By: Cassie Calvert
DURHAM, N.C. -- It is the offseason for the New Orleans Pelicans and most of the roster has scattered across the country and world — to wherever they call home — for rest and relaxation before preparation for next season begins.
But if you arrive at the Pelicans’ facility in Metairie, Louisiana at the brisk hour of 7 a.m., you may catch a glimpse of Quinn Cook heading into the practice court for his first workout of the day.
Cook is one of a few players putting in a grueling offseason schedule under the supervision of Pelicans staff as they look ahead to Summer League in Las Vegas and the subsequent training camp.
In Cook’s words, he is “staying paranoid.”
Cook is no stranger to extra work. From the minute the confetti fell at Lucas Oil Stadium for Duke’s fifth NCAA championship, the 2015 team captain gave himself approximately 36 hours to enjoy the feat. The Blue Devils topped Wisconsin on Monday night. Wednesday, Cook was back in the gym. While his teammates were still relishing their victory and decompressing after a grueling season, Cook was getting shots up.
“I knew I wasn’t Jahlil (Okafor), Tyus (Jones) or Justise (Winslow), where I knew I was going to be a first round pick,” Cook said. “I was (projected) late-second round, not getting drafted.”
In the months between the title and the 2015 NBA Draft, Cook threw himself into workouts — traveling across the country to work out in front of different NBA front office personnel and head coaches. While many of his peers complained about the workouts or travel, Cook relished the opportunity to demonstrate his point guard capabilities after sliding to the 2 his senior season to accommodate Jones.
Despite his extra work, the draft came and went and Cook’s name was never called. Shortly after, he received an invitation to join the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Summer League team in Orlando. Directly after the Thunder’s final game in Orlando, Cook jumped on a plane to Las Vegas to join the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Summer League team.
The Cavs were fresh off the finals, but with an injured point guard whom Cook calls a close friend, Kyrie Irving.
“Kyrie really set everything up for me. He called the GM and wanted me to come to summer league,” Cook said. “I remember him telling me, ‘I put in a good word for you to come to training camp. Just come here and do what you do.’”
After training camp, Cook stuck with the Cavs’ NBA Development League affiliate, the Canton Charge, and stayed with Irving when the Charge were in town.
His first D-League season was a tough one.
“I knew that I belonged in the NBA. I started to feel sorry for myself. I didn’t want to be in the D-League at first,” Cook said. “My first couple of games, couple of weeks there, I wasn’t myself.”
Irving’s strength through the adversity of his injury proved to be just the example Cook needed to snap out of his funk.
Cook steadily improved as he embraced the rigors of the D-League schedule. He finished out the season averaging 19.6 points, 5.4 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game — starting all but six of the 43 games he appeared in. He sought support through the tough moments from his family, Duke coaches Jeff Capel and Mike Krzyzewski and role models like Irving and former teammate Seth Curry.
“When I went to the D-League my first year, I wanted to be Seth. I wanted to do exactly what Seth did,” Cook said. “It took him two years and he had to come to Summer League with New Orleans and he took off. That was what I said, if I go back to the D-League I’m going to do another year and try it again. I looked at him as the standard for me.”
Curry — then and now with the Dallas Mavericks — would watch his former teammate’s D-League games, texting him often to share advice and encouragement. Cook finished his first D-League season as Rookie of the Year and headed back to Summer League on the D-League’s team. Heading into training camp, he received an invitation to join the New Orleans Pelicans. He traveled with the team to China for preseason games, but was waived before the regular season. Back to the D-League for a second season.
“It can be deflating. It’s tough because it’s, ‘When is my turn going to happen?’” Capel said. “It can be difficult when that’s your dream and you see it happening for everyone else. And, just for whatever reason it’s not happening for you. You feel like you’re doing everything the right way.”
Cook channeled his desire to make an NBA roster by making an even bigger jump in season two — starting all but one contest and averaging 26 points, 6.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game. Still without a call up, Cook never contemplated going overseas for a more lucrative opportunity.
“I just thought I was so close. I knew I’m an NBA player, that’s just the confidence I had in myself,” Cook said. “Sometimes, you have to bet on yourself. Financially, overseas is 10 times better than the D-League, but I don’t play for the money. I play for the dream.”
Cook’s impressive stat line earned him a spot in the D-League All-Star game where his 18 points and 12 assists earned him the MVP award. His agent sensed that something was about to happen for Cook and indeed, he received his first call up from the Dallas Mavericks.
The first text he received after hearing the news? From Curry.
“I remember right when Quinn texted me and told me when they announced it was happening, I immediately reached out to Seth,” Capel said. “He knew and I just said, ‘Hey, take care of him. You’ve been through this.’”
Cook recalls spending much of his 10 days with Dallas at Curry’s house, as Curry was able to guide him through his first call-up experience. Despite contributing to a 4-1 record with the Mavericks — including a breakout 10-point performance versus the Lakers — Cook’s ten-day contract expired without an extension.
Back to the D-League again.
“With the Mavs, I got an opportunity. I got thrown into the fire,” Cook said. “I got some big minutes in big games. I made some big plays. I got to guard Russell Westbrook; I got to play against him. I did well against Mike Conley.… To go back (to the D-League), I just wanted to dominate.”
This D-League stint would not last long. On March 19, his second call-up came, this time with a team he knew well, the New Orleans Pelicans. As the first 10-day contract with the Pelicans was set to expire, the team extended him another 10 days.
“In Denver — my last day on my second 10-day — I didn’t know anything. I got to play. I (had not been) playing and I got to play against Denver,” Cook said. “I thought I did pretty well and after I talked to Dell (Demps, Pelicans’ general manager) and he said he was going to sign me. We had to play Golden State the next day so I couldn’t really enjoy it or think about it. I just knew we had to play Golden State the next day and that’s all I was thinking about.”
Imagine that, Cook too focused on the work to be done to enjoy his success. Asked if he sensed that New Orleans would be the place he would stick, Cook said that he would not allow himself to get complacent.
“I just took it for what it was. Anytime I had (a 10-day contract), I just took each day of my 10 days for what it was. I tried to be the first in the gym and last to leave,” Cook said. “Just stay paranoid. That’s been my whole motto these last two years. I’ve just been staying paranoid and always wanting to work. I didn’t want to feel complacent in anything.”
Coming out of the gym at 11 a.m., having already put in four hours of work in late May while most of his peers are vacationing, Cook is clearly anything but complacent.
“The goal wasn’t just to make it. The goal was to prosper in the NBA, win championships, be a pro’s pro, the ultimate leader, the ultimate teammate,” Cook said. “I’m just staying paranoid. I’m working like I’m still in the D-League. I’m working like an undrafted free agent. I just keep that mindset.”
His infectious personality, proven ability to win and familiarity with the team made him an easy addition in the Pelicans locker room, according to Capel. From the coaching staff, his teammates, to the city itself, Cook says that everything has been a perfect fit.
“Sometimes you just got to embrace your journey. Everybody can’t be a number one pick. Everybody can’t have a red carpet laid out for them to get to their dream. You gotta work for it. It’s the adversity you gotta go through that helps you build character,” Cook said. “I thought I built a lot of character. I learned a lot of things about myself, my friends, my family, everything. I thought God put me through that for a reason because I learned so much. More than just basketball, everything outside of life. You get a lot of thinking time, down time to yourself. It was a great experience for me looking back at it.”