Los Angeles Clippers rookie guard Tyrone Wallace is undoubtedly one of the feel-good stories of the 2017-18 season. The 23-year-old went from starring in the G League to inking a two-way deal with the Clippers to becoming an integral member of the team.
In 23 G League games with the Agua Caliente Clippers, he averaged 22.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.5 steals and .9 blocks while shooting 51.8 percent from the field. With the Clippers, he’s averaging 10.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1 steal while shooting 45.6 percent from the field.
January was the first month of Wallace’s NBA career, and injuries allowed him to become a surprising starter. He averaged 32.7 minutes and scored in double-figures in nine of his 13 games. He’s made the most of his minutes; only four rookies have had a 19-point, 6-rebound, 6-assist game this season: Wallace, Ben Simmons, Lonzo Ball and Dennis Smith Jr.
HoopsHype caught up with Wallace to discuss how the G League prepared him for the NBA, his breakout success with the Clippers, how his life has changed in the last month, what it’s like playing for his hometown NBA team and much more.
People may not know this, but you were the last pick in the 2016 NBA draft. Walk me through what that night and that moment were like for you. Was it a relief or were you frustrated?
Tyrone Wallace: I was at home in Bakersfield, California, with family and close friends watching the draft. I didn’t really know where I would be picked or if I would be picked at all, so it was one of those moments where I didn’t want to get too high or get too low if I didn’t get picked. But, man, I just remember sitting there watching player after player come off of the board and I’m just waiting there, hoping I’d be called. Then, right before the last pick, my agent called me and said I was going to be selected. He told me, “Look at the TV.” So my family and I watched it together, and it was a very emotional moment for me. I think everybody who plays basketball at a high level wants to get drafted and play in the NBA, so it was definitely special for me.
But it was also something that I used as a chip on my shoulder. When you’re the last pick in the draft, that means 59 other guys were drafted in front of me. I’ve always been confident in myself and I’ve always felt like I could play in the NBA. But that moment was kind of a wake-up call. I thought, “Okay, I have to get better.” I knew I needed to step up and prove that I belong here.
You were born and raised in California. You went to the University of California. Now, you’re playing for the Los Angeles Clippers. What’s it been like being able to stay in California, where you’re comfortable and surrounded by family and friends?
TW: It’s been great, man. I’m a Valley kid, so I’m used to the sun and warm weather! It’s been amazing for me to be so close to home all throughout my career. Ever since I started playing basketball, my friends and family have been extremely supportive and they’ve come to a lot of games, so for them to be able to continue that now that I’m at the highest level, it’s really special for me. My dad, mom and aunt have been able to come to some games and it’s just cool. Not only am I in the NBA and playing in the Staples Center, which is crazy enough, but I usually have someone close to me in attendance. That support has been great and being so close to home is perfect because I’m a family person. And, like I said, the weather is great. I love it here!
A lot of people first heard about you when you had a 5×5 game in the G League (26 points, 13 assists, 8 rebounds, 5 steals and 5 blocks). How did the G League help you develop and prepare you for your stint with the Clippers?
TW: My experience in the G League was great, especially this year [with the Agua Caliente Clippers]. Last year [with the Salt Lake City Stars] was more of a learning experience for me. I was learning the NBA game, how the officials call games and how the game is played at this level. I’m always telling my friends, “The NBA game is way different from college.” So last year was a chance for me to get acclimated.
This year, I wanted to come in and do even better and make the necessary strides to get into the NBA. I had a fresh start with a new team, a new system and a new coach, Casey Hill. They gave me the power and freedom to be myself and play my game. They trusted in me and day in and day out, and I think that showed with my development. Whenever you’re close to your head coach and his staff, it can only be positive for you. They were constantly trying to find ways to make me better and make the team better, and I think that helped me so much. Every night, I was just trying to go out and prove that I can play in the NBA. I just wanted an opportunity; that’s it. A lot of guys who get drafted never even play in an NBA game, but I wanted to continue to improve and grow so I could eventually get that opportunity. I think playing in the G League was very beneficial for me this year, and it opened up some doors for me that I will cherish forever.
What was it like when you got the news that you’d be joining the Clippers on a two-way contract?
TW: I was in Salt Lake City and I was getting ready for our G League game. The Clippers had several injuries already: Pat Beverley was out for the season and guys like Austin [Rivers] and [Danilo] Gallinari were down. Well, Milos Teodosic had just went down, so my agent had already been in talks with the Clippers’ front office to try to figure out a way to get me up there since they were so shorthanded. So it was in the works for a bit – something that we were going back and forth on. When Milos went down, they reached out like, “Hey, we need you.” I looked at it as a real opportunity because they told me, “You’ll be able to play. We have guys who are down, so it’s next man up.” I took it very seriously and tried to make the most of my opportunity. If you look around the league, a lot of the guys who are on two-way contracts right now don’t get NBA minutes or at least not nearly as many as the two-way players on the Clippers – from CJ Williams to Jamil Wilson to myself. I thought, “Man, this sounds great. I’ll go up there and maybe be able to contribute.” I never thought I’d be playing over 30 minutes a night right from the start, but I loved it. And because it’s a two-way contract, I also knew that this was sort of like my interview for the rest of the NBA teams too. I thought, “If I go up there and play well, it could increase my stock for next year.” Just because you never know what can happen in the NBA. That’s how I looked at it. I was excited when I got the news. I thought I’d be playing in the G League game that night, but they were like, “No, we need you to fly out.” So I flew out to L.A. and played against the Golden State Warriors the next day.
Two of your first three NBA games ever were against the Warriors. You went against them twice in four nights and you played 30-plus minutes in each game. And you were terrific in those two games, putting up 35 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 steals – while shooting 47.8 percent from the field, 100 percent from three-point range and 84.6 percent from the free-throw stripe. What was it like going from never playing in the NBA to being thrown into the fire against this juggernaut Warriors team?
TW: It was special, I knew I’d have an opportunity to play some minutes, but I didn’t know that I’d be playing 30-plus minutes. To get up there and have Doc [Rivers] and the coaching staff believe me in and sub me in like that, it was really special for me. And I’m a young player, so I made some mistakes in my first game, but it’s all about learning and getting better. I think for my first game, though, I did pretty good – especially going up against the best team in the league, the Warriors. I actually think facing Golden State in my first game helped me because I thought, “Alright, well if I can go out here and play pretty well against these guys – this elite team – then it won’t get any harder than that.” Once I realized that I could hold my own, it helped my confidence and I realized I could play against pretty much anyone.
You’re basically living every G League player’s dream – getting an opportunity to play in the NBA and then doing so well that you start 10 of your first 17 games. How surreal is all of this for you, and how has your life changed in the last month and a half?
TW: It’s definitely surreal. Sometimes, after the games, I’ll sit back and just think about it. When I’m on the court and playing the games, I never think about it. The guy in front of me is obviously just another opponent, another player who I have to compete against. But then when I stop to reflect later that night or the next day, it’s pretty crazy. My family and friends are still pretty new to this too, so they’ll send me pictures and videos like, “Can you believe you just played against Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant and all of these guys?!” When I do think about it, I do reflect and think about how just a few years ago, I was in college and watching these guys on TV and talking about how good they were with my friends. Now, I’m up here playing against them, so it is surreal in that sense.
But with that said, I’m definitely more comfortable now and that feeling is starting to wear off. I know I’m still very new to the league and I’ve played nowhere near a full season, but it’s starting to feel like the norm where I just go out there and compete. I know that I’m going to be playing against good talent night in and night out, so I just go out and play my game no matter who’s in front of me, no matter what name is on the back of their jersey, no matter if they’re an All-Star. I’m out there to help my team win.
You also got an introduction to the business side of the NBA very quickly too. After 12 games with the Clippers, Blake Griffin was traded to the Detroit Pistons. What was your reaction to that move?
TW: I was shocked. Shocked. I mean, that’s the only way I can describe it. I had no idea that they were even shopping him or anything. As a player you never know those things. And then, as young player, I’m just trying to come in every day to get better, learn, grow and do whatever is asked of me so I wasn’t even thinking about that kind of thing. I was actually asleep when the trade happened. My phone kept buzzing and buzzing, and I was getting annoyed because I was trying to take a nap. I eventually woke up and I checked my phone and everyone was talking about it. People were texting me and it was all over Twitter. For a second, I thought to myself, “This can’t be real.” But as time went on, it hit me and all I could think was, “Wow… This actually happened.” It was crazy, especially when you’re a young player and you don’t expect it at all.
A lot of the older guys in the locker room are used to the business side. A few of them told me, “Welcome to the NBA.” For me, being 12 games in, I had never seen it happen. And for it to be a star like Blake, that was definitely crazy. Throughout my first month here, Blake was one of the guys who had really taken me under his wing and welcomed me with open arms, so that part was unfortunate. Not only was he someone I enjoyed playing with, we were just getting pretty close. Seeing him get traded was a shocker, but I just have to keep doing my job. I wish him the best, though, and I know he’s going to keep doing great in Detroit. Hopefully we’ll keep in touch.
You sort of have the best of both worlds because you’re getting the chance to play a lot, but you also have a lot of veterans on the roster who can help you. How much have you learned from your veteran teammates in Los Angeles?
TW: Man, they’ve been a tremendous help. Pat isn’t playing right now because he’s out for the season, but he’s always helping me. His locker is right next to mine so we watch film together, and during games and at halftime, he’ll give me little pointers about how to defend certain things. He’ll tell me what he sees out there and if he notices I’m being too passive, he’ll tell me that I need to attack. Lou [Williams] is the same way. On the court, he’s always coaching me up and giving me little tidbits of information here and there. DeAndre [Jordan] and Wesley Johnson have been so supportive of me. With all of these guys, the main thing is that they just encourage me. Whenever I’m on the court, they make sure I’m aggressive and playing my game. They’re confident in me, they’re passing me the ball and they’ve told me when they think guys can’t guard me. But they also pull me aside whenever there’s a teaching moment so that I can keep learning and get better. I truly feel like my teammates want to see me do well. When Blake was here, it was the same thing. He was always helping me with defensive coverages and those types of things. I just feel really fortunate to play with such a great group of guys who have been in the league for a while, who understand how to be a pro and who know what it takes to play at this level. Anytime you can get that kind of advice from players like, it’s really valuable.
Interview, Top, Blake Griffin, CJ Williams, DeAndre Jordan, Doc Rivers, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Lou Williams, Milos Teodosic, Patrick Beverley, Stephen Curry, Tyrone Wallace, Wesley Johnson, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers