Niyo: Hard work earns ex-Spartan Bryn Forbes a solid NBA career

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Spurs' Bryn Forbes scores over Pistons' Luke Kennard in the fourth quarter.

Bryn Forbes could always shoot.

“And if you have a skill,” said Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs’ coach, “you have a chance to make it in this league.”

Getting a shot is one thing, though. Making it is another in the NBA.

But as Forbes kept putting up shots during warm-ups Monday night, an hour before the Spurs’ game against the Pistons at Little Caesars Arena, it wasn’t hard to see how the former Michigan State guard and Lansing native managed to split the difference.

Or how he proved the skeptics wrong, not just by making an NBA roster after going undrafted in 2016, but now by emerging as a reliable starter for a surging San Antonio team, averaging 12.3 points per game and ranking among the league leaders in 3-point shooting.

He worked at it.

“I wouldn’t say I knew this was coming this fast, or I knew this would happen,” said Forbes, who finished with 15 points, including three 3-pointers, in the Spurs’ 119-107 victory Monday. “But I knew that I had put in a whole lot of work, and I knew it’d pay off at some point.”

And if others didn’t, well, that only fueled Forbes’ fire.

“It was something I took to heart, people telling me I couldn’t do something,” he said. “I’ve always been told that. People told me I couldn’t play high-major basketball. People told me I couldn’t play in the NBA. People told me I couldn’t do this in the NBA. And that’s kind of what shapes me, what made me who I am.”

Getting the point

Where he ended up might’ve had something to do with that as well. The Spurs haven’t owned a lottery pick in more than two decades, thanks to all the winning they’ve done with Popovich & Co. As a result, they’ve focused extensively on developing young talent to fill complementary roles.

And when Forbes showed up for a free-agent tryout camp in the summer of 2016, “you could see that he had a work ethic that was exemplary,” Popovich said. “He was very coachable.” And, yes, he could shoot the lights out, which matters more than ever in today’s NBA.

So as the Spurs gave him an opportunity, Popovich gave him some advice before sending him off to spend much of his rookie season in the NBA’s D League. He told Forbes he’d add value to his career — and improve his odds of sticking in the NBA — if he worked at playing point guard. So that’s all Forbes played that first season in Austin.

The rookie also spent countless hours working on his defense with the Spurs’ development staff — Chad Forcier, Will Hardy and shooting guru Chip Engelland all invested time — “and he worked his fanny off, quite frankly,” Popovich said. And the end result is what we’re seeing now.

“He has carved out an NBA career,” Popovich said.

And in a league dominated by superstars, Forbes is one of those players who reminds everyone there’s more to it than lottery luck and maximum-salary contracts.

"He's a good story,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “That's what our league should be about: Guys who work hard, stay hungry and make a team.”

Muscling up

Make a career, in fact. After an impressive showing last season, Forbes signed a two-year, $6 million deal to stay in San Antonio, where he now has settled in with his two young sons, 5-year-old Carter and 2-year-old Leo.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo couldn’t make it to Monday’s game, tied up with practice and preparation for the Spartans’ game against Purdue on Tuesday night. But he said he caught up with his former player on the phone last week, telling him again how proud he is of “what he has become.”

And Izzo had to laugh when he caught a before-and-after glimpse of Forbes the other day watching some old video cut-ups from 2015 and ‘16. The transformation began back at Michigan State, where the skinny guard with “noodles” for arms — “He looked like this emaciated little guy,” Izzo joked Monday — started packing on the muscle. He was barely 170 pounds as a junior after transferring back home from Cleveland State, and played at 185 as a senior. 

Now he carries a chiseled 200 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame, and it shows on the court, all those extra sessions in the weight room, all those hill runs and slide drills in the sand, “all those summers working on my defense and working on my body,” Forbes said.

Halfway through this NBA season, Forbes is one of three Spurs players to start all 41 games — LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan are the others — and he's averaging nearly 30 minutes a night. When the Spurs lost starting point guard Dejounte Murray to a torn ACL in the preseason, Popovich turned to Forbes to fill that role for the first 20 games or so. Now he's back at shooting guard with rookie Derrick White playing the point. 

“He’s progressed every year,” Izzo said. “It’s a process to getting better. He didn’t skip anything, he just kind of did his job. But I can honestly say that of all the players I’ve had — and I’ve had some that have worked their tail off — nobody spent more time in the gym than Bryn Forbes. … I mean, he is truly a kid that has earned everything he’s gotten.”

And with two young kids of his own, Forbes says that’s a lesson he’d like to pass on.

“That’s the reason I do it: I want to inspire people,” he said. “And it goes back to people telling me what wasn’t possible. I mean, everything they told me I couldn’t do, from ‘too small’ to ‘you can’t defend’ to whatever it may be, I made it my mission to show them that anything is possible.”

Twitter @JohnNiyo