Wesley Saunders graduated from Harvard in 2015 as one of the best players in program history, collecting three consecutive first-team All-Ivy honors from 2013-15, winning a Player of the Year award in 2014 and making four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.
A successful stint with the Jazz in the NBA Summer League earned Saunders a shot with the Knicks. He has been assigned to their Developmental League team since Nov. 2, playing in all 30 games.
We caught up with the guard prior to his Westchester Knicks’ matchup with Sioux Falls on Friday night.
Ivy Hoops Online: What’s been the toughest aspect of the transition to the pro game so far?
Wesley Saunders: I think it’s just been adjusting to the different sets. Obviously, the speed of the game. You have to make quick decisions because everybody’s a lot more athletic. So I think there’s just a transition process for everybody that’s a new player, but I think having older guys on the team that have been there before and around the league that you can learn from has definitely been very helpful.
IHO: How helpful was the Summer League as a learning experience?
WS: Oh yeah, it was definitely very helpful, just getting acclimated to the pro level of basketball. Just to see how you have to think the game, and just, the speed of the game. It’s definitely been an advantage, playing in that.
IHO: A couple months into your pro career, where do you think you’ve seen your game improve the most and where do you think you need to pick it up a little bit?
WS: I think I’ve definitely improved in learning the pro spacing, being able to read the defenses and knowing where to pick my spots. I think that just in terms of places I can improve is everywhere, really. I think that I’ve been good in college and this level at doing a lot of different things and I think that continuing to develop those things and making them elite-level skills as opposed to just being good at all of them or average at all of them, I think, is something I could do more.
IHO: When Thanasis [Antetoukounmpo] got called up, psychologically, what does seeing that do to you? Is it something like, “Hey, that day’s coming up around the corner for me, too?”
WS: Yeah, definitely. I think Thanasis is a great example of just sticking to it. Obviously there’s gonna be ups and downs in this league, and I think that he’s a great example of what hard work can get you.
IHO: Obviously, you’re not the only Harvard player in the D-League. You’ve got Keith Wright here, too. Jeremy Lin had some experience. How have you been able to use them as resources so far?
WS: Before the whole draft process and before I went to the Portsmouth Invitational, I talked to Jeremy. We have the same agent. He was just telling me that playing in the D-League, there’s gonna be ups and downs. There’s gonna be nights where you play 35 minutes. There’s gonna be nights where you don’t play at all and you’re gonna have bad games.
But he was saying to remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and to just continue to stick to it. Just stay positive and keep fighting and good things will come.
IHO: How much influence has Jimmer [Fredette] had on you since he’s come aboard? He’s had lottery pick experience and a lot of time up in the NBA.
WS: Yeah, Jimmer’s been great, just to watch how he prepares every day and the way that he plays. I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can from him. Obviously, he’s very talented, and it’s just great to be able to have a guy of that caliber on our team to watch and shadow.
IHO: So when Harvard beat BYU, did you let him hear it?
WS: Yeah, yeah, I let him hear it a little bit. We were talking about that before. That was a great game. I definitely talked a little trash to him after that one.
IHO: Speaking of the current team, have you been able to keep in touch with guys like Corbin [Miller] and Zena [Edosomwan], just to see how they’re doing?
WS: I’ve been able to talk to guys. I actually talked to Evan Cummins recently. They actually play Princeton coming up here soon. I’m wishing those guys the best of luck and I think they’ll get it done. [NOTE: The interview was conducted before Princeton’s 83-62 win over Harvard.]
IHO: Have you been able to watch any games this season?
WS: Yeah, I watched a few games. Obviously, I tuned into the Kansas game, when they played them really tough. I’ve been able to see glimpses here and there of some of the other games, but obviously we’ve been busy on the road. Whenever I can, I try to watch and support those guys.
IHO: They’re in a bit of an unprecedented position right now, looking up at a few teams in the Ivy League. What advice would you have for them in this situation?
WS: I would just tell them the same thing Jeremy told me, that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Obviously, the Ivy League is a tough league and crazy things happen. So no matter how you start off, you just have to keep your head down and keep grinding every time out there and you never know what could happen.
Even last year, when I was there, everybody thought that there was no chance we would end up winning and making the tournament. Crazy things happened and somehow, everything fell into alignment for us.
I think that those guys need to keep working, to keep buying into what I know coach [Tommy] Amaker is teaching them and to keep working hard.
IHO: A couple months out of school, what lessons from coach Amaker continue to resonate?
WS: I think just attention to detail. Coach Amaker was always a stickler for detail. I think that I’ve been trying to do everything the right way and even if the results don’t turn out the way I want them to at the time, I think if you do things the right way over time, you get the results that you want.
IHO: When Siyani [Chambers] got hurt, did you get a chance to reach out and talk to him?
WS: Yeah, I talked to Siyani. That’s a rough, rough situation, but hopefully he can just come back next year, do his rehab and everything, and they should have a really, really good team next year with all those guys back. And then add in Siyani, they should be right back at the top of the Ivy League.