scorer of the year my second year, and the first year I was on pace to do that but I think I finished like second. But the coach I had in Germany was the first one to really like push me to be better every day. He was always hard on me and it was a big time growing experience for me. Coach Yves [Defraigne, now in Belfius Mons in Belgium] was a big time motivator for me and a big time change of pace, and I needed that.

Then I grew from there, went to Belgium, took a lot of things that he showed me, and I continued to learn from my coach last year in Brad Dean, and those two guys really changed my life. Brad Dean gave me more freedom so I could really display what I can do and show what I had learned over the years.

JT: Do you think the biggest improvements for you were in terms of experience, approach to the game, skills, or something else?

CC: I just got better, all-around -- experience, skills. I think I grew so much in Germany and Belgium. In Germany I grew in terms of learning how to play, learning when to pick your spots, and my skills tightened up over the years just being in the gym. And then more freedom was given to me from coach Brad Dean [in Belgium], and he just let me go. It sounds like nothing, but for a player, I think most players would agree you're only as good as your situation, and Brad Dean gave me the most freedom I ever had and gave me the opportunity to have the year I had last year. Without those two guys [Defraigne and Dean], there's no way I would be here. I owe those guys so much.

JT: While you were overseas, was working towards the NBA always in the back of your mind?

CC: Absolutely. It's always been a goal, but for me personally I try to just make sure whatever situation I was in, I tried to maximize and make the most of my capabilities by growing as a player. That was one of the things my coaches preached about. They always believed in my abilities and potential to be an NBA player, but at the end of the day, they said while you're here, focus on what we've got to do here, and I think that helped me have good years in every situation.

JT: Did you ever get discouraged in your path over the years, that your path to the NBA wasn't going as quickly as you probably hoped?

CC: Absolutely. I had a lot of sad, sad nights. Even last year, I remember talking to Nate Fox, a teammate of mine who had been all over Europe, and he'd seen a lot of basketball. And we were hanging out one night and I was super emotional, I was telling him "I want more." I was getting a lot of love from people out there [in Belgium] and everything seemed cool, but I was really frustrated because I know my dream has always been getting to the NBA, and for some reason I just couldn't get through that door. I definitely felt that way a lot of nights overseas, and I just thank God things came through.

JT: Do you feel your experience in Europe has made you a better player or person? Maybe it was kind of a blessing in disguise you didn't make the NBA right away?

CC: Absolutely. I personally believe everything happens for a reason. I got to learn a lot being in those situations. I had to learn, for one, to be a professional. You go overseas, you're by yourself, I had a lot of growing up to do. Without my experience overseas and being on my own -- you know, you're fending for yourself, even though a lot of people were good to me out there, I was still fending for myself because even though you have your teammates, you're far away from home, and all your family and friends you grew up with, they can't help you if you ever have a real situation, so you really become a man over there. That was a big adjustment I needed to make, and I think that really helped me out in my game.

JT: So this summer you got your shot in summer league with the Knicks. What was your mindset going into that situation?

CC: Um… make the team! Make an impression, make the team. That's been the goal since day one, since I knew they were going to give me an opportunity, and I wanted to make sure if I didn't make it, I made a great impression. But at the end of the day the goal was just to make the team by any means necessary, and I just tried to take a lot of the things I learned over in Europe and put my best foot forward.

JT: At the time, did you think making the roster of a playoff contender as a 28-year-old rookie was something that was realistic?

CC: I believe in dreaming big. Did I think there was a high likelihood? No, honestly, but I always believed there was a chance and that's all you need in life. They gave me a chance and I just tried to do the best I could with it. In that situation, I just wasn't going to let down because the odds weren't in my favor.

JT: You didn't find out until very late in the process [October 27th, three days before the start of the NBA season] that you actually made the roster. Did you have a plan if you didn't make it, or were you just kind of hoping for the best?

CC: Nah, I don't believe in Plan B's, so I just kind of stayed with the same goal. I tried not to get sidetracked. I'm one of those guys that says cross bridges when you get to them, so for me, at the end of the day, there was only that, and if I didn't make it I would figure out what the next step was. But my eyes were on the prize the whole time.

JT: Were there any naysayers around you telling you the risk wasn't worth taking?

CC: Yeah, absolutely. You wouldn't believe the things I turned down to be here, trust me. But this has always been a goal. It's not about the money or anything else. Just to put on that jersey is an unbelievable honor for me, and I don't think I could put it into words anyone could understand. A lot of people said I was making a big mistake by trying, that I wasn't going to make it. Everybody could see early on it wasn't going to be a smooth road if I did make it, so I just had to block everything out, put on my hard hat every day, and try to make it happen.

JT: So on the Knicks, what's the adjustment been like for you going from leading scorer on your team in Belgium to now just a role player?

CC: It's tough. I'm not going to sit here and lie, because you're going back to the bottom of the barrel and you've got to learn a lot. Every day is a learning experience. For me, it's still such a blessing to learn from some of the greatest -- I grew up watching most of these guys, and they're super talented. It's just an amazing learning experience. Like you said, it's an adjustment to go from that situation, but it's also exciting because I'm becoming that much better. I wouldn't have this experience in a lot of other situations, so I'm blessed at the end of the day.

JT: You mentioned you watched a lot of the players on the team growing up. Is there any player or coach on the team that's really helped you or someone you look to for guidance?

CC: The three guys who help me the most are Rasheed [Wallace], Kurt [Thomas], and Marcus [Camby]. They're really always on me about everything, from little things like off the court stuff and being a professional to doing things a certain way, even rookie duties, you know, everything. Then of course the basketball side, they're really hard on me, but it's the right way. It's to build me up and make me a better player, so I'm thankful these guys have taken a liking to me and are pushing me so much.

JT: They don't cut you any slack because you've actually been a pro for about six years now? You're still a rookie in their eyes?

CC: Absolutely [laughs]. They don't give me any slack. I think if you asked them that, they would laugh for sure. I'm still an NBA rookie at the end of the day and I personally respect that, and whatever they ask me to do -- rookie duties and what not -- I do my job, and I'm very humble about my situation. Like I said, whatever I'm supposed to do, my years of experience in Europe mean nothing here. I'm starting back from the beginning and you have to learn and grow like any other rookie.

JT: You and Pablo Prigioni seemed to develop some good chemistry in the preseason. Do you think you guys both coming into the league as experienced rookies led to that?

CC: Absolutely. We have similar… flavor, I guess. You know, European flavor. It's easy to be on the floor together, we kind of know what each other is looking for. When he goes one way, I know exactly where he's looking to pass. It's fun playing with him because he has so much experience. It's easy to play with guys who know how to play, you know what I mean? He's one of those.

JT: It's clear right now your ability to score the ball from all over the floor is probably your biggest strength. What's the next area you're trying to improve upon to add to that?

CC: Becoming a better team defender. I think one-on-one I'm pretty solid, but just trying to learn the team concepts -- being help side at the right time, knowing when to help, when not to help -- those type of things where I struggle, but every day I'm growing and getting better.

JT: Are your coaches giving you any specific feedback, such as you need to do this or that in order to get a more expanded role?

CC: His [Coach Woodson's] biggest thing with me is just play hard and go out and play. Honestly, at the end of the day, we have a lot of good players -- I'll leave it at that [laughs]. I think you understand what I'm saying. That being said, I'll just wait my turn and see how things go from day to day.

JT: Is it difficult not knowing every game how many minutes you're going to play, if you even play at all?

CC: Yeah, I'm excited every day, but it's an adjustment. I wouldn't call it difficult, it's an adjustment, but at the end of the day, I'm excited to be a part of a winning team. I'm a rookie and I know my opinion probably doesn't matter much, but I think we have a chance to win a championship, and you know, how many people can say that? So it's great to be a part of it and learn from these guys that know how to play this game at a high level every day.

JT: Do you have any expectations for your role on the team the rest of the season?

CC: Nah, no expectations. Like I said, I'm just going out here trying to grow every day from being around these guys that I know know how to do it at a high level. And if my number is called, I'll try to answer that call, and play hard, and play well.

JT: You've obviously improved a ton over the past five years. Where do you see yourself five years from now? What will be different about you as a player?

CC: For me, I believe the sky is the limit. I have really lofty goals I won't go into detail about, but I think five years from now you'll see a much better player than you see now. My biggest goal is to improve. I think at every level, in every situation I've been in, I've been the most improved player, and that's one of the thing I hang my hat on. I know what you see today is not what you'll see tomorrow, and I just hope I'm way better than what I am today.

JT: Has it totally sunk in for you yet that you're actually an NBA player now or does it still kind of feel like a dream?

CC: Umm, it's sunk in, but it's still every day walking into an NBA facility, putting on that jersey, playing with the guys I'm playing with. It still leaves me speechless some times to think about, you know? Look where you are right now. This is what I've been waiting for since -- when people say "this was a six-year journey," I say "it was a 24-year journey, since I was in kindergarten, since as long as I can remember, I've always wanted to put on an NBA jersey." For me, every day is a great day.

JT: How big of a change is it going from playing in Belgium to the most famous basketball arena in the world?

CC: Seriously, it's -- you know, I don't want to knock Belgium at all, the people were great to me out there, but it's nothing like MSG [Madison Square Garden]. It's nothing like playing in New York. I'm sorry, but it's a dream come true. I don't want to knock anyone in Belgium, because they gave me my start in Belgium and Germany, but I'm sorry, MSG is just… MSG [laughs].

JT: Last question: a year ago today if someone told you that you would be getting minutes for the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference of the NBA, is there any chance you would've believed them?

CC: Nah [laughs]. Honestly, it'd be hard. I've always believed in myself and I believe in my ability to play, but if you had told me that, I'd be like "alright, you're pulling my leg," but I thank God for the opportunity every day and I thank the people that have pushed me to be here.

JT: Alright, thank you for your time, and best of luck the rest of the season.

CC: Thank you. I appreciate that.

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