Leistikow: With New Orleans, Peter Jok lands his 'No. 1' NBA option
At age 9, Peter Jok arrived with family in Iowa as a Sudanese refugee, having left behind a war-torn country where his father was murdered.
He didn’t know a thing about basketball, nor did he have any interest in trying it.
Fast forward 14 years to Thursday night, when Jok got official word that he would be joining an NBA roster — even if, for now, it’s “just” the summer league — you can imagine why there was some excitement in his voice.
From Sudan to first-team all-Big Ten Conference to a real NBA shot.
That’s quite a story already. And, with continued success, there’s even more ahead.
Jok is signing on with the New Orleans Pelicans, and here’s the best part: The recent Iowa Hawkeye has a solid chance of making the team. It was a destination his agent, Chris Emens, earmarked as a strong fit.
“That was my No. 1 option,” Jok told me just before midnight on Thursday. “We talked about it, and the Pelicans were my best situation that I had. They need shooters next year, and I have a really high chance of making the roster.”
Fact check: True. (At least before NBA free agency begins.)
The Pelicans had a 34-48 record last year and finished 19th in the league in 3-point percentage (35.0).
If there’s one thing Jok does really well, it’s shoot the 3. He made 216 of them at Iowa and led the Big Ten in scoring last season, at 19.9 points a game.
The Pelicans’ guard rotation, at this point, appears to consist of Jrue Holiday (a free agent who could be on the way out), E’Twaun Moore (9.6 ppg and 22 starts in 2016-17), Jordan Crawford (19 games in 2016-17), Quinn Cook (nine games in 2016-17) and newly drafted second-rounder (No. 31 overall) Frank Jackson out of Duke.
Before the draft, the Pelicans traded away guard Tim Frazier. During the draft, they traded away their 52nd pick.
There are openings.
“As the draft went, I didn’t understand why they didn’t pick me,” Jok said. “But afterward, it made sense.”
Jok and his agent were following a similar draft plan as former Hawkeye teammate Jarrod Uthoff did last year. Because second-round NBA contracts are not guaranteed, it’s often advantageous to go undrafted — enabling players to find their best fit on the free-agent market, then try to make an NBA roster.
Jok said that after pick No. 45, he was in the “don’t-draft-me” camp, as did Uthoff — who wound up on the Dallas Mavericks’ roster and has a good chance to be in line for a $1.3 million payday in 2017-18.
“After 45,” Jok said, “I was just waiting on my agent to call me to see where I was playing in the summer league.”
He'll likely begin play July 7 in Las Vegas.
The NBA league minimum for 2017-18 is $815,615. That would be close to the best-case scenario for an undrafted free agent like Jok.
But there are other good, less-lucrative options, too. A brand new “two-way” designation allows clubs to use two of 17 roster spots for a young player who will spend much of the season in the “G League” (formerly known as the Development League) with earnings ranging between $75,000 and $275,000.
Jok indicated he had a good path at a two-way deal with the NBA champion Golden State Warriors, but he and Emens surmised the best shot at a full-season roster spot was with New Orleans.
And how interesting it was that New Orleans scooped up the 6-foot-6, 202-pound shooting guard.
After his junior year at Iowa, Jok tested the NBA waters without hiring an agent. He was only able to work out for one team that spring before hurting his wrist. He doesn’t remember exactly how many 3-pointers he made in that workout, but it was somewhere around 80 out of 100.
That team was the Pelicans.
This year, Jok worked out for 13 NBA teams. New Orleans wasn’t one of them.
But, he said, he remembered having a strong interview with Pelicans leadership at the NBA Draft Combine in May.
“It’s crazy how life works,” Jok said.
Jok watched the draft on TV from his U.S. hometown, Des Moines.
“Second round came, and I was kind of in disbelief who they were picking,” Jok said, and remembered thinking, “I worked out with these guys and I did better them.
“At the same time, I stayed positive. And I kept telling people to stay positive. And whatever happens, it’s all in God’s hands.”
I’ve probably interviewed Jok 50-plus times, and I’ve never heard his voice like I did Thursday night.
It was fast-paced, excited. Though he typically doesn’t show much emotion, it came through the phone clearly late Thursday.
He was energized, relieved ... happy.
Imagine shooting thousands of jump shots every week, hoping to just get a chance to one day get your foot in the door to get paid to play basketball at the highest level.
For Jok, that unlikely path — from the scorching climate of Sudan to the wintry bluster of Iowa that greeted him in 2003 — has taken another important step.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.