JJ Barea knows a thing or two about overcoming the odds.
He is just the seventh Puerto Rican player to ever compete in the NBA. Although he played collegiately for four years at Northeastern in Boston, Massachusetts, he went unselected in the 2006 NBA Draft.
While some would have just given up on their dream, Barea continued on and managed to forge his path to the league, even winning an NBA championship in the process. While the journey certainly wasn't easy, it was well worth it.
He says that young players who aspire to one day reach the NBA should not give up and should be prepared to put in the work to being better every day.
“It’s hard. It’s a hard place, everybody has to know that everybody is trying to make it, but it's possible. You have to stay super positive. You have to be patient,” Barea told The National.
“You have to learn. You have to learn from watching. You have to learn from practicing. You have to learn from trying, and you have to find ways to get better every day, every week, every year.”
Barea’s interest in basketball began when he was a child in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, growing up in a household with two older brothers and parents already interested in sport. His mother was a coach and his father was a swimmer.
“By the time I was four or five, I was in basketball courts or in tennis courts. My brothers were already playing basketball. So, since I was little, basketball was always my go-to sport. It was my favourite one. I played everything — baseball, volleyball, tennis, and I was good at all of them. But basketball, I just fell in love with it,” he said.
However, being good at a sport and being able to reach a level of playing professionally are two different things. Barea says it was his junior year at Northeastern in 2004 when he realised there was a chance that he could play professionally thanks to support from his coaches. It was also around this time that he began playing for the Puerto Rican Under-19 junior national team where he was up against other players who were NBA bound.
“That's when I first started realising, 'I'm pretty close, I'm going to have opportunities to make it to the NBA' and that's when it all started clicking,” he said.
His path towards the league wasn’t as traditional as some other players. After finishing at Northeastern, Barea returned to Puerto Rico before joining the Golden State Warriors where he played in the Las Vegas Summer League.
He was eventually signed by the Dallas Mavericks in 2006. Although he had made it to the NBA, he still had to put in work to stay there, working every day to better himself on the court. He also improved his skills by returning to the Las Vegas Summer League as well as competing in the NBA Development League.
In 2011, Barea played an important role as a bench player while helping Dallas defeat the Miami Heat to win the NBA championship, one of the major highlights of his playing career. He later played four seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves, before ending his NBA career back with the Mavericks in 2020.
These days, Barea is still close with the organisation as a player development coach. Later in the year, Dallas will come to Abu Dhabi along with Minnesota to compete in two pre-season games at Etihad Arena on Yas Island.
NBA Abu Dhabi Games 2022 - in pictures
It will be the second year of the NBA Abu Dhabi Games - an ongoing partnership between basketball's leading organisaton at DCT-Abu Dhabi, and Barea says he is impressed with how much the game is growing internationally.
“When I was playing, and now I know the NBA, this is what they wanted. They wanted to grow the game all over the world as much as they could. And when I heard about the Dallas Mavericks going to Abu Dhabi, I was like, ‘oh, I want to go’. I think it's great,” he said.
“I think it's the most we could expand the game, the more fans we could get. I think it's a great game and the NBA is the best.”
In addition to the pre-season games, the NBA also hosts Jr NBA Leagues around the world, including in Abu Dhabi, to help build up future basketball stars. For those who want to one day make it to the NBA, Barea passes on some advice he got while on his journey.
"Opportunities are going to come, you just have to be ready for when the opportunity comes and to give it your best shot," he said.
The NBA Abu Dhabi Games will take place in October; nbaevents.nba.com/abudhabi2023