Opportunity, The Mistress

Photo by Bruce Davidson - Subway Series (1980)

Opportunity is a fine, charitable mistress—one that has served as the muse for several players in this bizarre truncated season. As the rigors of the seemingly endless schedule chip away at even the most well-conditioned NBA athlete, unlikely figures have stepped in to fill the void and rewrite their own storylines. Opportunity finds cracks in our cynicism and provides just enough breathing room for events to reshape our understanding of a player. It can rehabilitate and re-establish players like it has with Gerald Green’s nomadic career. Jeremy Lin’s two weeks of inescapable brilliance will continue to serve as the prime case study for what a single opportunity can lead to. Opportunity hides in the folds of improbability, revealed only when a specific combination of improbable factors peels away. It’s entirely a matter of fortune. It can be an excruciating wait, but there is an undeniable magic when it all comes together for the best.

Yesterday, Timberwolves rookie Malcolm Lee was searching for playing time anywhere and anyway he could find it. Now, unless JJ Barea returns Wednesday, he is the last man standing at point guard. “It’s going to be a big challenge, but I’m looking forward to it. This is why you’ve just always got to stay ready. This game is so up and down. You just never know.”

via Jerry Zgoda’s Sulia account

Opportunity is knocking at Malcolm Lee’s door with all three of the Wolves’ rotational point guards out with injury. It’s an interesting situation. Lee has played a total of 94 minutes on the season prior to Wednesday’s game, which means he hasn’t even played enough minutes to satisfy two full NBA regulation games.  While he’s is an NBA-caliber player with a good deal of talent, Lee is jumping into the fire without much preparation at all. But there is no pressure for a fourth-string point guard. Lee’s first taste of meaningful minutes will be a test of faith in his coach, his teammates, and himself. He’ll fail much more often than he’ll succeed. That’s fine. It’s nothing he hasn’t already endured.

My admiration for Malcolm Lee’s game has been documented. I’ve been a fan since his first year at UCLA, where he was a part of a massively underwhelming recruiting class. I admired his fortitude. Playing for Ben Howland for three years is no easy task. As intense as Howland expects his teams to play, the games are a joyless ride through basketball hell and back, forcing free spirits like Lee to assimilate instead of nurturing their greatest strengths. But after three years, that bulldog intensity is instilled in a player’s basketball identity. Raymond Felton spent years of toiling in Larry Brown’s system in Charlotte. When was unchained in New York, he played outstanding basketball for half a season; a marriage of natural basketball instinct and ingrained systemic wisdom. That’s where Lee is, albeit on a much smaller scale. [Cue laughter, applause.]

While he spent much of his college career learning how to play off the ball, Lee is comfortable playing the pick and roll. He’s an exceptionally smooth athlete—so much so that it’s sometimes hard to discern just how fast Lee is. He covers length of the court quickly with long, fluid strides that can easily pierce the first line of defense. A few minor knee surgeries has taken some of the extra gear out of his game for the time being, but it has forced him to play at different speeds and rely on his vision to make plays rather than blazing toward the basket.

And when it works, his plays are a thing of beauty. Here, Lee catches JaVale McGee on a switch, and baits McGee for just long enough. You can almost sense the precise moment when McGee falls into a past fantasy of becoming an all-star point guard. Once Lee finds McGee locked in and committed to his dream defending him, he makes an incredible no-look pass to a rolling Kevin Love who scores over two powerless point guards. If you saw when, where, and how the ball got to Love on the first view, you’re lying.

Of course, it’s not all rosy on offense. His shooting mechanics have dramatically improved since his early days at UCLA, but he still suffers relapses once in a while.  And despite having superb quickness off the dribble and good body control, Lee still isn’t comfortable finishing around the rim in traffic, preferring to loft up awkward, overextended layups from afar. Avoiding contact to prevent any further injuries is one thing, but his ability to break down defenses and finish around the rim will be absolutely necessary as soon as, say, tonight.

Lee’s offensive potential is still being unearthed, but where he already has significant value (and can really only get better) is on defense. He has incredibly quick feet, and his long legs help him cover a lot of ground moving backwards or laterally.

In the video above, Lee defends Jeremy Pargo perfectly without smothering him. There are few wasted motions. One hop to the left as Pargo motions left. A slide to the right as Pargo veers right. As Pargo’s powerful momentum drives Lee backwards, he uses that force to plant himself with two legs, and create enough space between them in traffic to accurately measure the block.  It may have only been Jeremy Pargo—not to discredit Jeremy; he’s as explosive as they come—but the ability to stay in front of penetrating guards is an extremely valuable commodity.

This isn’t to say I have Malcolm Lee pegged to be a future star, but I am definitely happy he’ll be able to showcase what he can do without worrying about his minutes. It’ll be an introduction of sorts. And if all goes well, Wolves fans will get a glimpse of the talent that can be harnessed in the future whether the team wins or loses.

As fate would have it, the Wolves will be playing the Golden State Warriors tonight. Lee will be matched up against Charles Jenkins, another rookie who has been foisted the responsibilities of leading a team. Like I said, Opportunity is a charitable mistress, and she clearly gets around. This season has been full of disappointing injuries and heartwarming stories, with a steady flow of chaos filling the gaps in between. It seems Opportunity embraces the chaos. Let’s try to enjoy it as well.

Seth Carstens