Ronald Roberts Jr. has seemingly been flying under the radar his entire basketball career, an odd twist for a player who lives playing above the rim.
Despite coming from a basketball family, Roberts came out of St. Peter's Prep in Jersey City, NJ relatively unheralded, ranked by ESPN as a 2-star recruit and the 189th best power forward in the 2010 high school class. Still, he generated a fair amount of attention locally, eventually signing a national letter of intent to go play for Norm Roberts at St. John's.
Roberts Jr. would eventually be released from his letter of intent after St. John's fired Norm Roberts. Steve Lavin took over as head coach of the Red Storm, letting Roberts Jr. out of his national letter of intent, eventually using the scholarship that Roberts' would have received on Dwayne Polee II. Polee ended up transferring to San Diego State after only one year with St. John's and has yet to have a season where he has played more than 18 minutes per night or average double digits in scoring.
With little time left in the recruiting process, Roberts selected St. Joe's. Or, more specifically, he selected Phil Martelli.
"I winded up picking St. Joe's because I trusted coach Martelli," Roberts Jr. said to LibertyBallers in a recent interview. "He treated me like a man since I was a junior in high school, so I really appreciated that."
The turn of events could seem disappointing at first, with St. John's making the NCAA Tournament in what would have been Roberts' freshman season there, falling to Gonzaga in the first round. St. Joe's, on the other hand, went 11-22 during Roberts' freshman year, Phil Martelli's second consecutive losing season, which have been the only two losing seasons Martelli has had in the 21st century.
Their fates would change quickly, however, as St. John's would go 30-35 over the next two seasons. St. Joe's, meanwhile, was gaining steam. They would bounce back by going 20-14 during Roberts' sophomore season, with Roberts playing a big role on the team. He averaged 10.9 points and 5.9 rebounds in 25 minutes per game for the Hawks, on his way to winning the Atlantic 10 Sixth Man of the Year award while also capturing the Robert O'Neill Memorial award as the Hawks most improved player, an award he would win each of his first three seasons at St. Joe's.
Roberts went on to start every game of his junior and senior seasons, being voted as the most valuable player on the St. Joe's Hawks both of those years. His senior year saw the Hawks finish the regular season with a 21-9 record, which they followed up by going on to win the Altantic 10 championship over VCU, a game in which Roberts scored 15 points on 6 field goal attempts, while grabbing 7 rebounds in the process. That set up their first NCAA Tournament appearance during Roberts' collegiate career and only the second NCAA Tournament appearance for Phil Martelli since that magical run ended in 2004.
The Hawks would fall just short, losing an overtime thriller to 8th ranked UConn, with Roberts contributing 15 points and 5 rebounds.
"It's every college players dream to make it to the Tournament, and I'm glad that we got to do it for my senior year," Roberts said of the run. "That's something that I'll never forget."
That would turn out to only be the tip of the iceberg for what has ended up being an extremely busy year for Roberts.
Roberts was always a long shot to get drafted. He played at a relatively small school, and, while the 14.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks were solid stats, and the continuation of a steady progression at St. Joe's, they weren't jaw-dropping.
But the pre-draft process isn't just about positioning to be one of the 60 names called by Adam Silver or Mark Tatum, but also to impress a team enough to sign on as an undrafted free agent, or to get an invitation to summer league.
One of the teams he worked out for during the pre-draft process, the Sixers, saw enough to invite him to be on their Orlando Summer League squad.
Once there, Roberts produced. He averaged 10.2 points and 7.4 rebounds in 23 minutes per night in the Orlando Summer League, providing fans with a number of highlight reel plays on one of the most athletic front courts in basketball, at any level. His athleticism, hustle, and defensive versatility made him a natural fit for the Sixers, with a style of play that would seemingly endear himself to the ethos Sam Hinkie and Brett Brown are looking to build. The question, at that point, seemed not whether the Sixers should look to sign him, but whether the Sixers would be the best offer (and opportunity) that he would receive.
After he played on the Miami Heat's Las Vegas Summer League squad, reports came out that Roberts had signed a deal to play overseas with Chalon in France. The contract ended up having a clause allowing Roberts to get out of the contract should an NBA team come calling.
"I was pretty much set to go over to France. I was content with the deal," Roberts said. "I said to myself, if I love the game, then it would motivate me to do what I have to do over there."
Roberts was more prepared than most to make the transition to playing overseas if he had to. His father, who played college basketball at Oklahoma, had a long career overseas, playing professionally in Spain, Portugal, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic. It was in Portugal that he met Ronald's mother, herself a professional basketball player who had played for the Dominican National Team, and was playing professionally in Portugal at the time.
Not only did Ronald Roberts Jr. grow up in a basketball house, but he had a pair of power forwards to mentor him.
"I'm kind of lucky and blessed that I have mentors like that always in my ear," Roberts said. "They're probably a little harder on me [because they played], but they don't really try to overwhelm me with stuff. They'll just tell me little things. I listen to them a lot."
Turns out, he may not have to make use of their overseas experience. The Sixers liked what they saw enough to offer him a partially guaranteed contract, giving him a good chance to make the team coming out of camp.
"What he showed in the summer league was off the charts great," Sixers head coach Brett Brown said at a media lunch last week. "We have a young team that wants to run and dunk, that wants to get in the lanes and shake things up defensively and go hard after blocking shots. He fits into that genre [of player]."
"I keep selling Kenneth Faried to Ronald Roberts," Brown would go on to say.
Roberts measured just 6'7" (without shoes) at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament this past spring, slightly undersized for a power forward at this level, although his 8'9.5" standing reach, 7'0.5" wingspan, and incredible athleticism help him compensate. Still, having the versatility and perimeter skills to play either forward position would help him keep a roster spot. Even just looking at the power forward position, the ability to operate away from the basket has become more a necessity than luxury.
It's no surprise, then, what Roberts' priorities have been over the summer.
"All summer I've been really focusing on getting my shot better," Roberts said. "I've been shooting a lot of 15' to 18' [jump shots] and corner three's. That's something that I've been really focusing on."
"And my ball handling. I've been dribbling a whole bunch, just trying to get my handle tighter, and just to dribble lower," Roberts went on to say. "I still love playing power forward. I've played it my whole life, and I'm not going to get away from what I do well. But at the same time, there's going to need to come a time where I can step out, be able to knock down jumpers, and run the wing."
Despite growing up in a basketball house with a family pedigree, Ronald Roberts Jr. has been overlooked most of his life. From his high school ranking to pre-draft projections, nothing has ever been guaranteed for the New Jersey native.
But Roberts has been on a good run these last few months. An A10 championship, an NCAA tournament appearance, a FIBA Centrobasket bronze medal for his mothers' native Dominican Republic, and an NBA contract, with a legitimate chance to make an NBA roster. It might seem like Roberts can finally sit back and bask in a rather remarkable run.
But that wouldn't be how Ronald Roberts goes about his career. That's not how he got to this point.
"I'm just going into training camp with a clear mind. I'm not going over there thinking I'm better than what I am. I have wide eyes and open ears, just willing to learn," Roberts said. "I want to play with my motor and my toughness, and then just let everything else take care of itself."
And that attitude is why Ronald Roberts Jr. has a chance.