LAS VEGAS -- Adreian Payne was the 15th overall pick in last month’s NBA draft. Almost the prototype of the modern NBA “stretch 4” -- a 6-foot-10 power forward with a 9-1 standing reach and a vertical leap sufficient to win the NCAA slam dunk contest in April -- Payne is guaranteed to make more than $1.5 million in the coming NBA season.
Yet he was sucking wind last week during an NBA Summer League game trying to keep up with a second-year pro from a Southeastern Alaska village of less than 400 people, a guy who played last season in the NBA Development League for less than five percent of Payne’s salary.
Damen Bell-Holter of Hydaburg, by way of Ketchikan, is demonstrating his skills in the only way he knows how as a member of the D League’s select team at the Summer League.
“The one thing I can always do is show my motor,” Bell-Holter said after his team’s 94-92 victory Sunday over Payne’s Atlanta Hawks team. “Show that I’m a hard worker, show that I can move on defense, change ends of the floor.”
Even if he doesn’t receive the ball in position to score, Bell-Holter knows scouts are watching not just his production but his intensity and body language. The Summer League, which ends Monday, tends to be dominated by perimeter players. Teams have so little time together that the ball usually finds its way into the hands of players most comfortable creating for themselves. Without specific instructions that they should be featured offensively, big men like the 6-9, 245-pound Bell-Holter can go several minutes without touching the ball on the offensive end of the court.
This was certainly the case when the D League Selects played the Hawks. Bell-Holter didn’t attempt a shot and his only real opportunity to make an offensive contribution came when he hit a cutting teammate with a pinpoint bounce pass that led to a lay-up.
Still, he bodied Payne relentlessly, forcing the former Michigan State star into a number of difficult jumpers. He was also the first big man from either team up and down the floor on any transition possession.
Asked what Bell-Holter brings to the team, Chris Alpert, the D League’s vice president of basketball operations and player personnel, cited work effort.
“The first thing you notice is he’s an extremely high-character individual,” Alpert said.
The phrase “high character” is a term of great praise indeed among NBA personnel types. Players with limited skills like Jason Collins or Earl Watson added years to their playing careers by helping to create and enforce cultures of hard work and selflessness in what can be an intensely individual business.
“Of course, he’s also 6-9 with a strong body, and (a) nice game facing the basket, and the ability to get up and down the floor well,” Alpert said, reminding that playing ability is still the main factor in personnel decisions.
Bell-Holter spent last season with the Maine Red Claws of the D League, where every game is an extended tryout for watching NBA or European scouts. That environment wasn’t necessarily helpful for a player transitioning from playing strictly center, as Bell-Holter did at Oral Roberts University, to a more perimeter-oriented power forward.
Still, Bell-Holter, who was undrafted out of college but was invited by the Boston Celtics to their training camp last season, knows the experience was worth it.
“Last year was all about learning how to be a professional,” he said. “In training camp with the Celtics, guys like Brandon Bass and Kris Humphries have been in the NBA for a decade. If those guys kept working, I had to too. I made sure I was always in the gym early and always working hard.”
Despite being cut late in training camp, Bell-Holter opened enough eyes to catch on with the Red Claws. In Maine, he realized that he needed to expand his game to make it in the pros.
“I had to learn how to play the 4, show I could step away from the basket and shoot,” he said. “That transition was hard for me, but I knew I needed to add that to my game for my career.”
A developing shooting touch was on display in the Select’s first Summer League game when Bell-Holter hit 2 of 3 3-pointers and 5 of 6 from the line on the way to 11 points in the team's 83-81 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans
That kind of development is exactly what the D-League is for, Alpert said.
“We want to prepare all of our guys to make it up to the NBA, but there are only so many spots. So if they don’t make it there, we want to prepare them to be professionals both as players and as people,” Alpert said. “It’s graduate school for professional basketball.”
The transition went well enough for Bell-Holter to earn an invitation to the D League’s Elite Mini Camp, held in Chicago the weekend prior to the NBA’s draft combine. From there he earned a spot on the Select Team at Las Vegas Summer League, where his teammates include former Los Angeles Laker Devin Ebanks and the D-League’s all-time leading scorer, Ron Howard.
Bell-Holter’s reputation for hard work and coachability should continue to provide him with opportunities. He is hoping for an NBA training camp invitation, but he’s also weighing opportunities in Germany, France and Israel. His work in the D-League and in Boston’s camp has helped open those doors. Last week in Las Vegas, Celtics staffers greeted Bell-Holter with genuine warmth.
“I know that if teams in Europe or somewhere are looking at me, (Celtics’ general manager) Danny Ainge is going to be the first guy they call, and it’s good to know he’s always going to say good things about me,” Bell-Holter said.
Bell-Holter’s character and the story of how he made it from Hydaburg to Division I basketball and beyond provides him with opportunities off the court too. He frequently hosts basketball camps and makes public-speaking appearances under the auspices of Blessed 2 Bless Basketball, running several camps each summer in Alaska Native and Native American communities in Alaska, the Lower 48 and Canada.
Most impressively, he is a Global Ambassador for Nike’s N7 Fund, an effort to support athletics and high standards through competition in indigenous communities. In addition to the perks expected for a Nike-sponsored athlete, the role allows Bell-Holter to make appearances with some of the biggest names in sports.
“When I do events for N7, I’m usually there with (St. Louis Rams quarterback) Sam Bradford and (New York Yankees outfielder) Jacoby Ellsbury,” he said.
“I just want to provide a positive role model for kids in communities like where I grew up. If you set a goal and work for it every day, you can be a success no matter where you came from.”