Just a year after coming out of USC undrafted, Drew Peterson is an NBA champ

LOS ANGELES — Eventually, Drew Peterson heard it so much he just got used to it.

He was close. Close. But never good enough. He was always the older prospect, the kid who floated between the fringes, working out for 16 different ballclubs before the draft a year ago in the hopes of catching a late-round nod. He flew between five cities in six days. The Boston Celtics worked him out two separate times. He battled. He came up empty. Again.

This is how it always was. Peterson came out of Libertyville, Illinois, a town in the suburbs of Chicago, as a gangly forward who thought he’d draw high-major offers. He drew none. By the time he hit the transfer portal in 2020 after two years at Rice, he simply was looking for a fun ride at the end of his hoops career.

“If I could even just somehow be the seventh or eighth man on USC,” he told his parents, then.

Life, for Peterson, always felt a step behind. Until this past year, which took him from pre-draft work in Indianapolis coming out of USC to Sioux Falls and Maine in the G-League to Boston this spring and summer, matriculating on a two-way contract on the best roster in the NBA.

Suddenly, a championship fell into his 6-foot-9 lap, and precisely a year after spending the Summer League in Miami, Peterson was flying back to celebrate with a Larry O’Brien trophy in tow.

“Sometimes, I forget all this has happened literally in like, the last year,” Peterson said. “So it’s pretty insane to think about.”

His circumstances were more surreal than most, gone from undrafted to the G-League to a champion within a calendar year. He grew into a key piece of an Elite Eight team under Andy Enfield, a guard with a forward’s frame who averaged 5.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 12.1 points a game across three seasons with the Trojans. But when he wrapped up his senior season, Peterson was a 23-year-old prospect with 18-year-olds nipping at his heels.

He didn’t get picked. He expected it. He couldn’t have expected what came next.

Peterson’s agent pushed him to sign with Miami, an organization known for their affinity in signing and developing undrafted talent. The Heat inked him in August. Two months later, they released him.

He turned to the G-League, playing with the Heat’s affiliate Skyforce in Sioux Falls. Coaches pushed him to completely reassemble his shooting motion, which all through his basketball career had developed a slight hitch at the top of his release. For a stretch, Peterson lost all confidence in his shot, a voice nagging in the back of his head to pivot back to his old motion.

After a few games, inexplicably, it clicked.

“All of a sudden, it felt like, ‘Oh (expletive), I can really shoot the ball now,’” Peterson said.

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In mid-December, Boston called, offering a two-way deal. They saw him similar to Sam Hauser, Peterson said, a sweet-shooting forward who’d gone from a two-way player to a key rotational piece on the Celtics’ championship squad. And Peterson played the majority of the rest of his season with Boston’s G-League affiliate in Maine, joining the NBA organization for their playoff run, part of what the Celtics called their “stay-ready” group of bodies outside the rotation.

He appeared in all of three games. But Peterson still called the experience “unbelievably fortunate,” learning behind-the-scenes of an organization that he said never veered complacent through their playoff push.

And within a couple months, he was standing over the edge of a duck boat at the Celtics’ parade last Friday, one of the more rapid and success stories among USC products in recent years. No longer close. 

“The big thing is, they believed in me, and they believed, they saw the vision,” Peterson said of Boston. “And hoping to — obviously that was just the first year, so got a lot to prove. And I’m looking forward to making that happen.”

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