The city known for gambling, entertainment, triple-digit heat and no-hassle weddings is also where aspiring professional basketball players – where the Eric Stuteville’s of the world – showcase their skills in hopes of securing a job or invitation to an NBA training camp.
Remember Eric Stuteville? The Sacramento State product? The 6-foot-11 big man whose college coach refers to as a “sled dog” because of his punishing nature and high pain threshold?
His summer plans underwent a hasty revision last week when the Kings invited him to their minicamp, and afterward, when they kept him on the roster and he became the first Hornets player to participate in the important annual event for aspiring prospects.
“I’m not going to lie,” Stuteville said. “I was pretty nervous at the minicamp. But after I stepped on the floor, I was OK. I’ve played against Skal (Labissiere) in open gyms, different athletes at the professional level, and been able to compete. I definitely think I can play at the next level.”
The pressing question for undrafted players is which level? Realistically, Stuteville’s prospects for making the Kings 2017-18 squad are slim to none. He gets it. He can count. General manager Vlade Divac has assembled a group that already features nine players in their first or second seasons and includes a handful of veterans to school the kids while they follow the how-to-win lesson plan.
Still, don’t put those Stingers down yet. NBA rosters routinely include players who spent time in the development league or competed overseas. As the much-traveled Garrett Temple can attest, there are side streets and freeways. Stuteville’s goal is to earn an invitation to training camp – and a choice between two options – though his more pressing concern is getting on the court.
The former Casa Roble standout, who averaged 11.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and shot 63 percent as a senior at Sac State, played only five minutes in his lone appearance. He converted 1 of 2 free throws, grabbed two offensive rebounds, and leaped beyond the baseline to save a loose ball in Sunday’s loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. With two more games guaranteed in the tournament format, he is staring at the clock and counting down the hours.
But no complaints, by either party. “Eric was great throughout the minicamp,” said Kings assistant Jason March, “and we didn’t throw him out there as, ‘Hey, you’re a local kid and we want you to play.’ There was a strategy in the front office. They went out and got a kid that could look Skal in the eye and be physical. Eric sets great screens and does a lot of things well. And he made Skal a little better.”
Stuteville, 22, an accomplished trumpet player who gave up the instrument to concentrate on basketball, began preparing for a pro career as soon as he graduated. He worked out twice daily under the supervision of Guss Armstead, the local trainer who drilled him in the fundamentals and emphasized core exercises, flexibility and conditioning, and made visible progress.
A self-described “chunky kid” who sprouted 7 inches during his four years at Sac State, Stuteville dropped 13 pounds, gained nine pounds of muscle, and developed a leaner, more defined frame. He also feels lighter, stronger and more explosive, which works to his strengths as an offensive rebounder, active, physical interior presence, and an improving deep shooter.
Hornets coach Brian Katz says his “sled dog” has the highest pain threshold of any player he has coached and projects him as a stretch four. “I tell people it would be a mistake to underestimate Eric,” Katz said. “He got better every year, and he pushes that damn sled till he drops.”
As for this Las Vegas experience? Stuteville is staying indoors as much as possible because of the triple-digit temperatures, and because, well, it’s Las Vegas. The fewer distractions the better. Besides, he is enjoying the lavish accommodations.
Most of rooms in the smoke-free, zen-centric Mandarin Oriental offer sweeping views of the Strip and a desert landscape framed by mountains to the east and west. The restaurants are highly rated and expensive, and the 23rd-floor lounge is reserved daily for high tea in a formal European setting.
“The amenities are pretty amazing,” Stuteville said. “You open the curtains in your room with a button instead of pulling a cord. I can see everything.”
The scene inside the UNLV facilities is another showcase of sorts. Dozens of NBA coaches, executives and agents sit at press tables or in the stands for hours, making observations and taking notes. While Stuteville is intrigued by the prospect of traveling and working overseas, his preference is to earn a contract with the Kings and prove himself with their development league franchise in Reno.
This is professional, but this is also personal. He grew up in Orangevale and still lives across the street from his grandparents. Theirs is a tight family, and Kings fans from way back.
“I think I still have the bobbleheads I collected during the glory years, to be honest,” Stuteville said, laughing. “I liked Doug Christie, Peja, Vlade, a lot. I’m just grateful the Kings gave me an opportunity. My agent (Bill Neff) and I will figure everything else out later.”