Writing Love Letters

Photo from floridamemory via Flickr.

The actors by their presence always convince me, to my horror, that most of what I’ve written about them until now is false. It is false because I write about them with steadfast love (even now, while I write it down, this, too, becomes false) but varying ability, and this varying ability does not hit off the real actors loudly and correctly but loses itself dully in this love that will never be satisfied with the ability and therefore thinks it is protecting the actors by preventing this ability from exercising itself.

– J.D. Salinger (as Buddy Glass in Seymour — An Introduction) quoting Franz Kafka.

So, Franz Kafka.

Hello, I’ll be your narrator. Apologies in advance; my bias is evident.

This is about Alexey Shved (FIBA tells me it’s Aleksey, but I’ll trust every other source on the internet saying otherwise). If it was possible for me to wax poetic about Shved without entering the realm of mindless self-indulgence, I would’ve opted for that route.

That route doesn’t exist, by the way.

For those who haven’t had the fortune of watching EuroBasket 2011, Alexey Shved is a Russian point guard. He is 6’6″. He’s rail thin, and looks like a baby crawled into a novelty shop and bought himself a pubescent mustache. He’s shifty, he’s quick, and he’s downright devilish in an open court. He’s 22, and if the prophecy is to be fully realized, he’ll have to reach the NBA eventually. But that’s a dream for another day.

It’s a wonder the way Shved moves around the court — lithe yet composed, with a joviality that bleeds out the pores of an otherwise steely front. He was once the most impressive prospect in Europe, as he dominated consecutive Under-20 tournaments only three years ago. The potential is still there. He has a decidedly Western game, with NBA-level quickness and athleticism to match.  Unteachable scoring instincts off the dribble and a solid stroke made the shooting guard a possibility with his size, but he was a point guard. He is a point guard. In his youth, he was an erratic, overconfident shooter with only instinct to rely on in terms of creative playmaking. Four years later, playing in the grueling pace and physicality of the Russian Superleague, he’s emerged far more in control of his skills.

There’s no need to lament the death of volatile creativity ala Jason Williams in the Hubie Brown era. Shved was never that kind of magician. His flash doesn’t stem from technique, but from the fluidity in every motion. To put it simply, Shved makes smart sexy. Shved cuts into the lane around a pick from Andrey Vorontsevich with an extra burst of speed that so few European guards seem to possess, never losing eye contact with his roll man. But as quickly as he accelerates, he decelerates even quicker, and it almost seems as though the polarity of motions compels the ball to glide from Shved’s palm and into Vorontsevich’s clutches. The events leading up to the easy layup blend so seamlessly, it’s almost baffling that such an easy play could have existed. Shved’s true flair exists in how he positions himself to make a pass, not the pass itself, though he isn’t a slouch in that regard either.

I wish I could say that Shved’s talents make him a singular prospect, but I can’t. Since 1996, when the Create-a-Player feature was introduced in NBA video games, ordinary people were given the power to imagine themselves as a superstar, or a functioning cog in a multimillion dollar machine. I was never good at basketball, and I stopped playing seriously before I developed any kind of identity as a player, thus creating someone with the likeness of myself was a pointless venture. It’s fun to imagine something that was never there, but I was more interested in unlocking what was never seen. My created players were 6’5″ – 6’7″ hyper-athletic combo guards that could do a little bit of everything. It was my homage to Penny Hardaway, to Larry Hughes (Whose halcyon days in D.C. still didn’t capture the immense potential he had at his disposal. Though he did indeed dispose of it. All of it.), and more recently, Shaun Livingston. I fetishized the tall combo guard. And since so many failed to hit even a modicum of their potential, I found closure in retelling their stories with an editorial license.

The unfinished story — at least for me — continues with Shved. He’s not as freakishly explosive as Hardaway or Hughes, and not the creative savant that Livingston was at the age of 18, but he still has the tools to become a good player; one that can make a difference on a team at the highest level of competition. He’s only 22, and in a short period of time has shown the ability to mature his game for the better. Luckily for Shved, he’s been immersed in the sport by basketball obsessives like Ettore Messina (learning how to run a grinding, low-tempo team) and David Blatt (learning to read the floor effectively on and off the ball in a Princeton offense) early in his career. He has his limitations — he has a tendency to allow players to blow right past him, and he simply does not have the strength to fight through screens — but he’s shown more restraint in his shot selection in the later stages of this tournament, and his ability in the pick and roll has been second to none.

My vested interest in Alexey Shved is undeniable and untenable. I make no efforts to obstruct this fact. There is a chance Shved will never become more than he is, and will never live up to the immense promise first seen five years ago. If he doesn’t, he’ll eventually have his own unfinished chapter. Whether triumph or collapse is in his imminent future, I won’t know, but he’s made for a great story so far.

Seth Carstens