Diligence, and Other Things

The search for the immortal Jordan archetype is conducted on a minefield. Teams crawl cautiously, but the allure of a shooting guard with world class athletic ability is always enough to do a team in. To make it out alive is a victory. To make it out with a prize is divine. Few have. And recently, few have even bothered to try. Drafts in the late-’90s produced awe-inspiring swingmen, but in the past decade, teams in search of the next hyper-athletic all-around player have, for the most part, stopped looking after disappointing ventures in the past.

But the search still continues, no matter how small the scale. The Toronto Raptors drafted Demar DeRozan in 2009, hoping that he would be the star waiting in the wings. But just as DeRozan walks along the hardwood floor game after game, so do the dozens of cautionary tales that precede him — a list of names with faces just escaping the immediate confines of our memory; faces that once solicited awe, bewilderment, pity.

A name that torments me in the midst of DeRozan’s recent success is Gerald Green. His talent was (and probably still is) terrifying. Blessed with a ridiculous vertical leap along with unlimited range on his jumper, Green was destined to be an offensive dynamo with glowing comparisons to Tracy McGrady. But after listlessly passing through four NBA teams, he’s spent the last two years in Russia. This year, Green is playing for BC Krasnye Krylya Samara where he played alongside NBA exile Qyntel Woods — for five games, before Woods was waived due to “unsatisfactory performance”– another potential-laden swingman who failed to redeem his talent for a respectable NBA career.

Physically, DeRozan and Green are almost identical. Both stand at 6’7″, 200 pounds, give or take a few. With 6’9″ wingspans and similarly impressive athletic ability, there is no glaring advantage going one way or the other. And it’s surely not a question of talent. It’s never a question of talent. Talent is the most visible commodity one owns, especially for those that highly regarded in high school, college, and through the NBA draft process. DeRozan and Green both had the opportunity to make an impact on the league. But if that’s the case, then why is it that one is transforming into an efficient offensive weapon in the NBA, and the other is putting up inefficient numbers for a middling Russian team?

Perhaps the answer lies in their first taste of failure. DeRozan stepped right into O.J. Mayo’s starting shooting guard spot at USC, and was expected to make a seamless transition. He didn’t. DeRozan’s handle was shaky, and had very little range on his jumper. While he rebounded well for his position, and actually tried on defense, he wasn’t providing the offensive spark that his predecessor earned his reputation with. The flaws in DeRozan’s game that were easily hidden in high school ball were as pronounced as ever playing in a more structured environment. DeRozan, who was once considered to be the No. 1 draft prospect of his class, suddenly saw his name take a free fall in mock drafts. But the hype dissolving around him was of no consequence. DeRozan continued to grow and, by the end of the season, strung together an impressive series of games at the Pac-10 tournament, earning MVP honors.

Green on the other hand, didn’t hit reality until his first NBA season. After playing well in high school invitationals and being an obvious darling at the draft combine, his ride to the NBA was as smooth as any — other than being drafted 18th overall, which was likely due to the lack of participation in team workouts. But then the season and all the preparation that is packaged with it appeared. Learning plays, hitting the weight room, getting a feel for his teammates, learning more plays. Apparently this was all more than Green had signed up for. Green found solace in his appearances on SportsCenter and opted not to figure out what the hell the other nine players were doing on the court. Simply being in the NBA seemed to be enough for Green. But there’s no time for coddling in the NBA, and Green wasn’t afforded the patience that DeRozan used to his advantage. Green was a boy, and for all we know, he still is. There’s no room, or time, for boys in the big leagues.

Thus, time becomes a crucial aspect to this thing we ascribe: greatness, whatever that is. How much time is a player willing to devote — physically or mentally — to the game outside of the bright lights? It’s not something that can be easily gauged. And for teams looking at draft prospects, it’s even more difficult. Players will work hard for the opportunity, but when fortunes are guaranteed and all has been rewarded, no amount of talent can force someone into progression.

Watching DeRozan now, the strides he’s taken to incrementally improve his game since last year are evident. Watch him catch the ball anywhere inside of 22 feet: DeRozan goes to work. 16-footers off the bounce, 20-foot baseline jumpers off the jab step, forays to the basket with concision and determination. Outlets are opening for DeRozan, and his blossoming skills are allowing for access. The Raptors have allowed him to work more in the post, taking advantage of his superior height and athleticism, to promising results. His ability to read his teammates has gotten better, and smart, simple passes are not out of the question anymore. Commitment breeds confidence, and DeRozan in the month of February surely hasn’t lacked any of the latter. After shooting an dismal 25% from the field in the last three games of January, DeRozan has shot 60.6% so far in February against quality defensive teams.

Of course, DeRozan’s brightest days are to come, and there are areas that still need serious refinement. For such an athlete, DeRozan is woefully inconsistent getting to the free throw line. DeRozan still has a great deal of work to do in shoring up his handle and adding a few other advanced maneuvers to complement his ever-improving spin move. DeRozan still shies from contact from time to time, leading to awkward half-shots in the paint which really shouldn’t happen considering his athleticism.  Then there is the unyielding question of range, something DeRozan hasn’t addressed at all, as he’s shooting the same percentage from the 3-point line as he did in college (a putrid 8%). But that will (hopefully) be a natural progression considering the confidence DeRozan has shown in his shot elsewhere.

If this is a golden era for point guards and big men, the swingmen have reached an Ice Age. The phenoms of yesteryear aren’t going to play forever. And once they’re gone, of those remaining, who can be considered elite? DeRozan isn’t there yet, but it’s tough to deride a player who has put in the time to get where he is. In a perfect world, Gerald Green and the other cautionary tales would join DeRozan in bolstering the position for the future, but the NBA’s meritocracy doesn’t fold for the undisciplined. DeRozan is no revelation, he is no savior; but a year removed from the minefield, Toronto may have found their prize.

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