On the way to his first NBA game, Sean Kilpatrick had one thought constantly running through his head.
If I get pulled over, tell them I’m going to The Garden to play for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
It was March 2015, during a rookie professional season that had not gone as planned. Despite being a first team All-America selection following his senior year at Cincinnati, Kilpatrick had gone undrafted. An East Coast kid from Yonkers, N.Y., he struggled to adjust to the West Coast and the NBA Development League with the Santa Cruz Warriors.
A January 2015 trade to the Delaware 87ers helped him get back on track, and three months later he got the call up to Minnesota. His main appeal as a prospect? He lived close by.
With four players out due to injury, the T-Wolves were granted a 16th roster spot via the NBA’s hardship exception, but still only had seven healthy players — one below the minimum required.
So late head coach Flip Saunders went with the most available of the minor league’s top prospects: Kilpatrick. “We had to fulfill our rules, so we had to go find somebody that was within a train ride away,” Saunders said at the time.
Kilpatrick had finished practice with the 87ers in Newark, Del., when he learned of his 10-day NBA contract shortly after 3 p.m. He gathered his belongings, hopped in his car and sped through the two-plus-hour drive north, hoping to avoid a ticket. He arrived at Madison Square Garden about 45 minutes before his new team tipped off against the Knicks and soon after heard a familiar voice.
“Young fella,” Kevin Garnett said, “you need to get dressed. It’s time to go.”
“I’ll always play that in the back of my mind,” Kilpatrick says now with a smile.
The memory is now a fond one because of where he’s been since. His first NBA stint ended after the requisite 10 days, but he finished the season strong with Delaware. An impressive Summer League performance (18.2 PPG, 12th in the league) followed in July, and he carried that over into his second season, when he led the NBA D-League in scoring (26.4 PPG) through 28 games.
He shined at the NBA D-League Showcase in January, earning a Call-Up to the Nuggets that turned into a 20-day stint. Finally, two weeks after he played in the NBA D-League All-Star Game, the Nets signed the 6-foot-4 shooting guard to a 10-day deal. That turned into a second 10-day, then a multi-year contract after he scored in double figures in six of his first eight games with Brooklyn.
His role and game have only expanded in his second season, as he’s averaging 16.1 points and has made seven starts. Kilpatrick’s role with the 87ers looked very similar to the role he played at Cincinnati, though he displayed much-improved range on his jump shot. That’s changed at the next level.
“You’ve got to adjust to do different things,” he said in front of his locker after a recent game in Brooklyn. “Like playing the point when our point guard is out, being able to make plays for others on the team. I’m just trying to be an all-around player.”
He looked the part on Tuesday, when he willed the Nets to a victory over the Clippers with career highs of 38 points and 14 rebounds in a double-overtime thriller. Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson has been pleasantly surprised with the way Kilpatrick not only scores from the perimeter, but can run the pick-and-roll, mix strength and craftiness on his drives to the basket, and draw fouls regularly.
He’s even taken on the part of fan favorite, with the team promoting Kilpatrick as the hometown kid — their season slogan is “Brooklyn Grit” — and displaying his likeness around the Barclays Center. The Nets may be rebuilding, but no one appreciates being an NBA player more than their second-leading scorer.
“You’ve got to always remember, there’s gonna be doubters. There’s gonna be people that count you out,” Kilpatrick said. “But if you stay true to yourself and remain humble and continue to keep working, I mean, you’re gonna eventually knock down the doors on what you’re trying to do. That’s the best thing about it. The end result is always going to be great if you continue to keep that positive attitude.”
“He’s still the guy that will get in the car and go to any game and play,” Atkinson said. “That guy, he’s just a competitor. He’s grinded through some tough times to get where he is, and he just keeps blossoming.”