ON PRO POTENTIAL:

My [first] college coach, Stan Heath, they fired him. I got nominated to play on the [USA Basketball] under-19 World Championships, but I was busy with that all summer. I found out what the draft boards were and saw that my name was in the top 20, and all that. I was like, ‘Damn, just a year ago I was in Chicago playing and now people are talking about I’m going to get drafted.’ New coach came in, new system.

ON LEAVING SCHOOL:

That was hard as shit. It was tough. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what to think. My mom was with me. I was scared, but in my head, I figured that it’s a setback to set me up for something that’s bigger ahead. That’s how I looked at the whole overseas experience.

ON GOING OVERSEAS:

My coach in the Ukraine was Bob Donewald, who was an assistant coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers when LeBron was there, before Mike Brown. That made it a little bit easier. He ran the NBA Draft workouts, so he knew all the stuff that it takes. Devin Green, who played with the Lakers, he was my teammate. I had Darnell Lazare, who played at LSU. I had some pretty good Americans there with me, so that made the transition easier.

ON STRUGGLES IN EUROPE:

I was 20 [in the Ukraine], 21 in Greece and Greece was a totally humbling experience. I didn’t play at all—I rarely played. I was the fourth point guard. On paper, in Europe people said we had one of the best European teams ever. I had amazing point guards: Teodosic and Papaloukas. These are European greats. I think Teodosic was the MVP of Europe. We had a great team. Josh Childress, [Linas] Kleiza. I didn’t play a lot, so it was definitely a learning experience. I rode the pine mostly the whole year, but I kept preparing, getting extra work. I had a trainer down there with me, trying to get extra work, getting stronger. I’d train with my trainer, train with the team, lift weights with the team. After I finished training with the team, I’d leave, go to a Greek trainer. I was just so focused. At the end of the year, the championship game, Euroleague championships, I was the starting point guard at the time. So it was always about my hard work and dedication, but Greece was very humbling.

ON NOT MAKING THE NBA:

When I was in Greece, that’s when I got drafted by the Lakers and traded to the Heat. I was excited, so happy to get drafted and then after that, I got cut by the Heat. That really killed me. Thinking you’re playing with LeBron and them building that type of team, me getting cut by that team for whatever reason, it was really just painful and I took that to heart. I didn’t ever want to feel that feeling again, so I made it a point in my career to almost give up on the NBA and just focus on my European career. So I think that was motivation, fire burning, to get me where I am now.

ON ALMOST GIVING UP ON HIS DREAM:

It was hard. It got to the point where I was telling my agent that I don’t want to try out for any NBA team ever again. I worked out with the Bulls countless times. Going down there, I’m feeling and everyone’s feeling like I’m the best player in the gym. Playing amazing, preparing, working hard the whole summer for my opportunity with the Bulls, the hometown team and I was just stressed. Worked out with them four or five times, this and that, and still, them not picking me up. So it got to the point I was telling my agent, ‘You know what? I’m done with this whole NBA thing. Let’s just ready for Europe and take the next step there,’ and we did. That’s when I went to Russia, signed an unbelievable contract—three years, $3.4 million—and just wanted to create my foundation there.

ON SIGNING WITH HOUSTON:

It actually happened out of nowhere. I never worked out for Houston, I’ve never been to Houston, the coaches had never seen me play. I interviewed with Houston after a group workout, but that was about it, so it actually just came out of nowhere. I actually thought we had the Cleveland thing done. The summer before I came to Russia, I worked out with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Again, I had an amazing workout with them. For whatever reason, things didn’t go right. Anyway, we’re playing a team in Russia that’s close to China, so it’s about eight hours away from my city in Russia and my mom gave me a call. Ironically, she was visiting me at the time—everything fell in place so perfect—and for people who don’t know, I moved my mom out to Houston three years ago. She came down there to Russia visiting me, like she does every year, makes sure I’m straight and got a call like, ‘Do you want to go to the NBA?’ I didn’t have a buyout. As I did my contract, I was like, ‘I don’t care about the NBA anymore,’ so I didn’t put an NBA buyout in it or anything. So she got a call, my agent called her and said, ‘We’ve got a good offer from Houston. They want to take him as the third point guard. Does he want to do it?’ He got in touch with me and I’m like, ‘Yeah, this opportunity only happens once.’ The hardest thing was getting out of my contract because I didn’t have a buyout, which meant that the Russian team could put anything as my buyout. But them being good people, I played with that same team for almost two years, they set my buyout to be $1.2 million, so I’m like, ‘Cool,’ and I’m thinking Houston’s going to do the whole thing, until I find out that they’re only allowed to pay the max, which is like $450,000, so I had to pay the rest. I paid my own buyout. You work that hard to stack your bread and God puts you in situations where it’s not about the money. It was about my goal and my dreams, so I paid the bread and made my jump to the NBA.

ON THINGS WORKING OUT IN THE END:

It’s crazy. I’m a big fan of everything happening for a reason. I really think if I would have played the Summer League with an NBA team or whatever, if I would have done anything a little different, I don’t think the same result would have happened. I think this was supposed to happen. This wasn’t about any chance or luck, I don’t believe in luck. It’s ironic that I moved my mom here. I have family that’s been living here since I was like 10 years old, who I’m really close with, cousins. And for a team I never worked out for? It was perfect.

ON JOINING THE ROCKETS:

I was able to go home for Christmas and ironically, again, Houston was playing the Chicago Bulls, in Chicago, on Christmas, at the time I was there. It was just crazy how things fall into place. I signed my contract around the 6th [of January], so I was down there working out and I was down there for two weeks, and because of clearance and all that, I could only practice twice. But I didn’t practice with the team, I never saw the team until the next day, when I signed my contract. I signed my contract, worked out with the team and I didn’t know this, but Coach McHale told me—and this is whatever, but I probably had one of the best practices I’ve ever had in my life, in my first practice, in front of everybody—they wanted to send me to the D-League to get accustomed to the system and all that, and Coach McHale was like, ‘Why do you need to send this kid to the D-League?’ I was fortunate, I was just happy to have an NBA contract, to be in the NBA. I went to the D-League, played three games. I almost averaged a triple-double and got called up after about eight, nine days.

ON ADJUSTING TO THE NBA:

My thing is, even when I went to the D-League, whoever was the starting point guard on that team at that time, I like to pick their brain like, ‘How’s the system?’ so as soon as I was there, I wasn’t trying to do the norm, like other players are trying to, trying to outdo somebody or make someone look stupid. No, I went to J-Lin and introduced myself, asked questions, try to pick his brain. I’ve been a big fan of his, so anything I can learn from somebody, it’s always a plus. I flew in the day we were playing the Clippers and we were down, and it’s about 20 seconds left, Coach put me in, so it’s my first NBA game. My mom was there, my girl was there and ‘Mr. Shake and Bake’ himself, Jamal Crawford, he gets the ball, trying to dance and I pick him at halfcourt, and went down there, I think someone knocked the ball out of bounds. Gave it to me the next play off a swing-swing and I hit a three. That was my first NBA shot. The next game we played the Dallas Mavericks and I’m thinking, ‘Okay, I’ll probably get in with 30 seconds left.’ Probably the six-minute mark, Coach put me in. Hit a three there, made some good plays, just trying to compete and bring us back in the game, so I went for like three or four games straight where I didn’t miss a shot at all. It was kind of freaky. But it was fun and when your opportunity is there, you’ve got to take advantage of it and I did. That put me in a great position to play some heavy minutes and eventually start for the Houston Rockets in the Playoffs.

ON THE PLAYOFFS:

Me and J-Lin started together before he was hurt. We went with a real small lineup—me, J-Lin, James Harden, Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik—and for me, I’ve played in the Euroleague championships. I was the starting point guard in the Euroleague championships, so I’m used to—again, everything happens for a reason—so that whole booing, I’ve been through worse. I tell people, overseas, people are putting lasers in your eyes. I got my head gashed open with a coin. People breaking glass and throwing things, throwing lighters. The refs had to stop the game because people threw tear gas on the court, so I’m accustomed to rowdy fans. Greece has the rowdiest fans in the world. They’re almost to a point where it’s kind of dangerous. I knew it couldn’t be worse than that, so when it came to pressure moments, I was European MVP, so I’ve been in plenty of situations like this before, where pressure’s tight and I thrive off that.

ON THIS SEASON:

I’ve been working all summer. I’ve rarely even taken time off. This last couple of days has been my first time taking time off. It felt funny because I’m not accustomed to taking days off. I played Summer League. I wanted to play Summer League. I could have sat out, but I wanted to play Summer League. I’ve been training with Steph Curry in Charlotte. I’ve been back and forth from Charlotte a lot. I’ve been in Houston for every workout that was non-mandatory, I was here. Every time Coach said somebody was going to be in Houston, I was here working with them, whether they were older guys, younger guys, free agents, I was here. So I took this summer real seriously, to try to build from what little success I had in the Playoffs. I came back to Chicago, worked out with Omer, grinded in Chicago, made time to play in the pro-am out there. So it’s really been no days off for me, but anybody that knows me, been around me, that’s my niche. Cream always rises to the top, hard work always pays off.

Aggrey Sam covers the Chicago Bulls for CSNChicago.com.