On January 2nd, the Texas Legends made a trade with the Westchester Knicks to acquire veteran Gary Neal. Neal has extensive basketball experience, including six years in the NBA as well as three and half seasons overseas.
A statistical machine in high school, Neal averaged a triple-double in his junior year while leading Aberdeen High School (Maryland) to the state championship. Upon going undrafted in 2007, the 6 foot 4 combo guard ventured overseas.
“I started my career in Turkey, I played in Spain and then Italy,” says the 32-year old. “They kind of play slower on every possession and that’s a transition from coming out of college. Being in that environment, being able to play at a high level, just be involved, helped my game tremendously.”
Two years later came the call from the National Basketball Association. More specifically, from the San Antonio Spurs, notorious for finding the best talent in the world in places other teams aren’t looking. They hit another home run with Gary Neal.
“(The Spurs) were kind of similar to the way you play in Europe. Basically four out, one in. Ball movement, player movement. Not too much dribbling, pounding or holding the ball, things like that.”
“I think going into the Spurs organization I had kind of a head start coming from Europe, playing at a high level over there. Understanding the kind of play and the way (Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich) wanted to play going in.”
Neal fit the Spurs and the NBA like a glove. There was no learning curve he had to overcome. Nobody had to spend any time teaching him about the x’s and o’s of the game. The disciplined, no-nonsense approach from San Antonio molded seamlessly with Neal’s basketball instincts.
The Baltimore-native wasted no time becoming a mainstay in the 2010-2011 Spurs rotation, unusual for a first-year player. But not for Neal. He did what you’re supposed to do overseas: he got better. He didn’t waste a precious moment and was fully prepared to become a big part of one of the league’s best teams.
In just his second game, he racked up 18 minutes and 47 seconds of game time. By the end of the year, he averaged 9.8 points per game. However, it was his extremely polished three-point shot that put the league on watch.
Neal made 1.6 three’s a game on just 3.9 attempts, good for 42 percent. Among players who attempted three or more three pointers a game, the rookie finished 12th in the entire league. He quickly became recognized as one of the league’s premier shooters from beyond the arc, a shot he says he started to really work on in college.
“It’s been around probably since my freshman year of college,” Neal says about his deadly three point jumper. “I hit the genetic lottery in high school. I was able to just run by everybody and jump over everybody. In college, things leveled out a little bit, I had to expand my game so I started working on my jump shot. It’s been something that I’ve been able to count on and rely on throughout my entire career.”
A lot of guards today never learn to shoot the all-important outside jumper, but Gary Neal put in the work and the results have made basketball a very successful career for him.
“A lot of gym work. A lot of shots in the off-season, in practice. I put a lot of work in on my jump shot and it’s something that’s made me a lot of money.”
Along with players such as DeMarcus Cousins and first overall pick John Wall, Neal was named to the 2010-2011 NBA All-Rookie Team. In a year’s time, he’d gone from unknown to finishing above players like Paul George and Eric Bledsoe in rookie ratings.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the system, having a coach like Pop,” Neal says modestly. “Having the players around me on the floor helps. With (future) Hall of Famers Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, those guys being such great talents are able to make the game easier for guys like myself. I reap the benefit of great coaching, great system, being on the floor and being lucky enough to play with great players.”
Neal jokes that he was simply along for the ride. “I was just there,” he laughs.
“When you go into a situation like that, really all you have to do is what you’re capable of doing,” he continues. “Me being able to make shots is all I really had to do. I didn’t have to play out of position. The game was very simple. I think I’ve been lucky, been blessed to be in situations where the game has always been simple and I’ve been able to focus on doing what I’m best at: making shots.”
Despite the humility, teams were realizing that Neal wasn’t just a product of the system, but a bonafide scorer with a legitimate shooting stroke.
“When you play through your career sometimes you get derailed or you’re not able to reach your potential because you have injuries. I was able to luckily get into situations that were good for me. If you look back at the Spurs situation, I mean that was a situation where you come into an organization that traditionally wins 50 games and are constantly in the playoffs.”
Unfortunately in February 2016, the injury bug found Neal. A torn hip labrum –that he reportedly played with for over a month– required season-ending surgery. The road back went briefly through the Knicks D-League team in Westchester.
“I played one game when I was in Westchester,” Neal’s rights were acquired by the Knicks on December 16th of last year. “My last basketball time was way back in February 2016. It’s almost been a full year. I’m just excited to get back on the court and play the game I love and play the game that’s been so good to me.”
Ironically, Neal’s two best scoring seasons came when he split the year between teams. In 2014-2015 with the Minnesota Timberwolves, he averaged 11.8 points. His career high scoring total came 2013-2014. After being dealt to the Charlotte Hornets, he averaged 11.2 points.
The adaptable guard with a lethal touch from the outside does the same thing wherever he goes: he scores the basketball.
“I’m looking forward to just playing again. It’s been such a long process for me during the recovery and rehab stage of my hip surgery.”
The glass is certainly half full for Gary Neal and his next step with the Texas Legends will begin with a matchup against the Sioux Falls Skyforce on Friday.
“I’m just happy to be back on the court, happy to be practicing and playing. Hopefully I’ll be able to fit in well and help us win some games.”