Xavier Cooks' journey to the NBA has been a rollercoaster.
On its surface, the news of the reigning NBL MVP signing a two-year deal with the Washington Wizards on Monday morning was almost expected; Cooks was the best player on the best team in the Australian league, and the leap to the NBA was the next obvious step. But, the road to earning that contract was far from easy for the 27-year-old.
"I really had to grind my way to get to this spot," Cooks told ESPN.
Cooks has been dangling on the fringes of the NBA since being undrafted out of Winthrop in 2018. He started his professional career in Germany, before playing NBA Summer League Basketball with the Phoenix Suns the following offseason. Being selected in the final Australia Boomers team for the 2019 FIBA World Cup was supposed to be the launching pad, but an injury in training camp forced him out of that campaign.
He then signed with the Sydney Kings for the 2019-20 NBL season, and was impressive in his first campaign with the team. It was another injury, though -- this time to his foot -- that put a stop to what was supposed to be a breakout second season in Sydney. With every new obstacle, the idea of being an NBA player seemingly floated further and further away.
Cooks stuck with it, though - in Sydney - and his upward trajectory couldn't have been steeper. The athletic forward would lead the Kings to a title in the 2021-22 season, walking away with the league's Grand Final MVP award, before winning the regular season MVP trophy in 2022-23. The Kings are in the midst of their second straight Championship Series, currently tied at 1-1.
"It's all about longevity for me," Cooks said. "It's been a really unique journey - around the world, a couple of injuries - but [this contract] is a really cool thing."
Cooks will join the Wizards for the remainder of the 2022-23 NBA season once the Kings' season comes to an end. Game 5 of the NBL Championship Series, if needed, will take place on March 15 in Sydney.
Cooks averaged 16.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game, good enough to win the Andrew Gaze Trophy for the league's Most Valuable Player. He's the fifth player in as many seasons to sign an NBA contract following a stint with the Kings, joining Brian Bowen II, Andrew Bogut, Jae'Sean Tate, and Didi Louzada.
The Kings' CEO, Chris Pongrass -- a former Memphis Grizzlies executive -- as well as Bogut and Luc Longley, both of whom have an ownership stake in the franchise, have been at the forefront of transforming the team into one that achieves success in the NBL while developing playing and coaching talent to make the jump to the NBA.
"I speak for the entire Kings family when I say we are thrilled for Xavier to take this next step to the NBA and realise his childhood dream," Kings CEO, Chris Pongrass said.
"It is difficult to properly articulate the impact X has had on this Club. His talent, leadership and innate desire to win completely shifted our trajectory these past four seasons.
"It is obvious that he is an NBA talent and belongs among the best players in the world."
Cooks has been the face of the Kings franchise for the better part of three seasons, and they've had immense success with him as their premier local player.
"I've been so blessed at Sydney to have a great front office; everyone that's really believed in me from the day I've been here," Cooks said.
"I've had coaches like Will Weaver, Chase Buford, Adam Forde; guys that have really pushed me to get better. It also helped going to Boomers camps and seeing what that next level looks like; seeing Patty Mills, seeing Joe Ingles, seeing what that next step looks like and learning from those kinds of guys."
The Illawarra-native said he found out about the deal with the Wizards "a week ago," but didn't believe it until the day it was announced.
"I feel like I've been knocking on the door for so long, you never know when it's really happening," Cooks said. "Pretty much today it's really sunk in, and it's still really surreal. Something you've worked on for so long, and something you've dreamt on for so long, and you finally get there. It's an amazing feeling. It's pretty crazy but, at the same time, I'm still focused on the Kings right here."
Cooks has had Zoom calls with Wizards General Manager, Tommy Sheppard, and head coach, Wes Unseld Jr. about what's expected of him when he arrives in the U.S. capitol: "They're looking for someone that's gonna bring the energy," Cooks said. "They told me nothing is gonna be given to me; I'm gonna have to earn everything, and that's the way I love it."
Over his four seasons in the NBL, Cooks has shown to be one of the league's most unique and versatile players. He's 6'8, an elite athlete, and is among the only players in the NBL who can effectively switch one-through-five on the defensive end. Offensively, the majority of Cooks' production comes in transition; he's an elite grab-and-go player whose ability to push the pace is expected to translate to the NBA. Cooks' shooting remains a work in progress -- something he pointed to as a key area of improvement in the offseason -- but he was able to consistently produce in the halfcourt with his ability to isolate on the low block and finish at the rim, while his growth as a distributor bodes well for him being a connector at the next level.
"My versatility is the big thing that's going to help," Cooks said of how his game will translate to the NBA.
"And my motor. I think if you play hard, that'll go a long way, so my ability to rebound the ball and push the ball in transition; especially the way the NBA's designed, it's such a fast-paced game that, I think my game is going to transition pretty well over there.
"The athletes are a lot closer to my athleticism than here in Australia. I'm definitely going to focus on putting on some weight; they have great strength and conditioning coaches and great individual coaches [in Washington], and the best resources to get better, so I'm excited to get to work."
As for the remainder of the 2023 Championship Series, Cooks was severely limited in Sunday's Game 2 because of a leg injury he sustained in the series opener, but the Kings' role players stepped up to level it up at 1-1 with the New Zealand Breakers.
"We worked our tail off to get in this position, and I can't talk enough about the performance the boys put on. It was unbelievable to watch," Cooks said.
Cooks says he's confident he'll be ready to go ahead of Friday's Game 3 in Sydney.
"Good, good," Cooks said, when asked how he feels physically.
"My body's been beaten the hell up right now, but I'm good. I'll be fine. It's going to be a tough, physical series; we knew that coming into it. They're a great team. It's gonna go to five games, I think."