Perseverance has ex-Michigan State star Kalin Lucas back on NBA's doorstep with Pistons

By Matt Schoch
Special to The Detroit News
Former Michigan State star Kalin Lucas' professional basketball journey has taken him to Greece, Turkey, Memphis and multiple stops in the NBA's development league. He's with the Grand Rapids Drive now, on a two-way contract with the Pistons.

Grand Rapids — After growing up in southeast Michigan and rooting for the nearby pro team, Kalin Lucas will finally get to wear the jersey of a childhood hero on Friday: Jackie Moon of the Flint Tropics.

OK, the promotional jersey fashioned from the 2008 Will Ferrell slapstick comedy Semi-Pro is a one-time minor league stunt, but the former Michigan State star really is close to the real thing of the red, white and blue of his actual hero, Chauncey Billups of the Detroit Pistons.

“It’s been crazy — it kind of feels like when I first signed with Michigan State,” Lucas said. “That’s kind of what the feeling feels like. Been getting a lot of calls, a lot of texts, my family has, too. Just a lot of support from all of Michigan, whether it’s Detroit, whether it’s Flint, Saginaw, wherever. Getting a lot of love.”

Lucas was signed Tuesday by the Pistons to a two-way contract and assigned to the Grand Rapids Drive, their G League affiliate. But the Pistons confirmed the acquisition of the 29-year old Sterling Heights native — along with former Seton Hall star Isaiah Whitehead — is no development deal.

“We wanted to have two-ways that could help the Pistons in a pinch,” said former NBA veteran Malik Rose, a Detroit assistant general manager. “God forbid if someone gets hurt and we need somebody to step up, these guys are versatile basketball players that have a shot in the NBA.”

The winding path for Lucas took him to Calvin College on Thursday for his first practice with his new team, as the Drive prepare for Friday against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants at the Deltaplex.

As a two-way player, the Pistons can call Lucas and Whitehead up for a maximum of 45 days of games and practices during the regular season. Per the league’s collective bargaining agreement, two-way players earn a minimum of $77,250 per season but can earn a maximum of $385,000 if they spend the maximum amount of time with their NBA clubs.

Former Michigan State star Kalin Lucas, right, earned a spot in camp with the Sacramento Kings this season but was released to their G League team, suiting up as an affiliate player with the Stockton Kings in northern California.

Winding road

Lucas, who starred for coach George Porritt and the Eaglets at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, earned his way back to the NBA’s doorstep with perseverance and proficient 3-point shooting.

He earned a spot in camp with the Sacramento Kings this season but was released to their G League team, suiting up as an affiliate player with the Stockton Kings in northern California.

For Stockton, the 6-foot-1 Lucas averaged 22 points and 6.3 assists in 21 games this season, starting 10. He shot 39.7 percent on 3-pointers this season and is at 39.2 percent over 133 career G League games in four seasons.

Lucas was in the Sacramento airport when he got word the Detroit deal might go down. But since it was not yet finalized, he went with the Stockton Kings to Salt Lake City. Upon landing, he learned he was officially a Piston.

He flew back to Sacramento to gather his things and then headed Wednesday for Detroit and Little Caesars Arena, where he voluntarily went through a workout before Detroit’s overtime win against Orlando. Lucas also met with new teammates, like his opponent from the 2007 Jordan Brand Classic high school all-star game, Blake Griffin.

“Once he saw me, he said, ‘What’s up man? I’m glad you here, congratulations,’” Lucas said, adding Griffin asked about his Michigan State teammate Durrell Summers, Griffin’s roommate during Jordan Brand week. “It felt good to know guys in the system, so it went really well.”

After first meeting Lucas, Griffin would soon head to Oklahoma. It was not too long that NBA stardom hit and Griffin was signed for millions to endorse Jordan’s apparel.

Kalin Lucas helped Michigan State reach the NCAA title game in 2009, and was the Big Ten Player of the Year.

Lucas was headed that way too, winning Big Ten Player of the Year as a sophomore, and leading Tom Izzo’s Spartans to the 2009 national championship game in Detroit.

After another All-Big Ten first-team selection as a junior, Lucas missed much of a second straight Final Four run after rupturing his Achilles tendon in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Maryland.

Lucas was advised to take a year off and recover from the injury. Instead, he rehabbed quickly after offseason surgery and took the Breslin Center court as planned.

His signature spark was dimmed, although he still averaged nearly 21 points per game during the second half of the season. Lucas also scored a career-high 30 points in a Big Ten tournament win against Purdue and was named second-team All-Big Ten.

Still, minus the dynamite step that made him a star, Lucas went undrafted in 2011.

From there, Lucas played in Greece, Turkey, the NBA Summer League, back to Turkey, the NBA’s then-Developmental League, the Memphis Grizzlies in 2014, back to the D League, back to Turkey, to China, back to Turkey, to the D League, to Israel, and back to the rebranded G League this season.

There were times, he recalled Thursday after practice at Calvin, where he would sulk in European hotel rooms and wonder if the ruptured Achilles had taken away his only real chance of becoming an NBA mainstay.

“The basketball is different,” Lucas said of his overseas experience. “It’s more slow-paced. You just learn a lot. From me being a four-year starter at Michigan State and then going overseas, they really don’t care.

“I feel like the most I learned over there was, no matter if you’re starting or you’re playing 30 minutes or 5 minutes, you got to make the most of your minutes and be ready. It’s professional basketball.”

He took it to heart.

'Keep grinding'

Now, as a two-way player, Lucas is as close as he’s been to an NBA floor since his one league appearance on Nov. 19, 2014.

In Des Moines as a member of the Iowa Energy of the D League, Lucas first got the call, spending three games with the Grizzlies, but he did not see action. He spent 10 days back with Iowa before Memphis recalled Lucas for his 5 minutes — and 32 seconds — of NBA fame.

“That was a memory to remember,” Lucas said. “Practice (with Iowa) had just ended and they had to fly me on a private jet, by myself, from Des Moines to Toronto, but it was a blizzard. We couldn’t land.”

The plane eventually landed and he arrived to the arena just in time for what was a historic night in Raptors history. Lucas’ teammate with Memphis, Vince Carter, was being honored with a video tribute after years of simmering strife between the franchise and its former first superstar.

“The game had just almost started, so once I landed, I ran down the tunnel and the trainer was right there with my jersey,” Lucas said. “I had to put all my gear on in the tunnel and run right on the court.

“Coach (Dave) Joerger said, ‘Kalin, be ready, I’m playing you today. I’m playing you, K, be ready.’”

Lucas missed his only shot, committed a foul and had a steal. He was waived the next day and closed the season back in Turkey.

Former Michigan State star Kalin Lucas, right, talks with Grand Rapids Drive coach Ryan Krueger after practice Thursday at Calvin College in Grand Rapids.

That was four seasons ago, and there were times, including a full summer at Izzo’s house a couple of years ago training with Miles Bridges and the Spartans, where he wasn’t sure he’d ever get back.

“I’d be lying if I said I’ve been positive the whole time,” Lucas said. “But this is just all about trying to be positive at all times and keep grinding. That’s something I always did my whole life, especially at my size. You always have to prove yourself and just compete. That’s something I’ve always been doing.”

When he got the news from Detroit on Tuesday, Lucas texted his college coach.

In true baby boomer fashion, Lucas said, Izzo initially misunderstood the text.

“I told him that I accepted the two-way, but he thought that I was just thinking about the two-way contract,” Lucas said. “So he called and was like, ‘Man, you’ve got to take the two-way! What you doing?’

“I’m like, no, Coach, I took it. He’s like, ‘Hell yeah!’… he was so pumped up and excited. This whole journey, man.”

The move adds point-guard depth to the Pistons and injury insurance. Reserve Ish Smith recently missed 19 games with a thigh injury and the team struggled with 37-year-old Jose Calderon logging major minutes behind starter Reggie Jackson. The Pistons went 5-14 during the stretch without Smith.

“He has natural point guard ability and he can score,” Rose said of Lucas. “That’s kind of rare. Most guys now have the ability to score, but they can’t get others involved. Kalin is able to do both. He’s been a consistent 3-point shooter his entire career and he’s a good guy. So when we had the opportunity to bring him home, we jumped on it.”

Rose said Lucas was scouted heavily by the Pistons, but added the signing was pushed by Durand "Speedy" Walker, a college scout for the franchise who coached Lucas coming up through local AAU basketball powerhouse The Family.

Drive coach Ryan Krueger said Lucas will replace Keenan Evans as the team’s primary point guard, as Evans was released from his two-way contract, along with Zach Lofton, to make room for Lucas and Whitehead.

“The Pistons see (Lucas) as a potential help for them at that spot,” Krueger said. “He’s going to have the opportunity here at the point guard spot to sort of learn the system and show them what he’s capable of doing.”

That will start Friday with Lucas not quite in the hometown duds, but he said he will still look good in the green, orange and white of the fictional Flint Tropics.

“Facts. But it’s going to be kind of funny out there with the Will Ferrell jersey,” Lucas said. “It’s great news. It’s a step. But I know I haven’t done anything yet.

“I still have to work. The mindset doesn’t change. If anything, the mindset is to go harder.”

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.