John Lucas III played one minute and didn’t amass any statistics in Minnesota’s 110-86 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers two weeks ago, but before the game the diminutive point-guard chipped in by helping a trio of Timberwolves fans who asked for their photo to be taken perhaps thinking that Lucas was an athletic trainer or assistant coach. It’s understandable that the fans didn’t recognize the journeyman guard, who has made 19 professional career stops in six different countries and three different continents since 2005.
The latest of his many stopovers finds Lucas back in the NBA with the Timberwolves where a chance to return to the league opened when Minnesota hired Tom Thibodeau, who was an assistant to Jeff Van Gundy when Lucas broke into the league with the Rockets during the 2005-2006 season, coached him in Chicago from 2010 to ‘12 and knows the gritty guard for over 20 years.
“I’m a very loyal person and he always kept it real with me even if it’s something I didn’t want to hear, he always kept it 100,” Lucas told me in Minnesota’s locker room. “And the more and more you look at it he’s a basketball junkie, a gym rat, been around the game, loves the game of basketball and I’m the same way so it kind of clicks.”
Lucas, who celebrated a birthday two Monday’s ago, his 34th, is basketball royalty, the son of former NBA player and coach John Lucas and the godson of Naismith Hall of Famer George Gervin. He shagged rebounds as a ball boy for the Rockets when his father was with the team. He hit the game winning shot that sent Oklahoma State to the Final Four over St. Joe’s in the 2004 NCAA tournament. But despite going unselected in the 2005 NBA draft, he’s managed to carve out more than a decade in professional basketball.
“It’s not like I planned to be a journeyman, I always felt like I would be on one team and finish my career with that team, but stuff happens and I wouldn’t change it for nothing in the world,” Lucas says. “It made me the man I am today, it made me who I am. It just shows me how humble I am and how dedicated I am to the game of basketball and how much I love the game because I think a lot of people would end up hanging them up after everything I’ve been through from going from D-League, in the NBA for 3 years, going overseas, coming back in the NBA for another four years, going back overseas, doing different stuff and to me it just shows the journey and it shows how much I really love the game for me to constantly stay with it.”
His own basketball journey took him to Baylor and Oklahoma State, then to the NBA Development League and NBA for a cup of coffee with Houston. He then made his way to pro outposts in Tulsa, Italy, Colorado, Spain and Shanghai, China. Lucas surfaced with the Bulls where he enjoyed his most productive season in 2011-12, when he averaged 7.5 points and 2.2 assists in 49 games. A free agent in the summer of 2012, he signed with the Raptors and appeared in 63 games off the bench.
After the season, Lucas joined the Utah Jazz, where he played in 42 games, but was traded twice in three months following the season with the Celtics waiving him in September. He signed with the Wizards, but was cut after only four days. He then turned down an opportunity to sign with the Lakers and instead accepted an offer to join the Fujian Sturgeons of the Chinese Basketball Association, where he averaged 26.6 points rediscovered his joy for the game. His Chinese club released him with one game remaining in the CBA schedule and he signed his first 10-day with the Detroit Pistons, where he finished out the 2015 campaign.
Last fall, Lucas was in camp with the Miami Heat, but was released after a preseason game.
Despite having a couple of overseas offers, he decided to stay in Houston to work on his body and remain ready for another NBA opportunity. At the urging of friends and family, including his wife, Kendahl, Lucas decided to give the D-League another crack and joined the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. After playing in 18 games with Fort Wayne, he briefly made his way back abroad, suiting up in 8 contests for the Piratas of the Puerto Rican League.
For many, the Washington, DC native is the quintessential NBA journeyman. But his circuitous journey has humbled him and taken him to places he never thought he’d see.
“I got to see the World. I got to walk the Great Wall of China. I got to go to the Forgotten Palaces – like stuff I read about in my history books, I’ve seen it. The Coliseum in Rome. It took me places I never thought I would ever go,” said Lucas of his journeys. “I was cool looking at it in the books and watching on the Discovery channel, but I never actually thought physically I would actually go see.”
The seldom-used Lucas has modest career numbers, with averages of 4.7 points, 1 rebound and 1.5 assists in 242 games across parts of eight NBA seasons. He has been a fringe player in Coach Thib’s rotation, only logging 10 minutes since the start of the season and recording DNP-Coach’s Decision stat lines in sixteen of the team’s 21 games. He’s appeared only in blowouts as Minnesota’s “human victory cigar,” but his real value to the team has little to do with on-court activity.
“These guys got a bright future. Same way when I came in at their age the older guys took me under their wings and it’s just like a full circle,” said Lucas, who is engaged, upbeat and approachable. “You’re not going to be able to play the game forever so I always feel like you should pass on your knowledge, what’s the point of holding onto it? It’s made to be passed on and the NBA is like a fraternity, there’s not too many of us.”
It’s easy to see that the long and winding basketball journey he’s had keeps him very appreciative of his opportunity to be back in the NBA. The odds might have been stacked against Lucas and his generously listed 5-foot-11, 165-pound frame, but he’s proved that he can overcome pretty big odds.
“So it’s just my testimony. Every time I go talk to the young kids, high school, middle school, about to go to college and stuff, and they say their coaches say they can’t play past this and I tell them my coach said I wasn’t going to play past high school and I ended up being the Big-12 Player of the Year, First-Team All American, John Naismith Award, all the accolades you can get in college, Final Four and everything. And then they said I wasn’t going to play after college and I’m going on my eighth year in the NBA, 13th overall professionally, so you can never let nobody tell you what you can’t do.”
At some point, Lucas says, he’ll hang up his sneakers and start coaching. He knows that’s what he wants after his playing days, which would keep him following in the basketball footsteps of his father. But that day – making the switch from player to coach – isn’t here just yet.
“I already know what I want to do,” Lucas said. “I had a couple of job offers, people really didn’t know what I was going to do because I took all last year off so people might of thought I was done but I wasn’t.”