Meet Jake Kelfer, the Motivational Speaker Who Helps Basketball Prospects Get to NBA Summer League
LOS ANGELES -- The first two days of the 2019 NBA Las Vegas Summer League—which tipped off on July 5—sold out in June, thanks to the excitement surrounding potential stars like Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett. For Jake Kelfer, a self-described “Lakers fan at heart” (and former Lakers employee), the lack of long-hyped prospects for the purple and gold hasn’t left him any less excited to track the action taking place between the Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion.
While the basketball world is transfixed by YouTube sensations taking their first dribbles as pros, Jake will have his eyes on guys whose names didn’t pop up during the NBA draft.
Like, Chris Silva of the Miami Heat, Corey Davis of the Washington Wizards, Kevin McClain of the Golden State Warriors, Kenny Williams of the San Antonio Spurs, Matt McQuaid of the Detroit Pistons and Nick Perkins of his beloved Lakers, among others.
“I feel like I have a fantasy basketball team,” Jake tells CloseUp360.
Not because he has his own virtual version of the Summer League, but rather because those players are taking steps towards achieving their dreams after participating in the pre-draft event he founded: the Professional Basketball Combine (PBC).
No, it’s not the NBA’s official Draft Combine, which attracts the top prospects to Chicago each May to go through athletic testing, interviews and (in some cases) full-court scrimmages for scouts and executives from all 30 teams to see. Nor is it the newly instituted G League Elite Camp, wherein a second tier of draft-eligible players showcase themselves while competing for spots in the main combine.
Rather, the PBC is a platform for talented but overlooked young men to leave impressions on the basketball world as they embark on their pro careers—not entirely unlike the event’s founder.
By the time he was six, Jake had found a fondness for basketball. Growing up in the Los Angeles suburb of Valencia, California, he admired Steve Nash’s whirring style at point guard, idolized Kobe Bryant’s scoring greatness on the Lakers and churned through YouTube clips of Magic Johnson’s preternatural passing.
“Basketball's been one of my loves my entire life,” Jake says.
Though Jake says he was “a good high school player” during his three years on Valencia High’s varsity squad, his on-court aspirations ended right around the time he hit 5’8” and stopped growing.
“I was always the smallest guy on the court,” he says. “I was the small Jewish kid trying to make a name for himself. Little left-hander, man.”
Fortunately, Jake hadn’t pinned all his hopes for the future on hoops.
From a young age, he was ingrained with an entrepreneurial spirit. His mother, Sheri, had spent two decades building her own practice as a clinical social worker while serving as an adjunct professor at USC’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. His father, Dave, owned a t-shirt and promotional product company.
Jake, meanwhile, found his own entrepreneurial niches. In high school, when he wasn’t hooping or studying, he was usually busy either tutoring other kids in math or coaching them on the court.
“I’ve always been ambitious,” he says.
When the time came to figure out his next step, Jake declined to pursue playing options at Division II and III schools and, instead, took the academic route to USC with the goal of becoming a sports agent. While studying business administration, he got involved in everything from intramural sports and the school’s Sports Business Association to fraternity life as a member of Zeta Beta Tau.
In the Greek system, Jake saw an opportunity to engage his entrepreneurial instincts once again. With his family’s support and his dad’s expertise, he started his first business called Straight Curve Marketing, which specialized in making t-shirts for events. He began by serving ZBT’s needs, then expanded to the rest of the fraternities at USC, making enough money to pay for his own dues. Eventually, he branched out to fraternities and clubs at other college campuses, which allowed him to partially subsidize his tuition.
Upon graduating in the spring of 2015, Jake handed his business down to his brother, Jonah, who was a freshman at USC during the elder's senior year. With his degree complete and internships at Relativity Sports and Wasserman Media Group under his belt, Jake set out to become an agent.
That is, until the following September, when the Lakers offered him a job in corporate partnerships.
“I was, like, ‘I'm not turning this thing down,’” Jake says. “Like, I'm a die-hard Laker fan, and so I took that job. Turns out it was Kobe's last season.”
While the Lakers spent the 2015-16 season celebrating Kobe Bryant’s impending retirement and struggling to compete on the court, Jake made the most of his time around the team in other ways. His sights still set on representation, he fostered relationships with agents. All the while, he put his philosophy for achieving personal and professional success on paper in his first book, Elevate Beyond: A Real World Guide to Standing Out in Any Job Market, Discovering Your Passion and Becoming Your Own Person, which became a bestseller on Amazon. That illuminated a different potential career path—one more specifically focused on helping others realize their dreams.
“When that season ended and Kobe retired, I hung up my shoes as well,” he says, “and started to focus on my book and motivational speaking, and really sharing the message of positivity and happiness.”
It wouldn’t be long before Jake concocted an opportunity to bring his newfound passion into his old one.
In January 2017, the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association struck a deal on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. That document would codify a slew of significant changes to the business of basketball, from trade rules and cap holds to the parameters of so-called “supermax” deals. The league and the players' union also agreed to add two-way contracts, which would expand rosters from 15 to 17 spots in order to accommodate players who could be shuttled between the NBA and the G League.
More such roster spots would, in theory, require more opportunities for scouts and team executives to evaluate prospects to fill them. At that time, though, the NBA had no immediate plans to create more showcase events beyond its annual combine.
The spring prior, Jake had attended his first agency pro day at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. There, he saw the three-on-three scrimmages and various drills the players went through while auditioning for teams around the league. He also spent time talking with agents, who expressed concern about how the potential addition of two-way players would seemingly require more opportunities for prospects be seen by the right front-office personnel.
Once the league officially announced the arrival of two-way contracts, Jake got to thinking. He caught up with another friend in the agency business and proposed something which, at the time, was little more than hypothetical.
“What if there was a way to do a pro day or a secondary combine for more players?” Jake wondered. “What if there was a way to get agencies that don't do their own pro days or to get guys that are overlooked or to get guys that will fill out two-way contracts?”
That’s when Jake wrote up his plan for the Professional Basketball Combine. It would follow all the same rules by which agencies and teams had to abide in their own pre-draft workouts (i.e. no more than six players on the court at one time, and no more than 12 players on the court over the course of a given day), while offering the usual battery of tests for vertical leaps, shuttle speeds and body measurements.
Then, he pitched the idea to his contacts at IMG Academy.
“They were, like, ‘You know what? This sounds like a great opportunity. Let’s do it,’” Jake recalls.
Getting players and teams to participate, though, was another challenge entirely. Some agents expressed interest, but wanted to know which teams would attend. The teams, meanwhile, asked which players would be there.
“And it's not like I'd been in the industry for 25 years and had every GM's number or every agent's number,” Jake says.
Instead, he was an ambitious 20-something who wasn’t yet two years removed from college. A couple months before the PBC’s expected tip-off in May 2017, Jake was still scrambling to find players and teams to come to his event. For all the powers of positive thinking that he’d professed, even he couldn’t keep doubt from creeping in.
What the heck am I doing?, he wondered. Is this thing ever going to come to fruition? Am I going to be able to pull this thing off?
Then, Jake's phone started ringing. Some of the agents he’d contacted before were warming up to the idea of the PBC.
“Let's give it a shot because the worst thing that can happen is it doesn't work out and we don't come back next year,” they told him. “The best thing that can happen is I get my guys some extra looks that they weren't going to get, and it can lead into something great.”
With those commitments from agents and players in-hand, Jake had something to sell to teams. All told, 16 teams came to Florida to evaluate 23 prospects. That inaugural group didn’t feature any eventual draftees, though most managed to nab roster spots for Summer League en route to G League and two-way contracts.
As for Jake, he’d established credibility with players, agents and teams around the NBA by putting on an event before he was old enough to rent a car.
“When it was all said and done,” he says, “I was, like, ‘We did this, and no matter what happens, we've pulled this thing off and now we can figure out ways to make it better.’”
That’s how long it took, from the start of the 2017-18 regular season, for a PBC alumnus to become the first to break into the NBA.
Granted, the debut was a modest one: three points in just under 10 minutes for Gian Clavell, a 6’4” shooting guard from Colorado State whom the Dallas Mavericks called up from the Texas Legends, in a five-point loss to the Sacramento Kings.
Five days later, the PBC struck again in the NBA. This time, it was Mangok Mathiang, a 6’10” center out of Louisville who played three-and-a-half scoreless minutes for the Charlotte Hornets in a 17-point victory over the Denver Nuggets, after starting the season with the Greensboro Swarm.
Three days after that, the New Orleans Pelicans called up Charles Cooke, a 6’5” shooting guard out of the University of Dayton, from Greensboro to play a shade under three minutes of garbage time in a 22-point win against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Less than a month into the NBA season—on November 15, 2017—the PBC truly broke through. Antonio Blakeney, a former McDonald’s All-American who’d played with Ben Simmons at LSU, poured in 16 points for the Chicago Bulls, albeit in a 13-point loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Jake, of course, was ecstatic.
“I'm fired up,” he recalls. “I'm jumping around. I'm, like, ‘Let's go, Antonio!’ Like, that's awesome. I'm so happy for him and everybody else.”
Though Antonio was the only one of those four who has stuck in the NBA (he signed a two-year deal in Chicago last July), Jake has had plenty more to cheer about as far as the PBC is concerned.
Last year, more than half of the PBC’s 24 participants played in Summer League, with several more alums—including J.P. Macura (Hornets), Deng Adel (Cavaliers) and another LSU product-turned-Chicago Bull (Brandon Sampson)—earning NBA call-ups in 2018-19. Between the PBC’s three classes so far, Jake has more than 20 players to cheer on while he’s at Summer League this week.
Some have done their part to return their favor, especially since Jake dropped his second book, entitled Elevate Your Network: 25 Keys to Building Extraordinary Relationships in Life and Business, last October.
“A lot of guys shared my book launch when it came out, which I thought was really cool,” he says. “So I couldn't be more thankful for that.”
The players’ success so far has, in turn, helped to fuel the evolution of the PBC. This year’s edition saw a slew of new elements—from advanced combine testing, photo shoots and additional interviews with teams, to a prospect development program that helps prepare players for life off the court and a Basketball 101 seminar for aspiring sports professionals led by Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler and HoopsHype’s Alex Kennedy.
Jake also opted to move the event from IMG Academy in Florida to Mamba Sports Academy in Newbury Park, California, in part because Southern California has become the hub of the pre-draft season, but also as a matter of convenience.
“Selfishly, I'm from LA,” he quips, “so it became a drive instead of a flight.”
Jake will have plenty more planes to catch in the months to come. He’ll be busy with speaking engagements across the country as he looks to build his career both on the circuit and as the CEO (Chief Elevation Officer) for his own company, JK Management.
“Ultimately down the road, I want to be able to put on events like Tony Robbins,” he says. “Be able to impact people on a global scale and travel the world, elevating people to live their best life and live a life of personal success and happiness.”
Even with those ambitions, the PBC specifically and basketball generally remain high priorities in Jake’s world. It’s a balance he knows well and has managed to strike. He spent the night of this year's NBA draft in a hotel room in Thousand Oaks, preparing for a speaking engagement the next day and, once the 60 picks had been announced, checking his phone to see which of this year’s combine participants would be joining his “fantasy team” at Summer League.
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.