Josh Boone is in a familiar spot, one that he first used to his advantage coming out of South Carroll High a decade ago. But instead of starting as a relative unknown, Boone is trying to return from what could be easily called professional basketball oblivion.
Back then, the skinny 6-10 forward went from being an "under the radar" recruit to quickly becoming a key member of an NCAA championship team as a freshman at Connecticut and being named Big East Defensive Player of the Year and second-team all-league as a sophomore with the Huskies.
Now 28 and having spent most of the past three years playing in China, Boone knows the odds are against him reviving his NBA career. Boone's career began with promise as a first-round draft pick of the New Jersey Nets in 2006 and ended when he was cut after four mostly unremarkable seasons.
His invitation to play in the NBA's summer league in Las Vegas next week with the Washington Wizards could be his last chance.
"I know this could be it. I know that if it doesn't work out this year, I might not get another shot," Boone said after a morning practice with the Wizards on Wednesday at the Verizon Center. "That's why I've got to do everything in my power to make sure I stick this time."
After playing two full seasons and part of a third in China and then seeing a chance with the NBA's D-League team in Iowa get cut short by a serious knee injury after just two games, Boone is appreciative of the opportunity he has been given by the Wizards.
"It's nice to be back in the area. It's nice to be back in somewhat of an NBA uniform," Boone said. "I've been out [of the NBA] for three years now. I had one or two opportunities to stay overseas, but now I feel that it's definitely time for me to be back here. I feel like I'm a good enough player to be in the NBA."
Asked what he thinks he has to do to get an invitation to training camp, with the Wizards or another NBA team, Boone said he must demonstrate the same kind of skills that were good enough for the Nets to make him the 23rd overall pick after a somewhat disappointing junior year.
A shoulder injury slowed his progress as a rookie, but Boone averaged respectable numbers his second year in New Jersey (8.2 points, 7.3 rebounds in 25 minutes a game, starting 53 of 70 games) before his career began to fade away during his third and fourth seasons. The Nets went a nearly historically bad 12-70 his final year.
"I've always been a good rebounder, I've always been a good post defender and a weakside shot blocker," Boone said Wednesday. "It's just a matter of proving that I haven't lost anything as far as that goes, and I've expanded my game a little bit offensively."
Boone said living in China was not easy.
"Very different," Boone said. "It takes a lot of adjusting, just in terms of the lifestyle. Everything in terms of their culture and their way of life is completely different from here. Basketball is basketball no matter where you go. … [In China], it was just, 'Go out and play.'"
But Boone said his experience playing in China has given him "almost a renewed sense of confidence because I was able to really show some of the things that I'm capable of doing over there, kind of get the love back for the game. It was tough the last year in Jersey, sometimes not even dressing depending on the game. [It] kind of got me down a bit, to be honest.'"
One concession Boone made in going to China was cutting his trademark braids that he had worn since high school.
"No one recognizes me without the braids," Boone said with a laugh. "I cut them the first year I went over to China. I didn't want to find someone to do them over there. It was going to be a hassle."
Boone made an honest admission about his first stint in the NBA and why it ended.
"I just have to work harder," he said. "The NBA is all about who wants to work the hardest. Everybody in the NBA can play, there's a ton of guys that aren't in the NBA who can play. I saw that from going overseas. It's just a matter of getting in the right situation and once you get there, making sure that you stick. Just working your hardest to get better every game and playing defense as hard as you can."
Boone went to Connecticut believing he could be NBA-ready in three years, and now regrets not leaving after his sophomore year when his stock "was a lot higher." He said he stayed in Storrs in part to try to graduate in three years, but is still a semester short of getting his degree.
Coming out of high school, Boone said, "I was very below the radar in terms of the publicity and people talking about me. Nobody really knew me. I went to South Carroll High School — it's not a basketball school. I went to prep school for year and unless you came out and you saw me, you didn't necessarily know about me."
That he went off the grid again playing in China puts Boone in a similar situation now as he heads to summer league.
"It's tough. … One of the issues is that I was in China, I wasn't in one of the big leagues in Europe or anything like that," Boone said. "A lot of people really don't pay attention to China. It's not because it doesn't have good basketball. It's because of a couple of other factors. Ultimately, almost everybody in the NBA, nobody has seen me in three years."
Wizards forward Chris Singleton, who has had a similar start to his NBA career, said Boone and other big men going with the team to Las Vegas "are not just playing for us — they're playing for other teams to showcase their talents and their skills."
Boone said he has fully recovered from the torn knee cartilage that required surgery earlier this year and is ready for Las Vegas.
Understanding that the Wizards have only one spot barring any trades or cuts, Boone has studied a roster that includes former Connecticut teammate Emeka Okafor as well as Nene and Kevin Seraphin. The summer league roster includes former college standouts Frank Hassell (Old Dominion), Maurice Sutton (Villanova) and Dennis Horner (North Carolina State).
"They do have a lot ... of young big guys that I've seen out here who are very good players," Boone said. "If it's the Wizards that decide they like me enough to bring me to camp, great. I'd love to come here. If not, I'm willing to go to whoever wants me essentially."