By: Dan McLoone
As with any young basketball player, Matt Janning dreamed of playing in the NBA.
Growing up in Watertown, Minnesota, Janning spent countless hours working on his game in the hopes of one day turning his talent into an opportunity to play for an NBA squad. His path has been a tough one, similar to that of many fringe NBA prospects, as he has spent his first few years out of college plying his trade overseas in competitive European Leagues.
“I tell guys all the time, you don’t grow up dreaming about playing in Europe, you grow up dreaming to play in the NBA,” said Janning, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard. “But obviously there’s a very limited number of opportunities to do that, so overseas is the best option B.”
Before he was getting paid to play in Europe, Janning started his career much closer to home. He played high school basketball at Watertown-Mayer High School, where he was named to the All-State team as a senior after averaging 31.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. He graduated as the school’s all-time leader in career points (1,748) and three-pointers made.
From there, Janning took his game to Boston, immediately helping to turn first-year head coach Bill Coen’s Northeastern program around. He was named Colonial Athletic Association Rookie of the Year in 2007, named to the All-CAA Second Team as a sophomore and to the All-CAA First Team as a junior and a senior.
“The learning curve coming from my school to college was obviously big, and I’ve continued to grow on the things I learned from Coach Coen and all the staff,” said Janning, who graduated as the fourth-highest scorer in Northeastern basketball history. “We played a strong schedule every year I was at Northeastern, and I’d say that helped out tremendously to allow me to continue playing professionally.”
Janning was also a big reason for Northeastern’s improvement over his career, helping to better the team’s record every year he played. The Huskies went from a 13-19 team in his freshman year to a 20-13 team in his senior year, including a trip to the NIT Tournament. He graduated from Northeastern averaging 14.3 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 2.8 assists in four seasons as a starter, and was a career .346 shooter from downtown.
“We had a great group. The teammates that I had were fantastic. Even the coaching staff, I still stay in touch with every coach that coach Coen had come through there, whether they were there for a year or all four of my years,” said Janning. “We had a lot of good times and won a lot of games.”
After going undrafted in 2010, he played for the Boston Celtics summer league squad in Orlando before moving to the Las Vegas summer league and thriving with the Phoenix Suns. His five-game averages of 12.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists earned him a multi-year contract with the Suns, and he thought he had caught his break. However, he was released by the Suns in mid-November, just three months after signing his contract and before he could appear in a game. Still, that first NBA experience was invaluable.
“I got to spend time around guys like Steve Nash, Grant Hill and Vince Carter and really just soak up knowledge from them, which was incredible for me right out of college,” said Janning. “They had a lot of veterans and not a lot of young guys, so that was a cool experience to be able to learn from those guys.”
After leaving Phoenix, Janning 11 points and led the Rio Grande Valley Vipers to the NBA D-League Finals before signing his first contract in Europe to play for Junior Casale of the Lega Basket Serie A in Italy. In his first season overseas, he averaged 12.6 points while shooting .380 from 3-point range.
From there, Janning settled into a routine. Each year, he would work hard to impress NBA teams during summer league and try to earn a roster spot. Each year, he wound up missing out and settling for the best team he could find overseas. The summer of 2012 saw summer league stints with the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies, but Janning wound up playing for Montepaschi Siena in Italy, where he won an Italian Cup and an Italian League Championship while being named a Lega Basket Serie A All-Star.
“To be able to win a championship at that level, and to be able to come away as a champion, you never forget stuff like that,” said Janning.
Janning continued to bounce around Europe each year, going from Cibona Zagreb in Croatia back to Montepaschi Siena and finally to Anadolu Efes in Turkey last season. Despite the NBA rejection each summer, Janning looked at his overseas career as a stepping stone to reaching the association.
“You run with it from two points of view. One is to set yourself up better for the following year to continue growing in Europe, and the other is to set yourself up to come back and play in the NBA,” said Janning “You’ve got to go there and play the best basketball you can, learn as much as you can and just keep growing.”
Known for his prolific three-point shooting, Janning has established himself as one of the elite perimeter threats in Europe. Even with the adjustments that he makes every summer with a deeper three-point line in the NBA than on FIBA courts, Janning is proud of how his game has evolved over his time in Europe.
“I’ve become a more consistent shooter. I’ve always prided myself on being able to shoot, whether it’s any type of jump shot, but I think I’ve added a level of consistency to that where I’m in a group of guys who I consider elite shooters,” said Janning. “And then the added ball handling, added durability and obviously a big thing for me was some extra weight, strength and speed. It’s helped me stay in this circle of guys who are on the edge of playing in the NBA.”
Janning got another NBA opportunity this summer. After averaging 9.2 points per game and winning the Turkish Cup with Anadolu Efes, he earned a training camp invite with the Denver Nuggets. It is the closest that the 27-year-old Northeastern graduate has come to making an Opening Night NBA roster since 2010.
After appearing in two preseason games for the Nuggets, Janning was released on October 15th, falling short of one of 15 roster spot with just a few weeks left in the preseason. He immediately signed on for another season overseas, joining Hapoel Jerusalem Basketball Club in Israel. Now preparing for his next year in Europe, Janning knows that he still has work to do if he wants to realize his dream. At the same time, he appreciates that he gets to play a game for a living, something that not many people are afforded the opportunity to do.
“The speed and physicality, there’s a lot of difference between the NBA and Europe. Whether in [Denver] or somewhere else, you just hope for the opportunity to be seen by somebody and open some eyes in the NBA,” said Janning. “But either way, to be able to say that you’re playing professional basketball, even over in Europe, is high praise for anyone.”
Photo Courtesy of Jack Dempsey/The Associated Press