NBA Draft

Warriors hopeful Pat Spencer eyes leap from lacrosse to the NBA

Northwestern men’s basketball coach Chris Collins was skeptical when he first heard about a lacrosse player interested in high-major hoops.

It wasn’t just that Pat Spencer hadn’t played the sport competitively since high school. Only a few weeks earlier, he capped one of the greatest careers in college lacrosse history by winning the Tewaaraton Award — lacrosse’s Heisman Trophy.

“I was like, ‘Why would he want to give that up?’” Collins recalled thinking in spring 2019. “Being the best in something is a special thing. Most people aren’t willing to walk away from that.”

Spencer — a 6-foot-3, 205-pound guard poised to compete for a roster spot with the Golden State Warriors next month — is not like most people. Even as he broke lacrosse records at Loyola-Maryland, he snuck in intramural basketball games whenever he could, stayed up late watching the NBA and questioned whether he had chosen the right sport out of high school.

Now, at least Spencer won’t have to lose sleep at night wondering what would have happened had he given basketball a serious shot. After a grad-transfer season under Collins at Northwestern, a brief stint overseas and a stop in the G League, Spencer has a chance to become the first former college lacrosse player in modern history to play in a regular-season NBA game.

Though his summer-league stats with the Wizards last month were modest, he boasts an intriguing mix of athletic ability, court vision and physicality. Then there is the fact that Spencer, 26, has gotten this far despite missing crucial years of basketball development. By signing him to an Exhibit 10 contract, the Warriors can see how he looks when surrounded by Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in training camp.

Odds are that Spencer will land with Golden State’s G League affiliate in Santa Cruz next season. The Warriors have 13 players on guaranteed contracts, one shy of their preferred number entering the opener. Andre Iguodala, who has yet to inform the team whether he will retire, could fill that last spot. Even if he doesn’t, training-camp invitees Mac McClung and Trevion Williams are more likely to make the regular-season roster than Spencer.

But if Spencer has proven anything over the past six years, it’s that he tends to shatter outside expectations. When he committed to Loyola-Maryland for lacrosse, he was a 5-8, 165-pound high school junior with only one other Division I scholarship. By the time Spencer left the Greyhounds, he was arguably the greatest lacrosse player ever — a strong, agile attackman who set the NCAA career assists record (231) and ranked second all-time in points (380).

When Spencer decided to play basketball at Northwestern despite having been selected No. 1 in the inaugural Premier Lacrosse League draft, some thought he was misguided. His solid showings at summer pickup runs in Maryland hardly suggested that he was ready for the Big Ten. In fact, even Collins admits that he had no idea what Spencer would offer the Wildcats.

But given that Northwestern was set to have a young roster, Collins knew he could do far worse than using his last scholarship on a proven winner desperate to build a new legacy for himself.

Spencer was so passionate about the sport that he ate lunch in Loyola-Maryland’s gym so he could watch the basketball team practice. During each offseason, Greyhounds men’s lacrosse coach Charley Toomey knew his best player would spurn lacrosse workouts to play pickup basketball every day.

“I didn’t mind because he came back in the fall in shape,” Toomey said. “Everyone knew he had a love for basketball. But when he was with us, he gave his all to lacrosse. That’s all I could ask for.”

Unbeknownst to his lacrosse coaches and teammates, Spencer decided midway through his time at Loyola-Maryland that he would use his last year of eligibility as a grad transfer in basketball. His family was filled with hoopers. And as an undersized guard at The Boys’ Latin School in Baltimore, Spencer had received some interest from Division I coaches during his senior year.

The problem? Spencer already had signed with Loyola-Maryland for lacrosse. Though he toyed with the notion of playing both sports for the Greyhounds, he figured that wouldn’t be fair to Toomey. The lacrosse team’s biggest nonconference games overlapped with the basketball team’s season.

“I can’t really articulate what I love so much about basketball,” Spencer said. “It’s just a part of me, you know? It’s always been my first love, with lacrosse a close second. But at the end of the day, I’m a loyal guy. I had to show Coach (Toomey) that loyalty.”

To justify forgoing all the opportunities that awaited him in professional lacrosse, Spencer needed to do more than just walk on at a mid-major basketball program. His goal was uncompromising: land a scholarship to a high-major, then chase an NBA contract.

But out of respect to his lacrosse team, Spencer didn’t visit other schools until the summer after his senior year. That gave him only a matter of weeks to find a new home. Through the help of former Loyola men’s basketball coach Jimmy Patsos, Spencer received interest from Maryland, Cincinnati and Seton Hall, among others, before choosing Northwestern.

By Spencer’s second week of practices, Collins knew he would be one of the Wildcats’ biggest contributors. Playing in his first organized league in four years, Spencer averaged 10.4 points, 3.9 assists and 4.1 rebounds in 29.4 minutes for a team that went 8-23 — Northwestern’s worst record in two decades.

The next two years were a blur of suitcases, tryouts and new cities. After just eight games in Germany’s top league, Spencer was invited to work out for the Wizards’ G League affiliate, the Capital City Go-Go, which gave him one of its final roster spots and quickly inserted him into the rotation.

These days, he has designs on following Juan Toscano-Anderson and Gary Payton II as the latest G League afterthought to earn a guaranteed deal with the Warriors. That might seem a bit far-fetched for someone who averaged 7.5 points for the Go-Go last season.

Then again, Spencer is not like most people.

“I would never bet against him,” Collins said. “I just think he’s one of these guys where, when he has something in his mind, he’s going to do everything in his power to get there.”

Connor Letourneau is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @Con_Chron

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