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The life and times of a two-way NBA player

Eric He
Yahoo Sports Contributor
Brooklyn's Chris Chiozza drives to the basket against the Hawks' Brandon Goodwin on Feb. 28 in Atlanta. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Chris Chiozza sits in a folding chair looking out at the court at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Practice has just ended for the Long Island Nets, but he doesn’t know his plans for the rest of the day. 

Chiozza is a two-way player with the Brooklyn Nets organization. Brooklyn has a game at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks at 6 p.m on Jan. 26. But the following day, Long Island has a home game against Grand Rapids.  

“They haven’t told me I’m going to be up tonight, but you never know,” Chiozza said. “They could call me at 3 p.m. and say, ‘We need you there tonight.’”

Two-way players are stuck in basketball purgatory. The NBA introduced the concept in 2017, allowing players to technically be on an NBA roster but limiting them to 45 days with their NBA team — the rest of the time must be spent in the G League. Each team has two slots for two-way players, giving teams a chance to add two young players to their roster and give them opportunities to earn NBA experience. 

At practice on this Sunday, both Chiozza and Jeremiah Martin — the Nets’ other two-way player — are with Long Island. Chiozza and Martin are both from Memphis, Tennessee, and starred for their local high schools. Both went undrafted — Chiozza out of Florida in 2018 and Martin from Memphis in 2019 — when they declared for the NBA draft and opted for roster spots in the G League.

But here they are: on the same team, as close to a coveted guaranteed NBA contract as they’ve ever been.

From South Dakota to the Big Apple

A few months ago, Martin was nowhere near New York. After going undrafted in June out of Memphis, he signed a summer league contract with the Miami Heat. He earned an Exhibit 10 deal (a minimum one-year deal that guarantees a camp invite), but was waived before the season and sent to the Heat’s G League affiliate — 2,000 miles away in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. 

“It’s not like every other G League city,” Martin said. “It’s probably one of the worst ones. Nothing out there.” 

The silver lining to living in Sioux Falls was the lack of distraction. There were no parties, no social obligations. 

“You get to focus on basketball. You’re blocking out all the extra things you could do,” Martin said. “When you’re out in Sioux Falls, you got your teammates and grind, basically.” 

His escape came courtesy of a two-way contract from the Nets in mid-January. He had a couple of offers, but chose Brooklyn because he liked the fit. Long Island is a short trip from Brooklyn, allowing team executives to watch him play. That rarely happened in South Dakota. 

“It’s in Sioux Falls, and nobody is flying out there just to see a game,” Martin said.

Martin is 6-foot-3, a hard-nosed, physical guard. He was never highly recruited, always flying under the radar. Sweat drips from his forehead onto his jersey as he speaks after practice. If he is going to pave a steady career in the NBA at age 23, it will be more out of sheer effort and determination than natural talent. 

You’re blessed to be able to have your name on the roster of an NBA team,” Martin said. “That’s every kid’s dream. I’m not saying every kid is dreaming about being a two-way player, but at the same time, it’s still great because you’re in the league.

“They picked you for a reason. They don’t just pick you for no reason. They see something in you. They want to develop you. They think you can help their team.”

Jeremiah Martin poses for a portrait during Heat media day on Sept. 30, 2019, in Miami. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

‘They know what they’re in for’

Chiozza, 24, is just a year older than Martin, but has moved around considerably more.

The point guard joined the Washington Wizards’ G League affiliate in D.C in 2018. After playing well, Chiozza started garnering interest around the league. Around the same time, in February, he was named to the USA’s FIBA World Cup qualifying team. But the day before Team USA’s first game, the Houston Rockets called and offered him a 10-day contract. He split time between Houston and its G League affiliate in Rio Grande, Texas, for the remainder of the season, receiving sparse playing time with the big club. 

He was waived at the end of the season.

Before the 2019-20 campaign, Chiozza returned to Washington, noting that they did not have a lot of depth at point guard. He was “right there,” but did not make the roster out of training camp. Instead, the Wizards signed him to a two-way contract. He appeared in 10 games for the big club, averaging over 12 minutes a game — easily the most consistent playing time he’s received in the NBA. 

But there was a problem out of Chiozza’s control. Four centers on the Wizards’ roster had gotten hurt, and they needed a big man on the NBA roster. The 5-foot-11 Chiozza was waived, his two-way contract given to a center from the G League team. 

A few weeks later, he landed in Brooklyn on another two-way deal. This time, the injury odds worked in his favor. Kyrie Irving, having a tough year with injuries, has missed games with shoulder and hamstring issues, and will likely be shut down because of shoulder surgery.

Chiozza was added to the roster in January, and it was an easy decision. Irving’s injury leaves open minutes. The Nets, in his opinion, don’t have a true point guard. He can step into that role. And Chiozza can only dream about the thought of playing with Kevin Durant, who will likely return next season after recovering from Achilles surgery.  

First, though, he must impress the Nets enough in the 45 days of NBA action he’s eligible to receive. It is tough for two-way players because they never know when the big club will come calling. Bags are always packed, itineraries always in flux. It is not uncommon to play two games in a day, or four days in a row. 

“I think they know what they’re in for,” Long Island Nets head coach Shaun Fein said. “When they sign the two-way, it’s always going to be like that. Sometimes, it’s tough. Guys that do it well will play well, guys that don’t will be inconsistent.”

One interesting aspect of the two-way contract is that it restricts players to one organization. Other G League players are free to sign with any of the 30 NBA teams, but two-way players are tied to the franchise they play for. 

“I think it’s a great concept,” Fein said. “When they need to be with the big club in Brooklyn, they’re ready because they already know the system, and it’s a seamless transition for them.”

One agent who represents several two-way players said that while the impact of the two-way contract is a net positive, it impacts flexibility and earning potential on the front end with teams limited to offering $50,000 for a two-way player in training camp. And a two-way contract is still non-guaranteed.

Chiozza has a jump on his peers in terms of having NBA experience, but that doesn’t make games any easier. 

“Sometimes it’s harder in the G League than the NBA because everybody’s so hungry,” Chiozza said. “I feel like I’ve had games tougher in the G League than in the NBA. Pretty much everybody in the G League is capable of playing in the NBA. It’s just a matter of the situation, timing and a little bit of luck, too. We just know that when your time comes, we’ve got to capitalize.”

Nets guard Chris Chiozza has played 23 career NBA games. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Back to reality

Garbage time began early in a February game between the Brooklyn Nets and Golden State Warriors at Barclays Center, a game the Nets would win by 41 points. With 8:37 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Nets leading by 36 points, many of the 14,352 in attendance had begun filing out. 

Few noticed when, out of a timeout, Chiozza and Martin checked in for the Nets for the first time. There was little buzz, perhaps a smattering of applause when, 30 seconds later, Chiozza knocked down a shot to extend the lead. Or, when — with under 90 seconds remaining — Martin drove the right baseline on Kevon Looney and finished at the rim with his left hand for his first NBA basket. The Nets broadcasters on the YES Network, who had stopped talking about the game and were instead discussing the looming trade deadline, briefly paused to make a passing remark about the milestone. Forty seconds later, Chiozza drilled a step-back 3-pointer to give the Nets their 129th point of the night.

In the box score, the stats were nondescript. Both Chiozza and Martin played the final nine minutes. Chiozza scored seven points on 3-of-4 shooting; Martin had the one basket on three attempts. Nowhere did it say Chiozza finished one point shy of a career high, or that Martin scored his first NBA basket. It did not describe the many steps Chiozza went through just for the right to earn garbage-time NBA minutes, or how significant that driving layup was to Martin. 

After the final buzzer, Durant and former teammate Stephen Curry embraced on the court and engaged in a lengthy discussion. They hugged and caught up, and the cameras clicked and social media went berserk. Meanwhile, Chiozza and Martin slipped into the tunnel. 

Forty-eight hours later, Chiozza and Martin would be in the town of Hoffman Estates, Illinois, both logging 30-plus minutes in a G League game against the Windy City Bulls in front of 1,808 fans. 

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