In July 2013, a young, skinny Giannis Antetokounmpo had just played in his first NBA Summer League after getting drafted 15th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks. Before he suited up for his first NBA game, Antetokounmpo put his official Bucks uniform on for the first time during the NBA’s annual Rookie Photo Shoot, where rookies get official photos taken to be used for their Panini rookie trading cards.
Celtics team photographer Brian “Babs” Babineau has been involved with the shoot since 2012, and recalls shooting a young Antetokounmpo before he blossomed into the Kia NBA MVP and champion he is today.
“When you are taking pictures of these kids, they haven’t proven anything yet,” Babineau said. “They haven’t even played in an NBA game yet. Giannis looks like a completely different person then he did that day. Just to be able to see how much he has grown as a human being, and as a superstar, it’s cool to see that you were on that journey with him from Day One.”
As a young Giannis did in 2013, the 2022 rookie class is gearing up for the preseason. This class got their official photos taken back in July at the Rookie Photo Shoot held during Summer League in conjunction with the NBA’s Rookie Training Program. They join a long roster of newcomers who have participated in the shoot since its start in 1994.
The longevity and success of the shoot is predominantly due to NBA Vice President of Photography Joe Amati, who manages all aspects of the shoot since its establishment in ‘94 — from outfitting to hiring photographers to working with the venue’s operations department and league partners. He calls himself the “air-traffic controller” between players, personnel and the various stations at the shoot.
Amati recalls the first ever shoot in ‘94 during Grant Hill’s and Jason Kidd’s rookie years, which started because the NBA photo team wanted to get photos of players in their NBA uniforms prior to team media days in the fall. The shoot was attached to the Rookie Training Program, for which the NBA was already bringing rookies together in different locations around the country prior to the season.
“The first ever shoot was in Florida,” Amati said. “I remember going down to Florida with the program in Orlando that year to scout a college gym that had the requisite basketball courts, and would allow us to shut it down for a few days.”
The key impetus to having an earlier shoot was to get new photos of the rookies in team uniforms for the league’s trading card partners, rights that now belong exclusively to Panini.
Ken Seitel, who manages the NBA’s partnership with Panini, says the rookie cards are the best performing in the trading card business, and are also cherished by the players as mementos ahead of their first NBA season.
“Panini does something called ‘Next Day Cards’ where they take photos of all 40 rookies early in the day, and then creates the cards for the rookies to sign. Panini sells some of those, but also gives each rookie their own card the same day. You should see the smiles on their faces when they get them,” Seitel said.
The earlier photo shoot date also allows for the league and the media to have rookie photos for preview material before the season starts.
“These photographs were in demand,” Amati said, “because this was that transition for when a Grant Hill for example went from being associated with Duke to being associated with us and the Detroit Pistons.”
According to Amati, there has been a lot of change from the first shoot in ’94 to this year’s in 2022. The first being that the shoot and the Rookie Transition Program are now part of Summer League in Las Vegas. Additionally, the shoot started out as just photos where players would move through different stations getting portraits and mock game pictures. Now in the digital age, there are interviews and video components for social and web.
“What’s great now is that with everything digital, there is that instant distribution,” Amati said. “We’re getting the players their photos right away for their channels, the teams for theirs and for our own accounts. It has turned into a tremendous content opportunity for everyone involved.”
Planning for the shoot is year round. But for Amati he starts to focus on it predominantly after the Finals, when another rookie class is about to be welcomed into the NBA via the draft.
“We’ve now got a blueprint for how we’re going to attack the event,” Amati said. “For me, it really is a matter of doing everything we can to have talented people do what they do best. Over the course of the time I’ve been doing this, I’m confident we can anticipate what we need and how we’re going to do it.”
One of the many talented people Amati looks to work with year after year is Babineau. Amati said he’ll come to him every year with new and unique ideas on how to capture the players.
“The first year I did the shoot, I shot the guys coming out of smoke with the smoke matching the color of their team,” Babineau said. “People loved it. Now each year I hear the same people asking me, ‘oh what is Babs going to do this year’ or ‘how is he going to top it next year?’”
For this year’s shoot, Babineau had the idea to use double and triple exposures of the players mocking game action. The end result looked like the rookies were dunking on themselves or as if there were three of them in one picture.
“It’s very hard to impress myself,” Babineau laughed. “When I get impressed by what I see, it’s the best feeling to go and show the player. Probably at least 15 to 20 times this year, I would show the player the back of my camera and they would say, ‘how did you do that?’ or ‘I’ve never seen anything like that before.’
“We live in a world now where social media and getting your picture out there is everything. It’s very cool for me to be able to shoot pictures of them as a rookie the first time in their uniform. This is a whole new world for them, and it must be incredibly exciting.”
Babineau, Amati and Seitel all have their own special memories with players from the various rookie shoots they have under their belt. Amati recalls a special memory he has shooting Kobe Bryant in ’96.
“Kobe had a broken wrist at the shoot, so most of the photos of him jumping you see his black cast even when we tried to hide it,” Amati said.
Babineau said some of his recent favorite memories include shooting Zion Williamson in 2019 and Jayson Tatum in 2017.
“Zion was great – I couldn’t believe how big and fast he was,” he said. “And when I shot Jayson Tatum as a rookie, I got the vibe right away he was going to be a pro.”
With Summer League and media day finished, it’s time for the rookies to officially start their first NBA seasons, and Amati can’t wait to see who will stand out.
“I like to look around the room and go ‘who’s the guy we’re missing?’ I remember Tony Parker. I remember Manu Ginobili. I remember Jason Williams. They are breakout Hall Of Fame players who were originally an afterthought,” Amati said. “The beauty of it is that we’ve got these amazing photographs of all the players that live on with the archive forever.”