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How Devin Cannady Completed his Princeton Degree as a Nets’ G League Rookie

Updated: Aug 25, 2020

By Alex Schiffer

The, July 1, 2020

Devin Cannady knows the journey well. Get on the Long Island Rail Road at Mineola as soon as practice is over. After a 39-minute ride, transfer to New Jersey Transit at Penn Station. While on that train, either watch film or dive into the latest reading for a class on Islam. Nearly two hours after leaving Long Island, Cannady would arrive at Princeton’s campus for classes or meetings with professors.

The Long Island Nets guard, who signed after going undrafted in 2019, was just two completed courses and a thesis away from earning his sociology degree from Princeton when an arrest in January 2019 caused him to take a medical leave of absence in February for his mental health, a few months before graduating. So this past season, he attempted an arduous balance: Complete his coursework to earn an Ivy League degree while playing for Brooklyn’s G League affiliate.

“It’s miraculous. If I were assigned to do that as a rookie, there’s no way I could have. Basketball takes up so much time, energy and focus, I don’t know how I’d be able to focus on a thesis and complete a couple of courses,” said Brian Taylor, Cannady’s mentor and a former guard for the Tigers and New York Nets. “Think about it. You’re playing, you’re tired as hell and then you have to make that two-hour commute and use your brain.”

The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 13.9 points per game and shot 44.7 percent from the field during his career as a Tiger, which had caught the attention of a number of NBA teams, including the Nets.

“Devin’s been an NBA shooter since the day he stepped foot on our campus,” said Princeton coach Mitch Henderson.

But when Cannady left Princeton in January 2019, following an arrest after an incident at an off-campus Wawa, his first two priorities were taking care of his mental health — he struggled with anxiety and depression — and preparing for the pros. (He reached a plea agreement that included community service and saw three of the charges (simple assault, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct) dismissed with the fourth able to be dismissed after a year.) Being just two courses shy of completing his degree, he was aiming to graduate in his first year out of college.

The Nets long knew education was a top priority for Cannady. During a June 2019 predraft interview, former coach Kenny Atkinson and his staff asked Cannady if he planned to finish his Princeton coursework to earn his degree. Cannady was candid in his response.

“This degree is extremely important to me and my family,” Cannady recalled saying. “I went to Princeton over a lot of other mid-major, basketball-focused schools because no one in my family has graduated from college. This opportunity is once in a lifetime. It’s something that if I get drafted, I want to finish sooner rather than later.”

Cannady impressed the organization with both his predraft workout and his commitment to graduating. Both sides realized that the Nets’ proximity to Princeton’s campus would make it possible. The team told Cannady that they wouldn’t talk him out of balancing both basketball and school if he were to sign with them.

“We’re going to work with you as much as we can,” Cannady recalled Nets director of scouting operations Matt Riccardi telling him. “This is important to you, and it’s important to us.”

Cannady spent the summer playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s summer league team, but didn’t hear from them afterward, so he re-enrolled in Princeton in September. For his final two classes, Cannady took a course on Islam and the Quran, a requirement for his sociology degree, and a course on race and ethnicity. Cannady told both his professors that there was a chance he’d get to a point in the semester when he couldn’t regularly attend classes but would still get lecture notes and finish all the work. Both professors agreed to his strategy.

Cannady joined the Nets for training camp a month into the semester and devoted all of his free time to his homework and thesis. During the season, Cannady would do his readings and assignments when he could, his cutoff time being 25 minutes before practice started.

Teammate John Egbunu quickly gave Cannady the nickname “Princeton” after seeing how many papers he had to write and readings he had to complete. It caught on with the rest of the team.

“Everywhere we went he was working on it,” said Shaun Fein, Long Island’s coach. “We’d be in hotels, and I’d be leaving to get a bite to eat, and he’d be in the lobby with his laptop studying.”

Cannady’s basketball off-days were spent going to and from campus, with classes and study sessions and meetings with professors in between. On a good day, the commute would take an hour and 15 minutes. At its worst, the commute took nearly two hours. When he had to stay the night in Princeton, Cannady had a dorm room from earlier in the semester he could sleep in before getting up at 4:30 a.m. the next day to make the reverse commute back to Long Island.

Once, Cannady said NJ Transit delays were so bad that he had to take a one hour and 45 minute Lyft to practice. He wasn’t late, but said it was the closest call.

“We got $100 in Lyft credits each month,” Cannady said. “And I ran through that probably an hour and 15 minutes into that trip.”

Taylor, who starred at Princeton in the 1970s before playing alongside Julius Erving on the Nets’ ABA title teams, said it took him 10 years after leaving college to finish his degree. He said he knows of other former Tigers who finished theirs in five. Nobody he’s talked to has done it as fast as Cannady did.

“I don’t know how he did that,” Taylor said. “He’s a smart kid. It has to be really, really tough. It just amazes me the amount of discipline.”

On days when he didn’t have class, Cannady would still head to Princeton to meet up with a professor to go over what he missed and ask about upcoming tests and assignments. Other times he simply decamped in the library. Cannady said some of his classmates were surprised to see him on campus in the fall because they assumed he graduated, but by the end of the semester, his professors and classmates had learned the Nets’ schedule and therefore when to expect to see him.

“Devin’s back,” they’d say. “I guess the Nets are off.”

On the court, Cannady emerged as one of Fein’s most reliable scorers, averaging 14.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game on 40.8 percent shooting. Over the course of the season, Cannady became one of Long Island’s better defenders. By March, Fein felt comfortable assigning Cannady to guard the opposing team’s best guard or wing. Cannady’s goal is to get a 10-day contract in the NBA, and Fein said it’s realistic, but added Cannady needs to improve his shooting numbers.

“I think he can be a better shooter,” Fein said. “I think he can be above 40 percent. I know he’s not this 6-5 guard, but he’s 6-2 and has pretty good athleticism.”

Cannady said his hardest stretch of the season came when the team was on a road trip at the end of December into early January, which overlapped with his final exams and thesis deadline. Cannady said he was in frequent contact with Nets therapist Dr. Paul Groenewal during the season to manage his mental health and work through any stress he came under. But in January, he said he experienced a form of post-traumatic stress, being back at Princeton a year after his arrest. He recalled team flights and bus rides from the trip in which he had an eight-page paper on one side of him and the scouting report for their next game on the other. He managed — with Groenewal’s guidance — to balance both worlds and take a break for himself.

“It was constantly something we had to address, navigating back and forth between two very important and difficult worlds,” Cannady said. “I’m doing scouting reports on what does (Wisconsin Herd guard) Frank Mason do, and taking my exams. It was really stressful.”

Right after a morning shootaround on Jan. 17, before facing the Maine Red Claws that night, Cannady filed his thesis. He shared news of the accomplishment on Instagram before tallying eight points and seven rebounds in a 111-102 win. He was playing his best basketball before the remainder of the G League season was canceled because of the novel coronavirus, averaging 18.6 points per game on 50 percent shooting in March. He also earned a B+ in his class on Islam and an A- in his course on race and ethnicity.

“It’s amazing he was able to play as well as he did this year while going through the rigors of trying to graduate Princeton,” Fein said.

The thesis is titled “Double Consciousness and the Presentation of Black Basketball Players on Instagram.” (Double consciousness, a term coined by civil rights activist and scholar W. E. B. Du Bois in his collection of essays “The Souls of Black Folk,” is the concept of Black people viewing themselves through their own lens and the lens of a racist society.) Cannady formulated the idea for the thesis, on which he received a B, after Fox News host Laura Ingraham told LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.” Cannady concluded in the thesis that professional basketball players are better off using their platforms to promote themselves and their brands because of the repercussions Black athletes have faced when speaking out for social justice. But now, he said the thesis would look a lot different after the recent nationwide wave of protests over racial inequalities and police brutality. The killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis made Cannady want to write an afterword for the thesis and get more involved.

“You see Colin Kapernick’s situation, how fast that switch can be taken out of direction and you lose your job,” Cannady said. “A lot of basketball players, their security isn’t great. Guys tend to stick to what’s comfortable of what the herd is doing and the herd doesn’t usually speak out on issues.

“Now the herd has changed.”

Cannady was hoping to attend graduation in May before the pandemic led to the cancellation of in-person ceremonies nationwide. He plans to walk at graduation next year, assuming conditions improve.

After spending his rookie season working on his degree, Cannady hopes the next important document he sees is an NBA contract. He credits the Nets for supporting him in his efforts to graduate so quickly and for keeping him disciplined. But he’s already looking forward to the extra time he’ll have on his hands next season.

“The way this happened was super beneficial,” he said. “Even when I was at Princeton, school was more important than basketball. Instead of my Princeton jersey, I was wearing my Long Island jersey. I’d go back to my room and say, ‘Man, I have to read, I have to do these notes.’ Next year, I’m excited to not have to do that.”

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