Blake Wesley’s NBA journey hits bumpy road

I mean no disrespect to Blake Wesley.

But in an early-season NBA game, the San Antonio Spurs were trailing by 40 points and the broadcaster said, “It looks like the Spurs are putting up the white flag.” 

With just a slight pause, he added, “In comes Wesley.” And, ever since, I think of him as White Flag Wesley.

Ken Bradford

I laugh about this, but I’m not rooting against him. He’s a graduate of Riley, where my kids went to high school. He was a first-round draft choice by the Spurs in 2022 after a year at Notre Dame. Just 20 years old, he’s in the second year of a four-season contract guaranteeing him $3 million annually.

If it weren’t for a couple of other professional athletes, Wesley would be South Bend area schools’ most successful young money-maker in decades. 

Jaden Ivey attended Marian for three seasons, graduated from LaPorte Lalumiere and played two seasons at Purdue. The Detroit Pistons now pay him $8,327,771 annually after making him the fifth overall pick last year. Danny Pinter, an Adams High grad, played football at Ball State and now gets $3.6 million over four years from the Indianapolis Colts.

My concern with Wesley has been that I thought he left college a year or two early. His talent seemed a bit raw for the dog-eat-dog industry of professional basketball.

He was listed as a 6-foot-5, 185-pound guard at Notre Dame. By contrast, former Notre Dame guard Pat Connaughton, now in his ninth NBA season, was 6-5 and 218 pounds. Bigger players who easily brushed Wesley aside could not get away with manhandling Connaughton, who added muscle while spending his full four years at Notre Dame.

So, I made a couple of bar-stool bets on Wesley’s first season. Basically, I was betting a couple cases of beer that he wouldn’t play often enough to be a factor for the Spurs. 

His team was terrible last season, tying for last place in the NBA West with just 22 wins in 82 games. Even with the Spurs playing that badly, there wasn’t much room on the court for Wesley. He missed 35 games with a knee injury and spent part of the season in the G League, playing against minor-league talent. Called up late in the season, he got into 37 NBA games, scoring 184 total points.

Curiously, he seems to have grown smaller. The Spurs now list his height as 6-foot-3.

Part of me says I should keep my yap shut over this. But there’s something I remember from 30 years ago about another Notre Dame guard, Daimon Sweet.

A lot has changed in those three decades. The NBA added a few more teams, opened its doors to more international players and isn’t even pretending to place value on actual college diplomas. Of the top 25 draft picks for this season, only two had completed their senior years. Thirteen were freshmen and five others attended no college at all.

Sweet was a four-year guy at Notre Dame, graduating in 1992. He went undrafted afterwards but fought hard for a roster spot with the Orlando Magic in their preseason camp. He was the final cut from that team and ended up in the Continental Basketball Association with the Fort Wayne Fury.

In those days, the CBA paid starvation wages. Teams like Fort Wayne’s had a 10-player roster with a capped total payroll of $120,000 – just $12,000 per man.

As Sweet told me in a February 1993 interview, the Fury saw him as a hot prospect and offered him a $14,000 deal. As a result of Sweet’s $2,000 boost, two of his teammates had to take a $1,000 pay cut. The resentment started there and grew when Sweet didn’t dominate in his first few games.

The Fury coach, NBA Hall-of-Famer Rick Barry, wasn’t a fan. To get him out of the way, he declared Sweet was suffering from back spasms and pushed him onto the injured-reserve list. During my visit to Fort Wayne, Sweet told me he was perfectly healthy but his days with the team likely were near an end. “Realistically, I’m the 11th man on a 10-man team,” he said.

He was right. The Fury dropped him, and he spent a couple more years elsewhere chasing the NBA dream but never caught it. He went back home to Texas and coached some high school teams. The last I saw, he was trying to make a living as a motivational speaker.

I wouldn’t call Daimon Sweet a failure. Each year, about 7,000 men play Division I basketball. If 70 make it onto an NBA roster someday, that would be a 1 percent success rate. If 280 more end up playing professionally elsewhere – in international leagues, for example – we’re up to 5 percent.

Those are long odds, and it’s simply somebody else’s opinion that determines whether you’re the worst player on the NBA squad – with a minimum salary of $1.1 million – or the best player in the G League, the NBA minors – minimum $40,000.

If you want to be cold-hearted, with $3 million on the line, you can say the Spurs wasted $81,000 per game that Wesley played last year, or $10,000 per minute or $16,800 per point that he scored. With or without him, a bad team played badly.

This year, the Spurs are just as bad with just three wins in 17 games. A fifth of the way through his second season, Wesley has appeared in four games and produced just seven total points. He’s spending more time with the minor-league squad, the Austin Spurs, than he is with San Antonio. 

But seeing how the NBA industry is organized and how little control the young athletes have over their futures, I don’t want to be too cruel.

Ready or not, he left Notre Dame early because the NBA wanted him. Maybe he’ll pack on muscles and carve out a niche for himself, like Connaughton did, and become a big-time contributor in a year or so.

Maybe not. Regardless, it’s part of his story that announcers are waving the white flag when it’s his turn. At least, he’s getting a chance to play.