Like most of the players on the Wizards’ Summer League squad, it didn’t take Shawn Dawson long to figure out he wanted to be a basketball player.
"I’ve been around basketball my whole life," he said. "It’s always been my favorite thing and it’s always been my dream to play in the NBA."
But to reach his dream of playing in the NBA, Dawson had to take an uncommon path much different from most of the players he’ll be playing with in Las Vegas this July.
To understand his journey, you have to start with his father, Joe. After a successful college career at Southern Miss, he went on to become an All-Star in the Continental Basketball Association, then took his talents around the globe, playing in France, Italy, Greece, and Venezuela before ending up in Israel.
It was there Dawson found his place in the basketball world and started a family. As he developed into an established, well-known player in Israel, he quickly got his son hooked on the game.
"I always used to go with my dad to his practices, his games," he said. "When I was like 2, 3 years old, all the kids were running around playing, and my dad always told me that I just used to sit and watch [the games] as a little kid."
As Dawson grew, he showed that he not only picked up his father’s passion for the game, but the talent and athleticism as well. He wound up signing to play on Maccabi Rishon Lezion, a club in Israel’s top basketball league, making his debut with the club as an 18-year-old in 2012.
The next season, he made his way into Rishon Lezion’s starting lineup as he developed his perimeter game, earning the league’s Most Improved Player award in the process. But it wasn’t until the 2014-15 season when he started to feel like he could take the next step professionally.
"I started out playing really good," he said of his breakout season, in which he was named a starter in the league’s All-Star Game and won the Rising Star Award. "I thought that I could deal with everybody, offense and defense."
Dawson’s stellar play garnered attention from NBA teams ahead of the 2015 NBA Draft. He rose up to 57th on DraftExpress’ final mock draft, but ultimately did not get picked.
Even though he did not get selected in the draft, Dawson did receive an invitation to play for Israel at Eurobasket last summer. Though he only played sparingly in the tournament, averaging 11.3 minutes per game during the team’s six game run in the tournament, it was a big success for him. He was a part of Israel’s best performance at the tournament in years, as they pulled off upset wins over Russia and Poland in group play.
However, things didn’t go quite as smoothly when he returned to league action this season. Even though Dawson continued to improve his game, earning 2nd Team All-League honors while averaging 15.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game, and despite the fact they had the league MVP on their squad (former George Mason standout Darryl Monroe), Maccabi Rishon Lezion struggled. The team finished the regular season in sixth-place with a 16-17 record.
But in the playoffs, things started to click for Dawson’s club. They knocked off Maccabi Haifa in a best-of-five series in the quarterfinals, winning two games on Haifa’s floor, including the decisive Game 5.
Once they cleared that hurdle, Dawson said they felt more confident heading into Final Four, which was a single-elimination format. "In one game, we knew for sure that we could beat anybody," he said.
The team backed that confidence up in the Final Four, as they took down European powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv in semifinals, and then capped it off by defeating the defending league champions, Hapoel Jerusalem in the final. Dawson played a major role in the final, with 21 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists. He also connected on five of his seven three-point attempts.
The victory was a major accomplishment for Maccabi Rishon Lezion. It was the first championship in club history, and in claiming the title, they took down three teams that had won the last five league titles and 20 of the last 22.
Now, just a month removed from the biggest accomplishment of his career as part of a team, Dawson is shifting his focus to prepare for a major milestone in his individual career, as he gets ready to play for the Wizards’ Summer League team in Las Vegas this July.
"I’ve been working in the weight room to add some weight and get stronger," he said. "I’ve been focusing on my shot, to adjust to the three-point line in the NBA and the NBA ball. Basically, I’m just putting in a lot of work in everything."
The one thing he says he hasn’t been trying to change as he heads to Vegas is his mental approach to the game. "I’m just trying to stay confident, believe in myself. That’s it. I’m not trying to do anything too much about the mental part, just playing with my instincts."
Once you understand his approach to the game, you can understand why he wouldn’t want to go away from his instincts. When asked to describe his game, he said "I think I bring a lot of energy to the game. I affect the game a lot. I’m a slashing player. I like all the flashy plays, the dunks, the blocks, the fast breaks. And I think I’m a really good driver. I like getting to the basket."
His highlights from last season certainly back that assessment up:
Dawson is unique in that he’s a seasoned professional player, but at age 22, he’s still as young, or younger than some of the American players he’ll face in Las Vegas in July who are playing professionally for the first time. "I think I’ve got an advantage on a lot of players because I’ve been playing for five years in Europe," he said. "But I’ve still got to put the work in, and I’ve still got to show what I can do and earn my spot, like everybody else."
Shawn Dawson has certainly taken road less traveled on his path to this year’s Summer League, but he won’t let his unconventional path to Las Vegas deter him reaching his final goal of playing in the NBA.
"I really want to get there," he said. "It’s my dream and I’ll do anything to make it happen, just like I’ve been doing up to now."
You can listen to our full interview with Shawn Dawson below.