Eerybody is on some kind of journey these days. It’s a catch-all metaphor with new-age implications that can be applied to almost any set of circumstances that lead from one point in life to another.
For 27-year-old Atlanta Hawks rookie Malcolm Delaney, however, the decade-long quest that took him from Towson Catholic High to the fulfillment of his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA was a journey in the most literal sense of the word.
It took him to Virginia Tech, of course, where he was a two-time first-team All-ACC selection with NBA potential. It took him to France when it became apparent he wasn’t going to be selected in the 2011 draft. It took him to Germany, Ukraine and Russia, where he established himself as one of the top players in Europe. And it finally brought him back home this year on a two-year contract with the Hawks.
“It was tough,” Delaney said. “It was tough because I think I should have been drafted. I didn’t really let it alter any of my goals or anything like that. I signed my first deal before the draft. My agent came up with a plan. He was realistic with me and told me, ‘You can play in the league if you want to wait around; you’ll be on a roster,’ but he thought it was better for me to go and show people I could expand my game and play point guard.”
Delaney did more than that, winning league MVP honors with Ukraine’s Budivelnyk Kyiv in 2013 and with Bayern Munich in Germany in 2014. He got some interest from the Houston Rockets a couple of years ago and nearly signed with the Hawks before last season, but the journey continued through Russia which — if you haven’t noticed — is a long way from Baltimore.
We were on the Black Sea. … We had the best weather, so I was kind of comfortable there,” he said. “But being that far away from home with the eight-, nine-hour time difference, not being able to be home on holidays, you basically miss everything, because I was gone for 10 months a year.”
It certainly was far removed from that first season in France, when the culture shock and the homesickness forced Delaney to grow up in a hurry. By the time he got to Russia, he knew why he had crossed the ocean and had no regrets.
“It helped me a lot,” he said. “For me to leave my family for 10 months, I had to concentrate on what I went over there for — to provide for my family and get better. Everything else wasn’t a priority for me. I was there to work and I treated it as my profession, and that’s how I got through it.”
If only his triumphant homecoming had not turned into what he has described as the worst night of his life.
Delaney signed with the Hawks in July and came home to celebrate with his family and friends. But what was supposed to be a festive night in Washington, D.C., became a nightmare when the van he and his friends were riding in was sprayed with bullets in a drive-by shooting that apparently was sparked by a seemingly minor altercation earlier in the evening.
Five bullets struck Delaney’s brother, Vincent, leaving him a paraplegic. He barely got to the hospital in time for doctors to save his life, but he survived and Delaney said he is out of the hospital and doing very well.
“They brought him back twice,” he said. “The doctors and everybody who sees him now are shocked to see where he is. He’s fully functional. He’s paralyzed from the waist down, but as far as mentally and everything else, he’s good.”
Delaney also remembers the sad irony from that night. The group would have gone out in Baltimore, but he decided to move the party to Washington because of the unrest and violence that had gripped his hometown for the previous 14 months.
“There was a lot of stuff going on back home,” he said. “I called a club owner that I know personally and he wanted to come do it there. I told him I didn’t want to go out in Baltimore. I would rather take them to D.C., because we never had issues here. I just got a Sprinter van so everybody could go together, and it ended up still happening. It was something I couldn’t control. It just … happened.”
Delaney visited his brother Thursday night and played his fifth NBA game Friday, a 95-92 loss to the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center. He matched his season high eight points and is averaging about 18 minutes in his first five games as the team’s backup point guard. He has impressed the Hawks coaching staff with his ability to step right into a competitive NBA lineup.
“It just kind of feels normal,” Delaney said. “It feels like I’ve been here for a while. It’s just my mentality. I don’t get star-struck over people. It’s just that I’ve been working so hard to get here that I deserve to be here and I’ve decided to do whatever I can to help the team.”
He has reached his destination, but the journey is far from over.
“I’ve enjoyed working with Malcolm and talking about that journey,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I think he knows how much respect we have for what he’s done — his career in Europe, the level at which he played and the success that he had.
“I just think there’s so much to be learned about players, about coaching, about the game if you really watch and study the European game. He’s just so smart and so gifted, and I couldn’t be happier that he’s playing with us. He’s been really good and it’s fun to have guys like that on your team that have had those experiences.”