Jae’Sean Tate has had to prove himself from tryouts overseas in Belgium through non-guaranteed contract seasons with the Houston Rockets, but it’s paid off in the end. This month, Tate earned a new three-year, $22.1 million deal with the Rockets and solidified himself as a core member of the team in the immediate future.
In a conversation with HoopsHype in Las Vegas, Tate discussed why he passed on more money in Europe to play in the NBL against LaMelo Ball, RJ Hampton, etc., and how he and his agents EJ Kusnyer and Jordan Cornish of Beyond Athlete Management negotiated his new deal with the Rockets. He also expanded on his long-term future, expectations for Houston this season, and more.
When you went undrafted out of Ohio State, did you see this type of NBA opportunity and contract coming?
Jae’Sean Tate: Yeah. I’ve always thought I was an NBA player. From the time I was in college to all my years overseas, I knew it was going to be a longer route. There was never a question of if I was good enough. I just knew that I was going to have to be able to put myself in a position to get to my dream. I think EJ Kusnyer did a good job of just putting me in certain situations that allowed me to be successful, allowed me to show my worth, and allowed me to be me while bringing what I do to a team every step of the way. I can’t thank EJ enough for putting me in those situations.
What was going through your mind playing with Belgium and the Sydney Kings?
JT: Honestly, my first year in Belgium, my feet were just on the ground. That was a young team, and we were just trying to win. I went out there on a tryout. I was trying to stay on the team. As time went on, I began to show what I am and got more comfortable and confident. That led to me coming back to a Summer League. In Australia, it was different. I always knew that I wanted to get to the NBA. I felt I took a jump from that first year to my second year. I knew going into my second season, LaMelo Ball, RJ Hampton and Didi Louzada would have NBA eyes on them out there. I turned down a lot of money in Europe and took a pay cut to go to Australia because I knew that the publicity and the amount of attention those young rising stars were going to bring could be my opportunity to get to the league.
What’s behind the success of players coming from the NBL to the NBA, in your opinion?
JT: I only did one year in Europe, but I was able to go to different countries and play against different teams, and the style of play in Australia is very similar to the NBA. The athletes are bigger and more skilled here (USA). It’s all about how the basketball culture is over there. Those are more NBA-like practices. Overseas it was more two-a-days, and you only played one game a week. The NBL is more like the NBA. Overseas, we had to have the same socks, same this, same that.
What did you think your NBA niche would be once you got to the Rockets?
JT: I was never a guy to say, “This is what I’m going to do and bring.” I just go out there and play and do whatever the coach asks me to do. I’m going to do it 110 percent. I’m a competitor, so I take pride in not being scored on. I take pride in people saying I’m 6-foot-4 and people thinking I’m short. My roles have changed over two years. There were some times where I played the point, and sometimes I’ve had to guard a five. My mindset was I was on non-guaranteed contracts every year, so my mindset was to stay here because once you get out, it’s hard to get back in. That’s what kept a chip on my shoulder.
Rarely does a team let a guy get to restricted free agency this early with a minimum team option. How did this process happen?
JT: Credit to EJ Kusnyer for pushing for me. I felt like the organization saw my worth. They see the work I’ve put in to this point, and they see I can be a leader, help lead our young core and continue to build our culture. That’s one thing that’s always surrounded my name. I’m a guy that does things the right way and a guy who’ll give 100 percent. I think I’ve shown and proven that to them and the league. I’m thankful and grateful to be a part of this organization and try to build something new. Houston is home to me. I’m so happy in this area. It’s my home away from home.
What did you think of the incentives in your contract based on team wins and what it means for the franchise's direction?
JT: That means when a team has been a bottom team for the last two years, the only way you can go is up. We’ve been at rock bottom. There’s no pressure on us. We’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. We’re not supposed to be good, is what people are saying. But I think that from last year to this summer, I think we’ve grown. They have some wonderful draft picks that are going to help us. We’re going to be a dynamic team this year. This team is going to play cutthroat and fast.
What was your mindset when your agent presented this contract scenario to you?
JT: I think I’m worth more, but I like that. That keeps me hungry and motivated. It’s life-changing, but it’s not generation-changing. My whole thing is to keep working my a** off to get to that point. Going in there (negotiations), I had to think if I wanted to bet on myself more. Every step of the way, I’ve bet on myself. I could’ve waited, and who knows what the season brought and free agency, but I felt that Houston is my home, and I felt like this is something I wanted to be a part of and I’m excited about. You can’t put a price on happiness.
What did you think when the Rockets traded Christian Wood?
JT: In this business, some guys are safe, but really nobody is safe, especially in a rebuild where people are going to come and go. Dallas is a great fit for Wood. Him and Luka Doncic teaming up will make him successful. He’s still one of my brothers and close friends. That’s part of the business. In my first year, I had 28 teammates.
With that in mind, what did it say to you that this rebuilding team signed you as a core guy?
JT: They value me. They believe in me and trust me. There are only two more guys on the team older than me. I’m one of the guys that have to lead by example. That’s big. Anytime you can say an NBA organization, GM and coach can give that trust to an undraftee.
How much easier is it to help lead this team with a higher salary now?
JT: The relationship between me and my teammates doesn’t change because of the way I carry myself. I have respect from my teammates. They know I respect them, and they can trust me when I’m going to call them out on certain things. I’ve been that guy since day one. The money aspect of it may give me points with people that aren’t in my circle. I might have more respect on the street, but in my locker room, that doesn’t matter. I want to make sure it never does.
What’s your outlook for this Rockets team this season and looking ahead?
JT: This is just going to be a year of more growth. We’ve taken strides this summer. This is going to be an exciting team. I think we’ve been exciting. I’m very hopeful that we give them a better look this year than last year, and I believe we can do that.
Does your role change at all this season, given the new contract?
JT: I don’t think my role changes, but I think that I’m going to have to be more vocal. Even though I am vocal, I think I can do more. That’s one of the things I’m really locked in on.
What have you thought of your long-term future with the Rockets?
JT: I think it depends on how successful we become. In a dream world, I’d love to be a part of this organization long-term. Who likes to move? Especially out of the city of Houston. For me to be there from day one to see this thing out, because it’s not a matter of if we’re going to be good, it’s when? It would be a dream come true to see that from start to finish. You’ve got to be realistic with the business, and stuff happens. People get traded. I don’t like to look at it that way. I’m all in. I think they know that, or I wouldn’t be sitting here having this interview with you.
You also started a scholarship program. What’s your goal with it?
JT: Recently, I partnered with a guy David in Houston who’s based in Houston and has a coffee shop. He’s helped me create my brand of coffee. The first year we did, all the proceeds went towards the Ninth Wonder Foundation, which helps kids with disabilities play sports. This year we moved that into a scholarship. You can be in grad school or an incoming freshman. There weren’t any criteria, but I just wanted to hear their stories, how they were motivated to get through their struggles, and how you relate to me because I feel like my whole life has been a grind. Along the way, I’ve had help. You don’t get along in this life without help. That was my whole mindset to give somebody that little bump or pep they need to reach their dreams. We had a winner, Victoria Bell, who literally had pictures of all her work as a senior and straight-A student where she wants to own a restaurant, and her story was very moving. It meant a lot to me that I could help her.
Anything else you wanted to share that’s been on your mind after getting the contract?
JT: For people out there and basketball people out there who have to take the long route to get there (NBA), continue to stay consistent and believe in yourself. It’s not about how you get there. It’s when you get there. I say this all the time to people who ask about my journey and my dream, “I don’t take elevators. I take the steps.” Once you get to the top, you see all that work you put in, and it just feels so much better. I’m not where I want to be. I’m in a better place right now than I was a couple of years ago, but I still have more work to do as an individual and a leader on this Rockets team. I never get complacent.
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