During his one season abroad, Lamar Patterson never talked about hanging around Europe for another campaign.
He was going to come home to America to play and stay for good.
Last season, the former Pitt basketball player spent his rookie professional season playing for Tofaş Bursa, a top-level Turkish club, but like most Americans, Patterson didn’t grow up dreaming of playing basketball abroad.
“This whole year in Turkey, he was thinking about improving to make the NBA, to make it on the Atlanta Hawks,” Brian Qvale, an American teammate in Tofaş Bursa, said.
The Hawks acquired Patterson’s NBA rights from the Milwaukee Bucks in June of 2014 during the NBA draft after his second-round selection as the 48th overall pick. After featuring for Atlanta’s Summer League team in Las Vegas that July, Patterson and the Hawks determined that he, like many late draft picks before him, should go to Europe for a season to mature athletically.
The Hawks would still hold Patterson’s rights, but he was permitted and willing to play professionally for a European team in order to cultivate his skills.
“Going in, I didn’t know what to expect,” Patterson said. “I just knew I had to work my butt off, and that was it.”
A year or so later, after a successful season, he’s reached that next level. The Hawks announced on Saturday that the 24-year-old had made their 15-man regular season roster in the final spot. On Tuesday night, he made his NBA debut, scoring five points on two shots while totalling a rebounds and two assists in 18 minutes.
Patterson played for the Hawks again this summer and participated in his first NBA training camp with them this fall, earning his spot on the squad.
Qvale saw how Patterson’s development in Europe helped secure his spot in Atlanta.
“Adding a professional level of experience, plus some adversity, [with] being away from home, away from family and friends, did nothing but improve his game and prepare him for whatever happens this year in the NBA,“ he said.
One of the biggest adjustments from college to pro play, Patterson said, is the high stakes involved every time a player steps on the court. If they play poorly, there’s a vast talent pool filled with potential replacements.
“You’re pretty much playing for your life. Every game could be your last, literally, with professional teams, just because you’re [expendable] to them,” Patterson said in an August phone interview. “It makes you focus way more.”
He maintained that focus, ranking fourth on the team in points per game, averaging 11.2 points in 29 appearances. He missed just one game all season and ended up averaging the third-most minutes a game with 28.
“At the end of the day, you gotta go play basketball. That’s what we’re getting paid to do, and that’s what I’m good at,” he said. “So I found a way to still be effective.”
During Patterson’s season overseas, scouts and front office employees from the Hawks traveled to Turkey to watch him play on a regular basis, and they talked often about his play and what the team expected of him.
Management wanted to see Patterson transform his body — become leaner, stronger and quicker. Patterson met that challenge.
Qvale recalled Patterson putting extra work in on stationary bikes and treadmills before and after practice to lose weight. He also changed his diet, eating more lean protein, like grilled salmon with no seasoning or sauce, and grilled vegetables.
Over the summer, Michael Young, a former Pitt teammate, saw the results firsthand when he and another Pitt player, freshman guard Damon Wilson, played pickup with him while in Atlanta visiting family. It was his first time seeing Patterson since the end of the 2014 season.
“He probably lost about 15 pounds since the last time I’ve seen him, which is big. He looked real skinny,” Young said. “That was a bit of a shock to me. ”
Young said slimming down benefited Patterson’s play, making him more explosive, which also translated to better footwork.
“Him getting his body right really elevated his game to another level,” Young said.
Patterson has displayed this improvement against pro competition. When he played in Summer League this year, he said he felt more confident and played better than the last time. He averaged a team-high 13.1 points per game in seven appearances — after averaging just six in 2014 — and also improved his assists and rebounding numbers.
This preseason, Patterson appeared in six games, averaging 6.3 points a contest in 17.2 minutes. On Friday night — his final appearance before making the final roster — Patterson scored an NBA career-high 18 points on 6-12 shooting and recorded a team-high six assists and four steals.
Now, for the second time in two years, Patterson is a rookie once again. Only this time, he’s made it to the NBA. Regardless of his reserve role on the team, he plans on helping wherever the coaches want him, even if that means cheerleading from the end of the bench.
“All you want to do is go in there, work hard, work your butt off,” he said. “Just find a way to fit into that system and make yourself a person they want to keep around.”