He plays in the same arenas NBA players play in. He wears a uniform similar to the ones NBA players wear. But former USC point guard “Smilin’” Gabe Pruitt does not play in the NBA.
After two seasons for the Boston Celtics, Pruitt now is a member of the Utah Flash in the NBA Development League, the NBA’s official minor league.
“Down here [in the NBDL], it is really competitive,” Pruitt said in an interview before a game against the Los Angeles D-Fenders at the Staples Center. “In the NBA, you have guys that have already made it. But here guys are fighting every night to compete to get to the NBA. Every night, you have someone coming after you.”
Since his time at USC, Pruitt’s career has had ups and downs, but he has not lost his trademark smile.
As a freshman at USC, Pruitt made an immediate impact, leading the Trojans in scoring. The next year, he was named to the All-Pac-10 first team. As a junior, Pruitt helped the Trojans reach the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament.
Pruitt declared for the NBA Draft after his junior year and was drafted in the second round by the Celtics. Playing alongside NBA All-Stars Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, Pruitt experienced winning an NBA title as a rookie.
“It was my first time really moving and living by myself 3,000 miles away,” Pruitt said. “I wasn’t used to the cold weather, but once I got settled, those were some of the best days I have had playing basketball. I was around a lot of great veterans that took care of me and took me under their wings.”
Away from basketball, however, Pruitt made an unflattering appearance on the reality television show Bad Girls Club and was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving.
“Off the court, there is always somebody looking at you, no matter where you are,” Pruitt said. “You have to make the right decisions off the court because you never know who is around, and you do not want to be an embarrassment to yourself, as well as to your family and your team. Me being so young, I got caught up in living the lifestyle of the NBA, but I learned from that. Now I am more cautious with what I do.”
This season, the Celtics did not choose to re-sign Pruitt. The New York Knicks signed him but waived him before the season started, leading Pruitt to join the NBDL.
Since signing with the Flash, Pruitt has worked extensively with head coach Brad Jones and assistant coach and former Laker Mark Madsen.
“[Pruitt] is a terrific young player,” Jones said. “People ask me if he is a point guard or a [shooting] guard, but I tell them he is a playmaking guard. When he is focused, he can be one of the better players in our league and shows that he has a chance to get back to the NBA.”
Pruitt echoed the sentiments of his coach.
“I need to give a consistent effort every night,” Pruitt said. “[Celtics head coach] Doc [Rivers] always told me that he knew I could score, so that is not the issue. I need to be a leader, a point guard, and show that I can run a team being a young guy and playing with veterans like Kevin Garnett.”
The benefits of playing in the NBDL do not compare to those in the NBA. Players play in front of smaller crowds, travel in crowded commercial airplanes and make far less money. Yet, Pruitt still smiles and practices intensely in hopes of returning to the NBA.
“It is up to me to continue to work hard and do what I need to do to get back up there,” he said.