By the time Malcolm Delaney left Virginia Tech after four seasons, his name was in the ACC record-book several times. The 6-foot-4 point guard played 37.1 minutes per game during his collegiate career, which is the highest average in ACC history and seventh-highest of any NCAA player ever. Delaney averaged 16.6 points, 4 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.3 steals with the Hokies, and he ranks eighth in ACC history in total points scored (2,225), sixth in Offensive Win Shares (13.4) and 10th in Win Shares (20.4).
Yet despite his collegiate success, Delaney went undrafted in 2011. He signed with a team in France, figuring he’d play abroad for one year and then make the leap to the NBA. Instead, Delaney ended up spending the next five years thriving overseas. After his stint with the French team, he suited up for squads in Ukraine, Germany and Russia and put together an impressive resume that included three championships, two MVP awards, an All-Euroleague 1st Team selection and an All-Eurocup 1st Team selection. He was widely regarded as one of the best pros outside of the NBA and he was earning more money than many players in the league.
Still, playing in the NBA was his dream. That’s why he ultimately decided to turn down more money abroad to sign with the Atlanta Hawks last summer. He was technically a rookie, even though he turned 28 years old during the season and had more experience than many of his peers. Delaney contributed for Atlanta right away, playing in 73 games and averaging 5.4 points, 2.6 assists and 1.7 rebounds in 17.1 minutes per game. Had he not struggled with his jumper (shooting 37.4 percent from the field and 23.6 percent from three-point range), he likely would’ve played more.
This year, he’ll once again back up Dennis Schroder, but he could be in line for an increased role after veterans such as Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha left in free agency. Atlanta needs players to step up and, unlike some of the Hawks’ prospects hoping for a bigger opportunity, Delaney is in his prime.
HoopsHype caught up with Delaney to discuss his experience overseas, unconventional rookie season, adjustment to the NBA, expectations for the Hawks’ upcoming campaign, offseason training and more.
Last year, you were a 28-year-old rookie, which we don’t see very often. You had a ton of success overseas, so you were sort of a rookie and a veteran at the same time. What was that like?
Malcolm Delaney: I never really considered myself a rookie. I was a rookie to the NBA, but I had played professional basketball for five years, so I’ve been making money for five years and I played on every stage except for the NBA – from Euroleague Final Fours to Eurocup Final Fours to Eurochallenge Finals. A lot of the guys I played against were former NBA players or draft picks. Now, it’s clearly not NBA-level [competition], but I just felt like I had already been through a lot and gained a lot of experience. With all of the countries I played in, the crowds you face and the culture adjustment, that was a lot tougher than the NBA. When I come back here, it felt like I was back to normal. It felt like I had belonged in the NBA for a while, but I was just waiting for the right time. Last year was the perfect time for me to come back. Once I did return to the United States, it just felt normal again. But I couldn’t really consider myself a rookie if there are 19-year-olds who have been in the NBA for one year who can consider themselves a “vet” over me. I don’t really care about stuff like that though.
You got to the point where you had a bunch of overseas accolades and you were highly coveted by international teams. I know some guys who have gotten to that point and then just decided to stay overseas for good because coming to the NBA usually means a significant pay cut and a decreased role. Was there a part of you that considered staying overseas for good?
MD: Yeah, I definitely felt that way at certain points. Initially, my goal was to go overseas for one year just to make a couple dollars and then play in the NBA. I felt like I deserved to be drafted. I felt like I did everything I could in college to get myself to the NBA, but I just didn’t get there. So I was thinking I would get some money in the bank and then try to make it. But then after my first year [overseas], I came back and played summer league with the Detroit Pistons and they didn’t play me. It just felt like my game wasn’t appreciated here. After that, I was off the NBA. My agent told me, “Just get to the top of Europe and once we get there, these NBA teams will be calling us.” But, like you said, I started making a lot of money over there and I wasn’t going to come back here to be the third point guard on a team and make the league minimum when I could be making triple that overseas and be a star over there. I had other opportunities to play in the NBA and I definitely could’ve come over sooner, but I just wanted to wait until the timing was right for me.
What made this the right time and why did you ultimately decide to join the Hawks?
MD: Atlanta was one of the teams that really, really showed interest. Initially, I always told people that if I ever played in the NBA, it would be with San Antonio, Houston or Atlanta. Houston offered me my first NBA contract back when Patrick Beverley got hurt before the playoffs [in 2014], but my team in Munich wouldn’t let me out of my contract so I couldn’t come over. I’ll always appreciate Houston and respect that club. Daryl Morey is a great GM and he was definitely going to give me an opportunity to come in and play.
Then, when it came to San Antonio and Atlanta, those were the two offenses where that European style translates well and they bring in prospects from international play. Atlanta brought me in two years ago after my first year in Russia. I worked out with them for a few days, met with everyone, and they really wanted to sign me then. [Former Hawks general manager] Wes Wilcox wanted to bring me in, but the business side of things got in the way. There were some things they wanted to move around but they couldn’t and I had an expiring deadline on my contract where I had to go back to my overseas team if I didn’t have an NBA offer by a certain date and Atlanta couldn’t offer me that contract yet. That summer was rough for me, but then, Wes Wilcox and [assistant GM] Jeff Peterson came overseas to meet with me. They apologized for not being able to get that taken care of and said that if they had the opportunity to sign me the next summer, then I’d be in Atlanta. That was something I knew I had in my back pocket throughout my final season in Europe. I trusted Wes and I just followed Atlanta from that point on. Atlanta was always a city I wanted to live in, anyway, so it was really cool.
Is there anything that surprised you about the NBA?
MD: The biggest thing for me was a lot of the off-the-court stuff. To me, basketball is basketball. Clearly, the NBA has more skilled athletes and a ton of talent, but it’s still basketball. For me, it was more about the time management and handling your off-court stuff. Like when you get into a city, you can do whatever you want to do. In Europe, you’re almost treated like a college athlete. You have a schedule for everything; you have to eat dinner with the team every night, you eat breakfast with the team, you can’t go out… There are rules for everything. In the NBA, they treat you like an adult and it’s on you every night whether you’re prepared to play or not. That was the biggest thing for me. That and the fact that we play so many games that there isn’t a lot of time for practices, so getting into a rhythm is tough. If I had a bad game in Europe, I’m used to having practice to get my rhythm back. In the NBA, you could play a bad game and then have another game the next night or only have a walk-through before the next game. You just have to manage your time well and put the work in yourself.
What are some things that NBA fans don’t realize about playing overseas? You see some crazy stuff.
MD: Hmm, what’s the craziest thing I’ve seen? I was never in a situation where I felt threatened because FIBA pretty much regulated everything by the time I played Euroleague. But when I played in Belgrade, Serbia, they had the most passionate fans I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Those Red Star fans are diehard. It’s like life or death for them! Being in an arena with 23,000 of them is pretty tough. I don’t think NBA fans realize everything an American player has to deal with overseas. When we go over there, they expect us to be the star player so the pressure is on. And if the team struggles, the blame is on you. If anything happens, the Americans are the first to go. It’s tough being an American player overseas.
Entering your second season with the Hawks, do you think you’ll have an even bigger role?
MD: Yeah, I think there’s an opportunity for a lot of guys. It just depends on how I play. If I’m playing well, then I think Coach [Mike Budenholzer] will trust putting me on the floor a bit more. My biggest thing is that I hope I’ll be on the floor a bit more for the end of games this year. I’ve done everything I could do over the offseason; I changed my body up a bit and got back to my overseas playing weight. I’ve been in the gym a lot. I’ve never really had a full summer where I could just work on my game and also rest my body at the same time. I’ve done everything that I’m supposed to do. I stuck around Atlanta for a long time so I could work with the coaches and I’ve been the weight room. I’m definitely prepared and I think if I perform well, hopefully everything will go in my favor and lead to that bigger role.
What specific aspects of your game were you focused on improving over the offseason?
MD: Scoring around the rim and three-point shooting. I’ve always been a great three-point shooter, but I’ve always had a bigger role. Last year, it was kind of new for me playing a backup point guard role. I played a lot more combo guard for every other team I’ve been on throughout my career. I’ve always been able to get my threes up, get to the rim a lot more and get to the free-throw line. Getting to the free-throw line and shooting threes have been some of the best things about my game, but last year I took a step back because I didn’t get to the spots where I was comfortable – I think I did great in the mid-range area, but I didn’t get to the rim enough – and I didn’t shoot as many threes so my percentage was pretty bad. I think [my three-point percentage] is what kept me off the floor toward the end of the year after playing in the first 63 games.
Age-wise, you’re one of the vets on this team. This is a pretty young group. Have you embraced a leadership role with this team and tried to help the younger guys?
MD: Yeah, I always talk to the young guys. Even last year, I’d talk to Dennis about some stuff – just about being a point guard and being a leader. And Taurean [Prince] and DeAndre [Bembry] are probably the guys I’m closest with on the team, so I always talk to them. John [Collins] is going to be good. I hope I get to play with him a lot because I think I can make him a much better player and he can help me in a lot of ways too. I’m a leader naturally. Last year, I was a rookie and we had guys like Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard, so we had vets on the team. This year, we don’t have as many vets, outside of [Kent] Bazemore and Dennis, who have put in the years. I do want to take on more of a vocal leadership role. I want to help the young guys more, because I know they can relate to me a lot and they know that I’m telling them stuff because I genuinely want to help them and win.
How did your first season with Coach Budenholzer go and what was it like playing for him?
MD: It was good. Like I said, it was a different situation for me, coming in as the backup. To be honest, I think I had to earn Coach Bud’s respect because Wes Wilcox is the one who brought me in. I’m sure they talked about it. But when I came in, I was doing some stuff that surprised Coach, that he didn’t know I could do. I just took it upon myself to make sure that he knew I was here to win. I wasn’t here to do too much or take over the team. We have a good relationship. I didn’t play as much as I felt like I should have at the end of the season, but it was a direction that he felt the team had to go in so they could have better lineups to win games. I respected that as a professional. He was open with me about everything that happened too. Whether he had a problem with something or was happy with what I was doing, he always told me. I like playing for Bud. He’s a pretty dope coach to play for. He respects his players, and he has a great system in place that he believes in and everyone around him believes in as well. He has a huge impact on players and we all know how badly he wants to win.
A lot of the big-name players associated with recent Hawks teams are no longer in Atlanta and it seems like people are writing you guys off. What’s the feeling around the team entering the season?
MD: The mood around the team is that we still expect to win. I like being on an underdog team. I’ve always liked being on teams like that. Just because we don’t have star players or big names, people are going to overlook us; that’s typical in professional sports. But we have a good system and a good group of guys who genuinely like each other. There’s nobody who dominates the ball and we’re not fighting over who gets the most shots or stuff like that. I think we have a better shooting team this year and I think we could be better defensively since we’re younger and more athletic. With our system and the way we move the ball, we could surprise a lot of people. My goal is always going to be to win. I don’t believe in rebuilding. I certainly don’t believe in tanking. I’m going out to win every game because this is my contract year and I’ve gotten to this point because of winning. I’ll do my best to help the team win and that’s all I can control.