It would be tough to find a former Jayhawk more popular with the fanbase throughout his career than Cole Aldrich.
A prolific prep talent from Minnesota who grew up dreaming of playing under the lights of Allen Fieldhouse, he committed to Head Coach Bill Self as a junior. With his northern drawl and perpetual smile – not to mention his thunderous dunks – Aldrich was a crowd favorite from the start.
Drafted in the lottery of the 2010 NBA draft (#11) by the New Orleans Hornets, he was quickly traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder, one of the NBA's youngest and most talent-rich organizations.
In the midst of a rookie season that has seen him travel back and forth between the NBA club and their Developmental League affiliate – the Tulsa 66ers – Aldrich spent a few minutes with Jayhawk Illustrated to discuss his experience to date.
Q: What was it like in New York for the draft? What were your feelings that night?
During the draft, it was really exciting. When I first made my decision at school, I wanted to make sure that one, I finished off the semester. It took a while for me to actually come to an agreement with what I was going to do, because I loved school and I loved being a part of Kansas basketball. So it was hard for me that way.
But when draft night came around, it was just exciting. Not even any nerves, just exciting to find out what city I was going to be in and what team and organization I was going to play for.
Q: So what was your reaction to winding up in Oklahoma City with a young organization like the Thunder?
I really feel like I fit into it real well. It's a fun organization and it's a huge family. All the guys on the team are great. With Kevin on our team, being the superstar that he is and the humble guy that he is, it's just icing on the cake.
Q: Have you indulged yourself at all? Did you do anything special with that first big paycheck?
(laughing) I still haven't spent any money on anything. What did I buy? I don't even think I bought anything too crazy. Maybe new golf clubs? Nothing too crazy. All that I pretty much did was lease the place in Tulsa, furnished the house and made it kind of homey. But other than that I haven't had any big purchases. I'm kind of cheap.
Q: What was the biggest change right away for you, from life as a collegiate basketball player to life as a professional?
I think the (talent) is the biggest difference. We played in a really good conference in the Big 12 in my three years, and played some really good players. But it's the best players in the world day in and day out, at every position. So you need to make sure you that every day you come to work ready to perform and work hard.
Q: Has it been and adjustment, making the transition to basketball as a profession?
I would say it's an adjustment, but it's a fun adjustment. For me it's one of those things where I really liked going to school, but now it's a job. It's a way of putting food on the table for my kids to come. It's the funnest job in the world, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.
It's a fun adjustment because you go through hard times just like you did from high school to college. It's an adjustment that you've gotta go in with an open mind and be excited about everything.
Q: Is there anything that you miss about college right now?
Just walking around on campus, seeing all the people with the smiles on their face, coming up after a game and saying 'Congratulations, you guys played great!" Just the camaraderie and obviously the Fieldhouse. That's a big thing that I miss.
Q: Was there a definitive NBA moment for you, where the realization hit that you had arrived?
Usually when you step out on the court you just put everything behind you. But when we played the Celtics at home I had to guard Kevin Garnett. Growing up in Minnesota, KG was kind of a guy that I looked up to on the basketball court. It was just kind of cool playing against a guy that when I was growing up I was looking up to.
Q: How would you say your first season has gone? Are you pleased with how much you're learning?
I really am. Whether I'm with the Thunder or here in the D-League with the 66ers, I just use every opportunity each day to get better. Make sure I take the day and I learn something new, or I just take those little baby steps of getting better. Because I think if you put in that work every day over a large amount of time, you're going to see a big difference.
Q: Is there any one particular area you're focusing on right now?
I'm still working hard offensively, but I think defensively, watching film and stuff like that is a big key of continuing that transition and continuing that learning process.
Q: Is there a goal for you in terms of when you want to be with the NBA team on a permanent basis, like by the end of the season or next year? Or are you looking at it as kind of a day by day thing?
I really just take it day by day. I know that whenever my time is to go back, I'm going to make the most of it. I think that's the biggest thing that I've learned so far, is that once your number is called you've got to be ready. You've gotta make sure that you're focused, you're prepared to go out there and play well.
Q: Do you keep in touch with any of the former Jayhawks in the league?
I talk to a number of the guys. With Brandon being on our team freshman year, Darnell Jackson, Xavier Henry obviously. Sherron Collins I talk to at least weekly. The list goes on. Mario Chalmers. With Nick Collison on our team it's pretty easy to talk with him every day.
But it's just fun to see with those guys, the camaraderie of the whole group. With the older guys, like Jacque Vaughn who was in the league just this last year, to the young guys like me and Xavier and Sherron. It's still a big family whether we're on opposite teams or not.
Q: Can you expand on that "family" mentality a little bit? Is there a Jayhawk brotherhood in the league?
Definitely. We were in Milwaukee when we played the Bucks, and Nick had played with Drew Gooden. I had met Drew maybe once or twice before, and before the game he was excited – 'Congratulations! Just keep working hard.' It's just one of those things where it's really warming to know that another guy that went to your alma mater is really excited about what you're doing.
Q: Last thing, are you keeping up with the team this year?
Oh yeah. I try to watch as many games as I can. It's tough with our schedule, but I text those guys all the time. I text Tyrel and those guys, just to keep working hard. I know that the grind of the season is always hard and you've just got to stay positive.
(laughing) I watched the game last night and I've got a little bit of bragging rights over Tweety Carter on our team, so I'm feeling pretty good.