A motley collection of three dozen senior leaders from around campus gathered for lunch last Wednesday with Penn President Amy Gutmann.
Before digging in, Gutmann asked them to introduce themselves and share their plans for next year. There were the usual answers: a Teach For America enlistee and a Fulbright Scholar, investment bankers headed for New York and consultants bound for Washington. Then it was Zack Rosen’s turn.
“I’ll be playing basketball somewhere next year,” he stated matter-of-factly. “The next two months are kind of my OCR.”
Beginning with the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, a showcase for elite college seniors running from April 11-14, Rosen will look to impress professional scouts in the hopes of hearing his name called during the NBA draft on June 28.
Rosen, a management major in Wharton, spent part of last summer interning at Goldman Sachs. When his classmates were shuffling through info sessions in October, he wasn’t quite sure where he’d end up after graduation. But he had an idea.
His plan included a stint on an Israeli team in the Euroleague. After making ‘aliyah’ — the process by which Jews immigrate to Israel — Rosen would become a citizen there. Since the Euroleague limits rosters to two Americans, their salaries are dampened. As a naturalized Israeli, Rosen wouldn’t count as an American, and could earn more, he said. He planned to get an Israeli passport and see what opportunities awaited him in Europe.
It was a solid plan. It worked out swimmingly for the last great Penn point guard, Ibby Jaaber, who, after not making the NBA after graduating in 2007, signed with Greek squad Egaleo BC. The Elizabeth, N.J., native then pursued dual citizenship in Bulgaria. In 2010, he signed a contract with the Italian team A.J. Milano for a reported 1.2 million euros.
That was the plan for Rosen — until he had an Ivy League Player of the Year season and garnered the attention of national media and NBA scouts. He got an assist from a certain Asian-American Harvard grad, who lit up Madison Square Garden this winter with the Knicks.
Now Rosen’s plan isn’t so clear. But unlike every other senior with a little post-graduation job anxiety, he loves it.
With his season over, he’s taking things a few weeks at a time. In April he heads to Portsmouth — “destroy it, that’s my plan” — from which he hopes to obtain an invite to the mid-May pre-draft camp in Chicago, which, unlike the Portsmouth Invite, is not limited to seniors. After that, he’ll hope to get workouts with individual teams before the draft.
“I’m excited to see what happens,” he said. “I really believe in myself.”
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Breaking into the NBA out of the little old Ivy League isn’t easy. But Rosen has talent on his side, and, most importantly, a whole lot of confidence.
“I know I can play in the NBA — it’s not about that,” he said. “I genuinely believe I can do it.”
As evidence, Rosen cites his basketball upbringing, in which he competed against current and future NBA talent in high school.
“All these guys that they’re talking about in projections, there’s no fear factor for me. I grew up playing with them, against them. A big part about, ‘Can you play in the NBA?’ is you better believe you can. Because if you don’t, obviously other people don’t believe it.”
He says, without arrogance, that looking around college basketball, there’s nobody who makes him say, “Damn, that guy is so much better than me.”
And if you follow Rosen’s career, he’s improved steadily each year. He insists he’s not tapped out, and his coach doesn’t believe so either.
“I think his best days of basketball are ahead of him,” Penn coach Jerome Allen said. “I’ve watched his progression from his sophomore to senior year, how hard he’s worked and how much he’s absorbed an overall understanding of the game.”
Allen, who was drafted out of Penn in 1995 by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the 49th overall pick, wouldn’t venture where he thinks Rosen would be best suited to play professionally.
But wherever he lands, Allen said, the senior will excel as a student of the game. The coach did note that Rosen’s game has the three tools he thinks are necessary to make it in today’s NBA: the ability to drive, hit midrange jumpers and shoot from distance — a rare combination, he added.
“Obviously he has some deficiencies, but who doesn’t?”
Rosen will quickly rattle them off. “Am I undersized? Probably. Am I underweight? Probably. Am I not athletic enough? Probably. But I can play the game.”
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Anyone who watched Rosen in his senior season knows he can flat out compete. And he didn’t just play the game, he controlled it. Whether setting the Penn career and season marks in assists or raining in baskets in the waning minutes to will Quakers to second place in the Ivy League, he owned the game.
Second place in the Ivy League is still just that, and Rosen knows he’s up against a biased perception, or at least a lack of visibility.
Scour the internet for mock NBA drafts and Rosen appears on just one of many boards. He’s not in Chad Ford’s Top 100 for ESPN. He’s not projected anywhere on NBAdraft.net, or Draft Express. The one believer? Doug Gottlieb.
Gottlieb served as an assistant coach for Rosen’s USA team that won gold in the Israeli Maccabiah games in 2009. The two have stayed close since. In his latest draft projection for ESPN, Gottlieb actually has Rosen in the first round, at 28th overall, writing, “He may owe a thank you note to Jeremy Lin for raising the Ivy League’s NBA profile, but Rosen can play. He’s the best [point guard] in Philly this season, not just the Ivies.”
Ford, meanwhile, lists Rosen at 152nd in his rankings. By that measure, it would take three additional rounds of 30 picks before Rosen would be selected in the NBA draft.
“They haven’t seen me play enough,” Rosen said. “If you sent them a tape, if they actually watched our games …”
Scouts, however — the only ones who matter come June — have been watching Rosen. The Clippers, Spurs and Bulls, to name a few, have all been through the Palestra or seen him play this year. Rosen said 76ers coach Doug Collins has been to a few games, as has Nets coach Avery Johnson.
For the undersized, underweight, not-athletic point guard, that experience has been “surreal.”
“When I was in high school, all these guys would come to the gym — Coach K, Roy Williams — they were not coming to see me,” Rosen said. “Cool, ‘We’re here to see Samardo [Samuels], Greg [Echenique], Corey [Stokes],’ those guys. To have the people coming to see me play now,” he paused. “It’s a 360.”
He might get a closer look from scouts thanks to the sensation that was Jeremy Lin. The former Crimson star — who went undrafted, was signed by the Warriors, dropped, picked up by the Rockets, cut, and then emerged as a star for the Knicks — has put the Ancient Eight on the map. But will teams really be scouring the Ivies for the next hidden star? “It can’t hurt,” Rosen said.
“Every time he scores, I do a dance,” Rosen said of Lin. “Every time he gets in the lane and makes a play, fist pump.”
And every time he turns the ball over?
“I look the other way.”
Allen, however, thinks the Linsanity has faded, and it may not benefit his student.
“The reality of it is that it doesn’t really open more doors,” Allen said. “Zack Rosen has to carve out his own path, whether that be going through the same channels that Jeremy Lin did or going to Portsmouth and Chicago and getting drafted.”
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For now, Rosen is getting ready. He met recently with several agents and hopes to choose his representation in the coming weeks. He’s back on the court after a brief respite, and he’s ready for the challenges ahead, wherever, whatever they may be.
“The draft is not where it ends — the draft is where it begins,” he said. Rosen may actually benefit from going undrafted, keeping his options open as opposed to going late in the second round. As his classmates know, though, a little job security never hurts.
If he doesn’t make the draft, he’ll try for a spot on an NBA summer league roster. From there, he’ll have to re-evaluate: hang around the developmental league or try his hand in the Holy Land? He’s not sure yet.
“I’m thankful for the opportunity I’m going to have at Portsmouth,” he said. “For me it’s going to be a series of having to prove myself over and over and over. I’m not scared of that. I think I have the mental fortitude for that. That drives me, that’s what’s gotten me this far.”