Jae'Sean Tate couldn't buy a shot. He had no legs.
Arriving in a foreign country only days previously, Tate competed in an intra-squad scrimmage watched by coaching staff, owner Paul Smith and members. It was an opportunity to shine. Initial impressions could go a long way towards assuaging any doubts about him, alleviating the stress associated with the cut-throat nature of import status.
Instead, Tate was furious with himself. He was out of character, hoisting triple after triple - five in all - off pin-downs and dribble pull-ups. He scored two points and nabbed a single rebound.
"I was like Ray Allen out there," Tate tells ESPN.
He was so hyped that he wasn't himself. And he was worried. Tate is perfectionist who is never totally satisfied with an outcome. He was adamant he would be put on the first flight back home. Instead, both Casper Ware and Kevin Lisch took the young pro aside - Andrew Bogut and Will Weaver were still with the Boomers.
"Don't worry about it," Ware recalls to ESPN of his conversation with Tate. "You can't think about things like that. Bro, it's a scrimmage. Relax."
Both Ware and Lisch assured Tate that missing shots and having off-days happens to the best of pros. The most important thing was to stick with the process.
"At no point did they think I was going home," says Tate. "They saw the little things, even though I didn't. They saw. That's what being a veteran, and being around the block a few times helps with."
Not that he was really in any danger of being sent home. As the Kings poured over research during the recruitment of Tate, they spoke to some people around the NBA who raved about his mindset, despite his physical measurements.
"As soon as I heard that," Bogut tells ESPN, "I thought 'Draymond Green of the NBL'."
Tate's fury at his imperfect start is a microcosm of the Kings' collective mindset that is driving their charge towards perfection. It has been fuelled by the play of their All NBL triumvirate, in which each member of this fearsome 'Big 3' represents different spectrums of a basketball career - the emerging pro, the star point guard in his prime, and the sage veteran centre who has seen it all and done it all.
Both Bogut and Ware assert Tate truthfully never needed much hand-holding. He has an innate drive to get better every day.
"I always talk about that chip because it's real," says Tate. "I've been doubted. I've been questioned. It's going to be with me forever, no matter what."
Tate grew up idolising LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Larry Johnson, a fellow undersized power forward with the soft, lefty touch, hoping to absorb elements from each into his own game.
"We do that every year," says Tate. "Every year we take a picture. And we're going to just try to keep a scrapbook and show our kids that one day."
Russell's advice to Tate has been to just control what he can control. He tells Tate to play his role as well as he can. One of the reasons Tate chose the NBL was because he believed it was the best shop window to showcase his game to the NBA. That, and as he puts it, "when Andrew Bogut calls your phone, it's kind of hard to turn that down as well."
"The biggest advice he's [Russell] given me is just to stay ready," says Tate. "And when that opportunity comes, just attack it."
You can see, and hear, how he stays ready, and his commitment towards improvement, when he talks about the craft of shifting bodies in the paint for his own soft, lefty finishes.
"Once you herk-and-jerk three, four times, they're still so worried about which way you're going to go, you're under the rim," says Tate. "By that point you just throw it up whatever hand."
Tate dares you to name any individual King and he can recount at least one piece of advice he has received from them that has helped his game. But playing with Ware and Bogut has doubled as especially beneficial.
"[It] takes a lot of pressure off me because those two are going to be the top guys on the scouting report every time. You can't stop both of them," says Tate. "That's where I can find my opportunities."
The notion of a young player diligently picking the brains of the Kings' cast of vets is music to the ears of Ware and Bogut.
Bogut demands the pursuit of excellence. You can see it as he tears into the team as they trudge back to the bench after a timeout, irate over a defensive lapse, even as they're up double digits with less than a minute of game time remaining.
It's about maintaining certain standards, because any minute on the court is a chance to build reps on the road to perfection.
"That's why when you're up 20, all of a sudden they make a 10-0 run because we're bullsh-ting, thinking the game's over," he says. "No. There's going to be opportunities in a playoff game where I get two fouls, and Casper gets three fouls. And then all of a sudden, that third point guard is going in for two or three minutes."
Bogut lauds the bench, and how they have not merely stayed above water, but actually built leads.
"You want to make sure they're out there not just having that mentality of just don't lose a lead," he says. "No. Go step on their throats."
For Ware, that was one of the bigger selling points for coming to the Kings - a collective entity that strived for ruthlessness.
"It was real easy for me," he says of his decision. "From all the winners they got -- from 'Bogues', from Kevin Lisch, Brad Newley, Daniel Kickert -- you got all these guys that played at high levels in different places. How do you turn down an offer like that to come play with guys like that?
"And to bring in young guys that [are] really hungry, like Jae'Sean Tate, Craig [Moller], all these young guys, Xavier [Cooks], even Deshon [Taylor]. It's special."
Ware knows he doesn't have to score 20 points every night.
"I think the biggest part is just in the locker room with these guys and just how we go about our days," says Ware. "We want to get better every day. I don't think nobody is satisfied with how we are and where we are."
So when did he realise this group might be special?
"Once I signed," he deadpans. "I just knew we could win it once I signed."
It also helped that Will Weaver and Ware had struck up a connection. Both were at the 76ers, but they barely crossed paths. Despite that, Weaver would text Ware messages of support long after Ware had already left the organisation. Weaver just wanted to check up on him. It was the sort of impression that stuck with Ware.
Bogut points to Round 10 as the seminal moment he knew this group might be special. The Kings lost consecutive games for the first time in the season. First, they were trounced by the Wildcats in Perth. That was followed by a loss to the Taipans at Qudos Bank Arena two days later. It was the first signs of adversity.
"It was kind of like the world had ended," says Bogut. "That's a great sign. Guys were genuinely p---ed off."
"The first day or two, it was testy, guys ready to fight. And you straightaway knew that guys don't like losing."
Bogut recalled his 73-9 season with the Golden State Warriors. After a loss, those Dubs would re-litigate the game and obsess over small details which they felt were costly - box out assignments, a fateful missed shot.
"It was just awkwardness the next day of guys p---ed off," says Bogut.
The Kings were still top of the table but it provided a snapshot of what made this team tick. They wanted to be better.
"'Bogues' was mad," says Tate. "That's the maddest I've ever seen him."
Tate understood. He texted Bogut to see how his big man was. The response he received was reaffirming.
Bogut texted back: 'I just know we can be better. I know we can be better.'
"That's just how our mindset's been this whole year," says Tate. "I felt like we grew from that. Our mindset going in every day in practice, we have a chippiness about us. We might be number one but there's a chippiness."
Ware remembers a November 8 game at Boondall, against the Bullets, when the Kings trailed 60-47 at the half. Heads were down in the locker room. When Weaver walked in, Ware was surprised by his words.
"He came in the locker room," recalls Ware, "and said, 'why are your heads are down? We're going to win this game. C'mon! We're going to win it! Watch. We're going to come back in here, happy. We're going to win this game'."
Weaver had instilled into the team a type of calm - the Kings came out and wiped the floor with the Bullets in that third quarter, 28-8. They eventually prevailed 95-85.
"That was a moment I'll always remember," Ware says.
It feels as though the Kings have adhered to a diligent masterplan all season, and truthfully, one of those plans was to ensure that everyone was healthy by this time of the year. The minutes dispersal and substitution patterns have been carefully crafted.
"The plan was to have everyone healthy by March," says Bogut. "Casper needs to play his 30 minutes to stay in shape and feel like he's in a good mindset. Other guys like myself and Kicks can't play 30 minutes anymore, week to week."
Ware has felt the adjustment, after being used to playing large blocks at United, but he has embraced the methodology of quick on-court bursts.
"It helped us, and it helped our team," he says. "You can't complain about the results. We keep fresh bodies out there at all times, and it just helps in that fourth quarter when we need that push."
It has also provided more opportunities for others to shine.
"The good thing about playing me less minutes is - without sounding arrogant - we needed to learn how to play without me on the floor all the time," says Bogut. "I felt like last season, when I wasn't on the floor we were in a panic."
This season there has been more of a "next man up" ethos. Bogut's minutes are lower but he has also missed games through injury.
"It's been a blessing in disguise because it has shown that we can win without me," he says. "That's going to be very important for different phases in the playoffs."
Perhaps the only blemish is that Ware is not having his best shooting season, but he's tired of hearing about it.
"It's probably the second most I've scored in an NBL season, if you want to be right," he says. "People talk about the shooting percentage but they don't talk about me getting to the rim, getting to the line."
"For me to not shoot that well, and to average more, something has to be going right," says Ware.
The Kings' meticulous season-long preparation reaches the business end now - the playoffs start on Saturday for them and United stand in their path. Have they allowed themselves the chance to see the endgame?
"I know Brad [Newley] talks about it all the time," says Tate. "He wants to win a championship. Bogues, I know he wants to win another championship. If I could be a part of the team that finally gets them that, that would mean a lot."
"I thought about it," says Ware. "I think you don't get things done that way. I think you get things done day-by-day."
But what if the Kings do breakthrough and win their first title since 2005? Ware allows himself a moment to flash that trademark grin.
"Damn," he says. "I won two titles with two big cities in three years!"
"I want to win an NBL championship," says Bogut. "That's something I'd love to get a trophy in the cabinet to put next to the NBA one."
After that, the goal was always to get to Tokyo healthy. Perhaps there is an NBA stint in between.
"I'll probably reassess after that [Tokyo]," he says. "I don't want to make any rash decisions right now."
"I'm so excited for this Saturday because a lot of people on this team have a history with Melbourne," says Tate. "Blockbuster. This is why we play. We play for the big lights. We play for the two big cities. Battling it out - Hoop Capital versus Hoop Capital."
If the Kings do indeed capture the title, you can bet it will be a memory that Tate remembers well into the future, as he sits down with Russell and Bates-Diop, flipping through a scrapbook, recounting memories of the Kings' Big Three powering the team to a perfect ending.