LOS ANGELES — The road to the NBA can look quite easy for some of the elite players in the world.
With the likes of LeBron James going straight to the league out of high school to Lonzo Ball spending one season in college at UCLA before making a splash this season as a rookie for the Los Angeles Lakers, it seems simple for those few.
There is a guy who has a locker in the same building as Ball at Staples Center in L.A. who took a trip much less traveled and with far less media attention in Tyrone Wallace.
Wallace, a prep standout at Bakersfield High and former BVarsity All-Area Boys Basketball Player of the Year, went on to spend four years at Cal before getting drafted by the Utah Jazz with the 60th — and final — pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.
Wallace made his NBA debut for his new team, the Los Angeles Clippers, a week ago. Saturday, he was making his second straight start as the Clippers took on the Sacramento Kings at home in the Staples Center.
Wallace didn’t make an NBA roster right of college and it has been a grind to get to this point.
After the Jazz drafted him, Wallace spent his first year of professional basketball with the Salt Lake City Stars in the NBA G League, which is the new name for the NBA Development League, the same league as the former Bakersfield Jam.
Wallace was released by the Jazz organization and the Clippers signed him in September before assigning him to the Agua Caliente Clippers, the G League affiliate of the Clippers based in Ontario.
“It was a learning curve,” Wallace said. “It was a time to come in and kind of get familiar with the NBA game and the rules and how it’s going to be officiated and how to play. I think I did a really good job of coming in and playing my rookie year down (in the G League). This year I wanted to come in and be that guy and be more aggressive and it showed in my time down there.”
In 23 games, Wallace averaged 22.8 points in the G League.
When injuries began to mount for the pro team, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers knew he needed to make the move for Wallace, a player he was very high on during training camp.
“We’ve liked Ty from training camp,” Rivers said. “I thought he outperformed (all) of the G League guys. Then he goes into the G League and plays terrific. More importantly, he plays in our system. So I think it has paid dividends that he came right in and he knows the language. Every team has their own language and I think what has helped him the most when we’re talking about different coverages is he understands the language. It’s been really good for him.”
Wallace quickly made a splash on the biggest stage as the first player from Bakersfield to make an NBA roster since BHS graduate Robert Swift in 2004.
In five games since being called up a week ago, Wallace is averaging 13.2 points a game. He scored in double figures in four of those five, including 12 points in the Clippers 126-105 win over the Kings on Saturday.
“I’ve been working my whole life really to get to this point where I am playing at this level,” Wallace said. “It really has been a dream for me. They called me up and Doc threw me into the fire. I was the first guy off the bench.”
Wallace scored 13 points in his first NBA game against the Golden State Warriors, the defending NBA champions, on Jan. 6.
Wallace said Rivers told him to “be myself and be aggressive” as he was entering the game for the first time.
“It was a moment of excitement,” Wallace said. “That’s what I tried to do,” Wallace added. “It was an exciting time and there were a lot of nerves. But once you get out there, it’s basketball.”
Four days later in Oakland, against the Warriors during a game televised nationally on ESPN, Wallace scored 22 points after coming off the bench.
The phone calls, text messages and social media posts started flooding in for Wallace.
“I don’t remember the exact number, but it was a lot,” Wallace said. “People were hitting me up left and right. A lot of people from back home. Friends and family, coaches, you name it, everybody was hitting me up.”
When more injuries piled up on the Clippers, Wallace got his first start against the Kings on Thursday in Sacramento.
“They just put me in (the starting lineup) and I ran with it,” Wallace said. “I just try to do what I can while I’m out there. (Rivers) trusts me a lot. He’s been playing me big minutes. Starting out as a rookie, a young guy out of the G League, it means a lot for him to put me in these type of situations.”
Wallace made his second start on Saturday with his parents and younger brother in the stands at Staples.
His cousin and Nevada standout safety, Asauni Rufus, came down to Staples for his first game to celebrate in the moment. The affection from back home in Bakersfield has been a driving force for Wallace.
“Anytime I am going out there is a chance to represent myself and where I am from,” Wallace said. “That definitely carries a lot of weight for me. Bakersfield has been very supportive.”
Wallace spends time after games checking social media and the support, he says, is overwhelming.
“Everybody is posting and watching the games and really tuned in,” Wallace said. “That means a lot to me to see everyone to show that support for me. For a kid from Bakersfield, it’s a small city, we’ve got to stick together and that’s what you see.”
Wallace is signed to a two-way contract. According to Clippers media relations, that contract with the NBA organization is good for 25 days. With Saturday’s game being day No. 6, that leaves 19 more days that Wallace can play for the Clippers or be sent back to the G League for the remainder of the season.
With his play in the first week of his young NBA career, Wallace seems to be ready to make sure he will make it very difficult for the Clippers to not keep him on roster.
“I am just trying to do the best every time I come out here,” Wallace said. “It’s an interview. Whether it be for Clippers or another team. I just try to do what I can while I am here. Everything else will take care of itself.”