Author Archives: James Herbert

Profile Paroxysm: Cory Joseph, Solid As Spurs’ Starter

You might not have noticed Cory Joseph starting for the San Antonio Spurs. Far from flashy, you can watch them for a few minutes and miss his presence. With All-Star Tony Parker out of the lineup due to a sprained ankle, Joseph is in his place at point guard but he isn’t piling up points. Asked if plays would be designed for Joseph, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich told the San Antonio Express-News, “When we put one in for [ex-Spur] Mario Elie, we’ll put one in for Cory.”

Cory Joseph putting in work

Cory Joseph putting in work. Photo by John Bennett.

If you pay attention to Joseph, you’ll see him pick up his man in the backcourt and take a few seconds off the shot clock. You’ll see him make proper passes but sometimes not even bring the ball up or initiate the offense. You’ll rarely see him make a big play or a big mistake. Playing 42 minutes in his two starts, Joseph turned the ball over only once.

“The thing that I respect about his game is I don’t know that he’s great at anything, but boy is he solid,” said Houston Rockets assistant coach Kelvin Sampson in late August at the Air Canada Centre. On Jay Triano’s staff with the Canadian Senior Men’s National Team, Sampson saw Joseph up close at a five-day training camp.

“He’s just good,” Sampson continued. “You name me one area of the game and I’m going to say he’s pretty good at it. There’s some guys … they can dribble, can’t shoot. They can shoot, can’t dribble. Not really good passers or non-willing passers. Cory Joseph is a solid passer, solid shooter, solid defender, great teammate. He’s dependable.”

Joseph’s jumper wasn’t always described as dependable. There were concerns about his ability to consistently hit NBA threes when the Spurs drafted him No. 29 in 2011. As a guard in a system like the Spurs’, the ability to space the floor is pretty much a prerequisite for playing time.

“His shot’s improved so much,” said Cleveland Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson, a childhood friend of Joseph’s and his teammate at both Findlay Prep and the University of Texas. “Cory back in college and in high school had kind of a slow release but now he has a quick release and he’s knocking shots down.”

“When he’s open, you think it’s going in and that wasn’t the case two years ago,” said Sampson. “When he was in college I thought he was a spotty, streaky shooter at best.”

This year in 26 games with the D-League’s Austin Toros, Joseph was averaging 19.4 points per game and shooting 46 percent from the field 48 percent from behind the three-point line before being called up just over a week ago. Appearing in only 29 games in San Antonio as a rookie, he split his time between the two teams in his two seasons, winning a D-League Championship in his first and making the D-League All-Star team in his second.

“There’s no experience like game experience,” Joseph said of his time in Austin. “I work out all the time, but you can work out every day but it’s nothing like game experience, so it was good to get down there, work out and also play in the games. And also have the opportunity to play a lot of minutes and learn from your mistakes. That helped me a whole bunch. The coaching staff down there was good — it was an extension of the coaching staff from the Spurs, so it was great.”

Joseph showed off what he learned in his first season during NBA Summer League in July, averaging 17 points, 5.2 assists and 4.4 rebounds and making the All-Summer League Team. He credits his improvement to learning from Popovich and point guards like Parker, former Spurs assistant coach and current Orlando Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn and a couple of familiar faces.

T.J. Ford, an 8-year NBA veteran and a fellow Longhorns alum, spent significant time with Joseph last season in San Antonio and Austin, where he went from player to assistant coach.

“That’s almost like my brother,” Joseph said of Ford. “Last year, me and him were close. He took me under his wing. He taught me a lot … He’s done it and he’s played at all the levels that I want to be at.”

Steve Nash, then a Phoenix Sun and now a Los Angeles Laker and the general manager of Canada’s national team, reached out to Joseph before he played the Spurs last season. Joseph now counts the future Hall of Famer and the best player his country has produced as a friend and a mentor.

The advice Nash gave him? “Just go in there and work,” Joseph said. He couldn’t control how much he played in San Antonio last season but he could command respect with his competitiveness and his work ethic.

“Every first year is a hard year for anybody, said Joseph. “Just like when [Nash] was a rookie. I know I was only five years old when he was a rookie but he was just telling me about his experience, just working hard, coming early, staying after … Just try to get some more playing time and do what it takes for your team to win.”

In this situation as a starter, Joseph doesn’t need to do much for his team to win. His job is to play tough defense and put his teammates in positions to make plays. Getting his chance to share the floor with stars like Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, he’s asked only to be a steady stand-in. It’s okay if he doesn’t stand out.

Profile Paroxysm: Hasheem Thabeet And Jimmer Fredette: Thabeet Goes On / Just BYU It

By @AnthonyBain

By @AnthonyBain

 

THABEET GOES ON

Hasheem Thabeet doesn’t like talking about the past. You can’t blame him. To call the first few phases of his NBA career underwhelming would be a polite understatement. Before signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the 7’3 center averaged 2.2 points and 2.7 rebounds in 10.5 minutes per game. This year, the numbers aren’t noticeably better — the difference is in the absence of DNP’s and disappointment. The No. 2 pick in the 2009 draft started 13 games in his first season with the Memphis Grizzlies, none in his second. He fell out of favor in Memphis, was forgotten in Houston and scarcely saw meaningful minutes in Portland.

“He hasn’t had a lot of success for probably many reasons,” said Thunder head coach Scott Brooks. “He was on teams that didn’t really need his services or need his skills at that particular point and he probably wasn’t ready to give them the type of minutes they needed.”

When poor play is coupled with extreme expectations, the result is relentless criticism. It can’t be easy to stay grounded through that. It can’t be easy to keep going. But the only way for Thabeet to be a regular in a rotation was to be strong enough to sacrifice and believe in himself. You can get a glimpse into his positive thinking if you follow his Twitter feed full of caps-locked affirmations and motivational phrases.

“EVEN THE DARKEST NIGHT WILL END… AND THE SUN WILL RISE.”

According to David Thorpe, Thabeet’s head coaches in Memphis and Houston never gave him much of a chance. As a Rocket, he played 27 minutes from February of 2011 to March of 2012. “He was young,” said Kevin Martin, who starred for the Rockets while Thabeet didn’t exactly blossom on their bench. “It takes a right group of coaches to get young players going and maybe he just really wasn’t feeling his whole Houston era, but it’s totally different here. Just like he doesn’t really probably want to talk about Houston, I think everybody moved past that. He’s just been so positive here.”

In the summer of 2011, Thabeet spent time at Thorpe’s Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Florida. Martin, Thorpe’s client, who is now playing for Oklahoma City, called Thorpe in November and told him the Thunder version of Thabeet was reminiscent of what he was like back then.

What was similar about that Thabeet and this Thabeet? “Just actually liking to play the game of basketball,” Martin said. “He came in every day happy, wanting to work hard and that’s kind of what he has done here. That’s a credit to the coaches and his teammates here, getting him in a mindframe to want to continue his basketball career on a high note.”

If you’re trying to rejuvenate your career, knowing you connect with your coach and have a chance to contribute can’t hurt your cause. Brooks and Thabeet talked about his troubled times shortly after he signed in July. “Sometimes you gotta explain to people so they get to know you before they even get to spend time with you,” said Thabeet. “That’s what I did, I had a few minutes to talk to him and he understood my situation and he just said he’d work with me. Since then, we’ve just been good like that.”

“We have him at a good time,” Brooks said. “He’s been in the league for four years now. He works hard. He has great enthusiasm for the game and I enjoy being around him. I enjoy pushing him and challenging him and figuring out ways for him to get better.”

Thabeet started working out with Oklahoma City’s assistant coaches at their practice facility immediately after signing in July and he hasn’t stopped. “He’s working hard after practice every day and coming in even when we have days off and getting work in,” said Martin. “He’s just a different guy right now.”

Part of the reason the proverbial sun has risen for Thabeet is that he’s getting along with the group. “Great guys, man,” he says of the team’s leaders — Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins — who have welcomed him on and off the floor. “They just compete, motivate, they just want to win. When you have a great group of guys, young guys that compete every night, you just gotta work hard for them. If they trust you, you gotta do something with that.”

“NEVER MAKE YOURSELF MISERABLE TRYING TO SATISFY OTHERS”

Thabeet called the team a “big family of big kids”. This family earned a remarkable reputation and record by grooming superstars who stay steady in the spotlight and surrounding them with responsible role players. Thabeet is asked only to be the latter. “They don’t expect me to come in and give them 20 every night. [They just ask] me to be a part of the team and do what I do, which is rebound and just be the force in the middle on defense. That’s what I do.”

“The best thing he does is he’s active, he rebounds, he blocks shots,” said Thunder forward Nick Collison. “But his skillset is not to be a back-to-the-basket scorer and I think when you’re taken at that pick, people expect that all of a sudden. If that’s not who you are, and you have those expectations, you’re not going to be able to live up to them. I just think people have to look at players for who they are regardless of where they get picked. And as an individual player you can’t get caught up in that, either. You have to do what you do and that’s who you are in the league.”

Martin agrees with Collison’s assessment. “As a player you just have to, especially in his case, you just have to worry about the task at hand and not the story somebody’s trying to write or frame on you,” he said. “The story lasts for one day, but developing into a player, that’s 365 days a year, so you gotta just focus on that.”

On a roster where even the most tremendously talented players are totally team-first, it’s no accident Thabeet is finding his way. “I think what we like to try to do is take everybody in and everybody does the work,” said Collison. “That’s what we focus on is doing the work. I think instead of him trying to live up to some sort of expectation, because you know he’s a high pick, we’ve taken that away and just said, ‘Do your job every day. That’s all you’ve got to focus on is doing your job every day and you can help us. That’s what we want you to do.’ And I think that kind of shift in his mindset has helped to where every time he makes a mistake he’s not thinking he’s letting everyone down. It’s just a mistake, that’s all it is. Everyone makes them.”

Oklahoma City is 26-8 on the season and will send two or three players to the All-Star game. Relieving Perkins off the bench, when Thabeet makes a mistake it hardly makes a mark. This isn’t what anyone anticipated when he was drafted, but now it’s easy to envision him swatting shots in the Finals. After three trying seasons, two trips to the D-League, three teams and four coaches, Thabeet has finally found a home.

“This is just a different opportunity,” said Thabeet. “I’m happy to be a part of it now and that’s what my focus is on.”

By @AnthonyBain

By @AnthonyBain

 

JUST BYU IT

While “Hasheem Thabeet bust” is the second thing that pops up when you type his first name into Google, “Jimmer Fredette bust” is only the third for his.

The Sacramento Kings drafted Fredette No. 10 in 2011 after he averaged a ridiculous 28.9 points and 4.3 assists per game in his senior season at Brigham Young University. No one thought the guard would come close to those numbers —  or his almost absurd averages of 20.7 field goal attempts and 8.5 from behind the 3-point line — as a professional, but his rookie season still left much to be desired for his fans, his team and himself.

“He wasn’t ready to play in the NBA yet. Everyone thought he was,” said Kings head coach Keith Smart. “He wasn’t ready for the NBA yet. I’ve seen a lot of guys come in with the college way of how they play from a guard perspective and you’re dealing with a lot of talented guards in the NBA every night. And when a young guy comes in, the speed of the game is the biggest adjustment.”

It wasn’t just the meager 7.9 points and 1.4 assists per game, it was the fact some familiar draft day criticisms seemed so sound. Fredette had his moments, but most of the time he seemed a bit slow, a bit small, unable to consistently get his game off the way he did in college. It was no shock he couldn’t defend his position right away, but he was supposed to score. He was surely supposed to manage more than a 38.6 percent mark from the field.

Smart replaced a fired Paul Westphal just seven games into the season. Adding to that turmoil was last year’s lockout. Fredette couldn’t speak to the Kings’ coaches in the summer. He couldn’t develop in Summer League. There was an abbreviated training camp, two preseason games and a schedule that hardly allowed for any practice time. On a team lacking veteran leadership and proficient passing, these things matter even more. “He just got thrown right into it,” said Smart. “‘Play, Jimmer,’ — that was it.”

On a handful of occasions, “play” wasn’t even it, as Fredette didn’t see the floor for a single second. On many more than a handful, he saw the floor and seemed simply subpar. He looked like a different, far less confident guy than the one whose name, story and shooting stroke converged to create a national phenomenon at BYU. Thanks to “Jimmermania” or “Jimmer Fever”, Fredette had supporters and detractors in higher volume, voicing opinions at higher volumes than any other No. 10 pick in recent history. When everybody has something to say, it’s best to try to tune most of it out. Fredette took some advice, though — from his family, and from those he trusts.

SOME SAGE ADVICE

Los Angeles Clippers color commentator and BYU alum Michael Smith sauntered to Sacramento’s court before the Clippers played the Kings back in March. He saw Fredette shooting. The two briefly shook hands once before, at a Utah-BYU football game in September — “I just wanted to meet him, I never met him. He’s the one who broke all my records,” said Smith — but had never sat and shared stories. When Fredette was done with his warmup, Smith approached him, reintroduced himself and the two got to talking. “I obviously knew who he was because he’s in a lot of the record books in BYU. A very good scorer, played in the NBA,” said Fredette.

Fredette’s previous month included just one double-digit scoring game and one 20-plus minute game. Smith noticed some shaky signs in a recent performance, so he asked Fredette how many times in his senior season he looked over his shoulder and back at the bench after a miss. Fredette said he never did; Smith said to stop doing it. Smith asked him how many times he took a shot the year prior and wondered if it was a good one. Fredette, again, said never. Smith said to stop it. Smith asked if he ever thought, as a senior in college, that anyone on the court was better than him. Fredette said, ‘Nope,’ and Smith said to not think it now.

Fredette’s obviously not going to be the best player on the court at the NBA level, but Smith wanted him to play with the attitude that he was. Fredette entered that game a couple of minutes into the second quarter and missed a 3-pointer on his first possession. A minute later, Eric Bledsoe blocked his jumper. But Fredette didn’t then look over at the bench — he had a mini-explosion, hitting three 3-pointers and dishing three assists in just over four minutes. He had 11 points on 3-for-5 shooting in just over nine first half minutes, but Smart hardly played him in the second half. Unpredictable minutes and uneven performances would mark the rest of his season, but Smith was pleased he saw a glimpse of what Fredette is capable of.

“I went to him after the game,” said Smith. “And I said, ‘That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Do not look over your shoulder. People pick up on that stuff. If you’re looking over your shoulder when you make a mistake, the guys on my team, they’re looking at that. They’re going to attack you. They’re going to sense that you’re uneasy or you’re worried what they’re thinking. They’re going to come after you. People expose that stuff at this level. You just have to be rock solid and fearless.’”

What Smith didn’t say was he could “totally relate to what Jimmer was going through”. The 13th pick in the 1989 NBA Draft, Smith was out of the league after three seasons. Smith said he should have been more of a jerk, and that the only time he felt like he played with the same confidence he did as an All-American in college was a seven game stretch when he started as a rookie.

“In fairness, I did not succeed in my mind … I never became the player I thought I should have been in the NBA,” said Smith. “And I just didn’t want him to go through the same thing.”

BYU: THE VERB

Fredette split last summer between his home in Denver, Summer League in Las Vegas and, of course, Sacramento. Smart took a trip to Colorado for about a week to work out with him and talk to him about what he expected in his second season.

“I’ve told him just BYU it,” Smart said. “Don’t worry about [it] if you take a quick shot. I trust your jump shot. When you take a shot, I don’t worry about any of that stuff.”

This year Fredette’s been not just more confident but far more efficient, which is what improving your 3-point percentage from 36 to 40 percent and getting to the line 5.1 times per 36 minutes instead of 1.5 times per 36 will do for you. The numbers back up his claims of being more aggressive — he is using one of every four Kings possessions when he’s on the floor instead of one in every five.

“I think it all starts with your mindset,” Fredette says of the change in his game. “Going out there and having a purpose when you’re out there to score the basketball. That’s what this team wants me to do when I come into the game: to provide a spark and just score the basketball and be that threat. Whether I’m making shots or not, they still have to play honest and [it] maybe opens other guys up as well. But with having that mindset and being aggressive every single time down the floor and taking shots when you’re open, trying to make opportunities for yourself and your teammates, you just get into a flow of a game and you feel much better out there, much more confident and you just go play.”

After a rough game for Fredette in Toronto last week, Sacramento forward Jason Thompson said it probably would have bothered Fredette if it had happened a year ago. This year, though, he’s mature enough to move on. “You can just tell, man,” Thompson said. “Even when he’s coming off the bench and not playing as much, he’s still coming in with confidence. Not a lot of guys have that and he has that. He’ll come in and shoot a 25-footer unconscious.”

“I’m having more fun this year,” said Fredette. “To play basketball for a living is a dream come true and it’s always fun, but sometimes it can feel like a job if you let it. So you just gotta have fun every single time you play, laugh, joke around. And I’m enjoying myself this year even more so than last year.”

Fredette said it would be fun to impart some knowledge to himself as a rookie. “I would just tell myself, ‘Hey, don’t back down or anything,’” he said. “‘Go out there and play your game, play aggressively and be yourself out there and you’re going to be successful.’”

A certain other ex-BYU star would be happy to hear that.

Profile Paroxysm: Damian Lillard, Flying High

By @AnthonyBain

By @AnthonyBain

“Sometimes in timeouts when we go to the bench I just sit there and I’ll close my eyes,” Damian Lillard said.

With his eyes closed, he does breathing techniques taught to him by strength and conditioning coach Anthony Eggleton of Advanced Sports Training Institute (ASTI).  The two met when Lillard was in eighth grade through his AAU coach, Raymond Young of the Oakland Rebels.

“It definitely helps me just calm myself,” said the Portland Trail Blazers’ riveting rookie, sounding much wiser than his 22 years. “It helps me relax and stay in the moment and keep my focus.”

Much has been made of Lillard’s temperament. Poised. Unflappable. Even-keeled. Use whatever word you want. What separates him from other rookies is not just the gaudy numbers — 18.4 points and 6.4 assists per game, both easily best in his class — but the manner in which he plays the point, calmly directing older teammates and making big plays in big moments. It doesn’t hurt that he’s been putting in work on the mental side all along.

“I’ll do the breathing techniques and I’ll center myself,” Lillard said. “Maybe two or three timeouts a game I’ll do it and get back on the court just to keep myself where I need to be.”

When it came time to get ready for the draft process this past summer, Lillard favored familiar faces. Eggleton, his partner Aalim Moor II and their assistants at ASTI put him through intense workouts designed to increase his lateral quickness, explosiveness and leaping ability. No matter what Eggleton asked of him, Lillard never said he was too tired to continue. “That was a shock to me,” said Eggleton. “I’ve trained a lot of athletes. I’ve trained world-class triathletes, I’ve seen them fatigued. But Damian, never.”

“He helped me a lot,” Lillard said of Eggleton. His performance at the NBA Draft Combine and the individual team workouts vaulted him into the sixth slot in the draft.

“When he went to the workouts that people saw, they were amazed about the workouts and why he still had energy at the end,” said Eggleton. “When he and I [were training], when he was getting tired I’d tell him to focus on this point between [his] eyes, just breathe and concentrate, and that will take over and have you do just about anything. And that’s why they were amazed when Dame got the dunk at the end after that vicious workout. And he and I looked at each other and laughed and he says, ‘That stuff, it works.’”

“A lot of that stuff is good for when you’re tired and you’re in a tough spot,” Lillard said. “It helps you mentally even before you start playing the game, getting yourself centered and getting focused. That stuff really helped me this summer, going into one of the tougher times and bigger times in my life with the draft. It really helped me.”

Fellow Blazer point guard Ronnie Price connected with Lillard through mutual friends when the former played for the Utah Jazz and the latter played for nearby Weber State University. They are now teammates with the Portland Trail Blazers, but the “super-talented” Lillard, according to Price, left first impressions long before.

“I thought that if he wouldn’t have gotten hurt with his foot injury in his junior year, that would have been a big breakout season for him and he probably would’ve come out after that year,” said Price. “But everything happens for a reason.”

It was just nine games into the season when Lillard broke his foot, the first serious injury of his life. How the then-20-year-old used his time after the injury is well-documented — from ball-handling and shooting drills in a chair and hitting the weight room to obsessively studying tape and applying himself academically, Lillard matured as a college student and a student of the game. But it didn’t happen overnight.

Chris Gold, then Weber State’s Director of Basketball Operations, saw a different Damian than he was used to. On road trips and around his teammates, Lillard was normally found laughing and telling stories, doing spot-on impersonations of players and coaches and making people around him crack up. But that lighthearted Lillard, the one with the personality that runs contrary to his determined demeanor on the floor, was lost for a little while. “He was just miserable,” Gold, now an assistant coach at Snow College, said. “He didn’t know what to do.”

“It took about a month or two for him to realize this is the time for him to improve and to come back and, once he figured that part out, you could see him grow on and off the court.”

“I was down,” said Lillard. “I was worried about my future and worried about what was next for me. And what if I was never the same after I broke my foot?”

Lillard wasn’t the same when he returned — he was far better. Smarter, stronger and sporting a higher release on his jumper, his numbers skyrocketed as a senior. He averaged 24.5 points, five rebounds and four assists per game on 47 percent shooting, 41 percent from behind the 3-point line.

None of this surprised Gold. Whether it was Lillard’s own plays or the 15-minute reel of Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul that Gold gave him, they’d watch the video together and then the injured perfectionist would take it home and study it repeatedly.

Gold called Lillard the hardest-working player he’d ever seen. “Everything you’d see, late nights in the gym, sometimes getting two workouts in, how hard he’d go in practice. He’d work out in the morning, a full-blown 45-minute workout,” said Gold. “[Assistant coach] Phil [Beckner] was just pushing him, pushing him, pushing him, and [he would] come back an hour or two later where most guys are probably just dead. And he would just practice harder than anybody else for another 2-3 hours … He was so fine-tuned from working on every detail of his game. He didn’t like having any weaknesses, so he’d attack every single thing he possibly could.”

That work ethic wasn’t anything new. “From the first time I saw the kid he just worked really hard and was really focused,” said Eggleton. “And it kind of stood out from the other eighth graders. He just seemed to be more mature than them and more serious, even at that time.”

Lillard has excelled early despite dealing with quicker, stronger defenders and team schemes geared toward slowing him down. If he’s overwhelmed by the travel, the media or the schedule, he hasn’t shown it. He’s exceeded expectations, which seems ludicrous when you consider fans anointing him the Trail Blazers’ savior and general manager Neil Olshey referring to him as their “franchise point guard” the night he was drafted.

“It’s tough,” Price said of Lillard’s burden the night he was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month for the second time. “Especially when all eyes are on you and you’re such a good player, and having such a high demand to perform right away. And then everyone expecting, wondering if he is as good as Portland thought as far as drafting him when they did. And a lot of people are waiting on you to fail. I think that he’s very mature. I think his confidence level takes care of him.”

“I gotta give a lot of credit to my Weber State coaches and people around campus because they never treated me like I was a big deal or anything,” said Lillard. “Not that they didn’t show me respect, but they never made it seem like I was doing anything out of the ordinary. They kept pushing me, so all I know is to keep pushing for more and by getting all of this attention now, I was getting this attention while I was in college and they still yelled at me in practice, they still yelled at me if I didn’t get a homework assignment done and just from them not saying, ‘Oh, he’s going to be an NBA player, we can cut him some slack’ — they never cut me slack. So now that all the attention is here at this level and I got my coaches here doing the same thing: ‘You can be good, but you need to work on this, you need to watch film and see things’ and having that group of people that keeps pushing you and they see you getting a lot better, it helps a lot.”

Both Eggleton and Young said they were comfortable being firm with Lillard from the beginning because his parents were firm, too.

“That’s the way I like to be handled because I was taught that people that push you and people that want you to keep getting better, they have your best interests at heart,” said Lillard. “I took that in. I feel like when you have people around you that aren’t afraid to step to you and tell you what you probably don’t always want to hear, that’s when you can be most successful. And my whole life, I’ve had those people and I’ve been successful making my dream come true.”

Part of making his dream come true is getting the recognition that eluded him until recently. Lillard has made repeated reference to having a chip on his shoulder, as he didn’t play much in his two years at St. Joseph’s High, wasn’t heavily recruited out of Oakland High and then was doubted for playing against weaker college competition. Now that he’s gone from small gyms to the Big Sky to the big stage, he’s hearing high praise from the highest of places. Chris Paul called him Portland’s “prized possession”. Kobe Bryant said he thinks the world of him.

“In my head, it means I gotta keep working because my family, they expect a lot from me and I want to be that,” Lillard said. “So I keep working to become what people expect from me. And to hear two guys that are at the top of our league, future Hall of Famers, it makes me want to work and eventually be what they’re saying I’m capable of being.”

To get where he wants to go, Lillard will need to develop on defense. This is obvious for him and unsurprising for any rookie point guard, even with Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts saying he has made strides with his ability to defend in transition and in pick and roll situations. “I’m nowhere near where I want to be defensively,” Lillard said. “I get a lot of credit for what I do offensively, but I’ve got a long way to go defensively. I have gotten better since the beginning of the season but I want to be a lot better than I am now.”

Price, a fellow point guard, already sees significant improvement in Lillard on that end but explained that it took him about four years to fully understand what it means to be a good defender at the NBA level. The thing that commands confidence about Lillard, though, is his attitude. He’s always positive, never satisfied and totally under control — of his words, of his mental state and, usually, of the game in which he’s playing. As he spoils his supporters with success, he’s shown nothing to suggest he can’t keep flying higher.

“There’s no ceilings,” said Price. “The sky is the limit for him. He can control however good he wants to be. It’s in his hands. What I mean by that is you can look at Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, you know, or you can look at Chris Paul and [Rajon] Rondo. The sky’s the limit, man. It’s up to him.”

Profile Paroxysm: The J.J. Redick Q&A

Photo by an untrained eye on Flickr

On Friday at the Air Canada Centre, I spoke one-on-one with J.J. Redick before the Orlando Magic’s game against the Toronto Raptors. The shooting guard has spent seven years transforming himself from an end-of-the-bench shooting specialist to a playmaker and two-way player equally capable of being a more than solid starter or a super sub. Redick discussed his evolution into one of Orlando’s primary pieces and the people around him who helped him grow into the player and person he is today. The accompanying profile can be found here.

You’re established as a leader on this team now, but four or five years ago you were playing behind Keith Bogans and Mo Evans and weren’t entirely sure what the organization planned to do with you. How did you get past that?

That was a great learning experience for me in my first year and a half in the league. I think there’s a tendency as professional athletes, and really athletes in general going all the way back to high school, there’s a tendency to do one of two things if your results aren’t the way you want them to be. There’s a tendency to point the finger or there’s a tendency to self-examine. And after my first year and a half, I did some self-examination and realized that I just had to be better. And that was a choice that I made and I worked at it and eventually that paid off and I’ve continued to try to get better every single year that I’ve been in the NBA.

Was it hard not to point fingers?

No, no, not necessarily. I think it’s just I have good people in my ear. I have a good agent. I have a good family. I met my wife after my second year in the NBA. So I just had good people in my ear, man.

When LeBron James won SI’s Sportsman of the Year award, the two mentors he named were Jay-Z and Mike Krzyzewski. LeBron could presumably reach out and talk to anyone he wanted — what is so special about Coach K as a mentor?

Coach K is someone that speaks the truth. He’s always going to be honest with you and I think if you’re willing to accept that honesty and realize that it’s only going to make you better then you can really learn a lot from Coach K. He’s got a wealth of basketball knowledge and all that, but he’s got incredible wisdom and I know a lot of those USA Basketball guys have really taken to him. I’m not really surprised that LeBron has learned a lot from him.

How much is he in your life?

Coach and the Duke family was great. Coach Collins, Doug’s son Chris, was one of my groomsmen in my wedding so he’s kind of like my older brother. Coach K is — I have the greatest father in the world — but Coach K is like a father figure to me. He’s been an incredible mentor for me. He’s been an incredible encourager. We still talk a lot during the season. Offseason, we talk a lot. He’s a guy that I know is my friend for life, so it’s a pretty cool feeling.

Do you talk mostly about basketball or about other stuff?

Coach and I, we actually love talking hoops. Generally speaking we’ll chat about our team and what’s going on with our team and — he watches a ton of NBA, I don’t know if you knew that or not — he starts dissecting every opponent he faces. He watches a ton of NBA, so he’ll pick up things or see something I did maybe nobody else saw and give me props for it. He was probably the first person — this year I’m averaging close to five assists but he was the first person who really was like, ‘Man, you’re a good passer.’ That was funny to hear him say that going back a couple years. And I’ll ask him about the Duke team. But yeah, we talk about basketball mostly. And life. In terms of lessons learned, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about in some way, something that I learned in my four years at Duke directly or indirectly coming from him.

When was it when he noticed your improved passing ability? 

This was in the last couple years. But last year in the playoffs, against Indiana, we talked after pretty much every game. He was very adamant that I was a good passer. The way we played, I didn’t get — I think my usage rate was typically around 16 or 17, it’s up this year so I tend to get the ball a little bit more and it’s just from the motion we create with our cuts and our big guys and stuff.

What was your first conversation with Jacque Vaughn like?

Very brief. I was in New York for the summer so we just introduced ourselves to each other. But our first real conversation about basketball was during training camp. He kind of explained what he wanted me to do on the court in terms of a role and being aggressive and coming off the bench and providing an offensive spark. I know what’s expected of me and it goes both ways. It’s not just on the court, it’s off the court as well.

After five years with Stan Van Gundy, how weird was it to start this season with a new coach and all these new players?

It was weird at first for sure … When I first got back in September I felt like I’d been traded almost. I was back in my hometown, but just a lot of unfamiliar faces. There’s always that period of time when you’re kind of testing each other out and trying to gain trust and I think for our group that it’s happened pretty quickly and that’s a credit I think to our coaching staff and what they’ve been able to do.

Josh McRoberts said one thing that stands out about Jacque is his ability to trust you guys to make plays. Do you agree with that, is there something else that sticks out to you about his coaching style?

Jacque is definitely a guy who gives players freedom. And not just freedom to make plays, but freedom to make mistakes, freedom to figure things out kind of on your own. And I think as a player that gives you room to grow because you can almost play outside of your box a little bit and then if you need to, you can bring it back in. But it allows you to kind of expand your box a little but and push through some limits that maybe you thought you may or may not do. Frankly, for our young guys, I think it’s going to be great. It has been great. As they continue to figure things out, he’s allowing them to play through things and that’s been really encouraging. The other thing too is, X’s and O’s-wise, I mean, jeez, the guy knows what he’s doing. I mean offense, defense, he knows what he’s doing. It’s been a pleasure. It’s been a pleasure.

What kind of impact did Stan have on your career?

You know, I can’t give him enough credit for helping me become better. There was always accountability with him on both sides of the basketball and I became a pro — like, not just my skill level … I became a pro while playing for him. I really have the utmost respect for him because regardless of the criticisms that people may throw at him, which I think are all unjust, he is about one thing and that’s winning. And so for me it’s like, you want to play for a guy like that. My five years with him were spectacular. I really enjoyed it every day.

You’ve become a really improved defender. How much of that was Stan’s influence?

A ton of it. A ton of it. He helped me to understand defensive concepts. I’m at the point now when I know what the 4 is supposed to do, what the 5 [is supposed to do]. I know every position. If a team runs — everybody runs the same plays, they just call them different things — if the team runs a play, I typically know where everybody’s supposed to be and what your Plan B coverage [would be]. He’s just so detail-oriented, so I learned a ton from him defensively, individually and team-wise.

How do you get to be so good at using screens?

I guess I would just say repetition, but it’s also you have to be incredible shape to be on the move as much. It’s not like you’re standing in the corner waiting for the ball. You’re actively hunting the basketball in a way that creates offense for your team. Sometimes I’ll get a guy a shot just ‘cause I cut a certain way and I won’t even touch the ball.

You’ve named Keyon Dooling, Pat Garrity and Rashard Lewis as mentors of yours. What was the biggest thing you got from those guys in the locker room?

Going into this year, those were probably my three favorite teammates that I’ve had just in terms of what I’ve learned from them about being a professional. Keyon was just an incredible person because he was able, no matter what kind of mood you were in, he was able to speak life and speak truth and speak energy into you. He had just an incredible power with words. Pat Garrity just from an off-the-court standpoint of what it is to be a married man, what it is to live in the NBA and stay grounded. And Rashard, just his approach every day to being a good basketball player was as good as I’ve seen in this league and, to me, we wouldn’t have had those years we had in Orlando without him.

How does your approach differ with your increased role this season?

There’s no difference in my approach. My approach has always been the same. I think not having Dwight is probably the biggest changeover. And last year when he went out I averaged 16 points a game for the month that he was out. There’s just more shots available, more touches available. Obviously when you lose a superstar that’s what happens. My approach is how do I help my team win and if it’s scoring more, if it’s passing more, that’s going to be my approach.

Profile Paroxysm: J.J. Redick: Things Have Changed

Photo by sophiadphotography on Flickr

On Friday at the Air Canada Centre, I spoke one-on-one with J.J. Redick before the Orlando Magic’s game against the Toronto Raptors. Redick discussed his evolution into one of Orlando’s primary pieces and the people around him who helped him grow into the player and person he is today. The Q&A can be found here.

Some things haven’t changed with J.J. Redick. In early 2005, Michigan State University head coach Tom Izzo told Sports Illustrated, “There’s no ceiling on his range. I swear, he can shoot a legitimate jump shot from damn near half-court.” He went on to say what he appreciates more than the then-Duke guard’s jumper is the way Redick sprints off of screens to set it up. In late 2012, Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey sounded strikingly similar: “Once he walks on the court, he’s open.” And when he’s open, you’re in trouble.

“He’s still shooting the ball,” Casey said of the Orlando Magic’s super sixth man, now in his seventh season with the club that drafted him. “He hasn’t forgotten. He’s one of the best guys coming off screens in the NBA. If you watch him, he has an act. He acts like he’s not doing anything and then, boom, he’s gone. He does a great job of playing without the basketball, using screens, coming off locked and loaded and he’s one of the most lethal guys in the league with that.”

Alan Anderson battled Redick for both Izzo and Casey. “It was the same thing,” he said after facing Orlando on Friday at the Air Canada Centre. “A lot of screens, man. You keep running and running, screen, screen, screen. I knew it was going to be a track meet, I just had to be prepared for it. But it’s the same thing.”

What’s different about Redick is twofold: He’s turned himself into a complete player and he’s grown into a leader.

“He’s a guy who works extremely hard and it’s something that I’ve kind of watched the last few years,” said Josh McRoberts.

McRoberts is Redick’s teammate and friend, first at Duke and now with the Magic. “Obviously, I’ve kept track of him, watched him play since we played together in college and it’s just amazing how much he improves every season,” he continued. “He improves something every year and just continues to get better and I don’t see that stopping just because I know first-hand how hard the guy works and how much he is dedicated to the game.”

While Redick once was a shooting specialist, he’s now an all-around threat. As well as averaging a career-high 14 points per game this season, he’s averaging 4.9 assists, just about double what he did last year. Without superstar Dwight Howard in town, his usage rate has jumped to 21.5 percent. In order to earn minutes in his early years, the younger Redick had to add muscle without sacrificing speed. He needed to find his place in the offense and prove his worth on defense, chasing shooters around the screens he uses so well. The work he put in to be able to play the role ex-head coach Stan Van Gundy demanded of him has allowed him to step into a bigger one for new head coach Jacque Vaughn.

“J.J.’s just consistent with his approach to the game,” said Orlando guard Arron Afflalo. “Beyond what you see in the game, he has a great work ethic. He takes care of his body. He’s constantly training his mind and his body to perform at a high level, so I commend his steadiness and his consistency with maintaining what he’s done to help himself improve, especially doing it all in a Magic uniform.”

When Redick last wore a Duke uniform as a senior, McRoberts was a freshman. As a leader on that squad, Redick’s then-extremely-vocal leadership style earned him the nickname “Grandpa.” This is a stark contrast to how he mentors young players in Orlando.

“It’s not similar,” said Redick. “I wish that when I was 21 and a senior at Duke, I wish I knew then what I know now. I think my leadership approach would have been different.”

“That’s the way the program is,” said McRoberts. “That’s the way they want him to be. That’s the way they try to make guys, just being more vocal and kind of crazy. That’s kind of their style … But  that doesn’t work in the NBA. It works great in college … If you’re going nuts every night, you’re going to have a hard time doing that for 82 games.”

If he could talk to the 21-year-old version of himself, Redick said he would tell him to “chill the f—k out.”

“I’m a guy who leads by example,” he explained. “I’m not a rah-rah guy, I never will be. I choose to do it quietly and I have many conversations on a daily basis with younger players and it’s not always about basketball. But I choose to do it in a quiet way.”

Second-year Magic guard E’Twaun Moore said Redick tells the young guys to keep their confidence up. Rookie power forward Andrew Nicholson said he tells him to stay focused and play hard through mistakes. Rookie big man Kyle O’Quinn had no trouble reciting the best pieces of advice he has received from Redick: “On the court, ‘Get better every day, you’ll get better every year.’ Off the court, ‘Save your money.’”

Back when Redick was a rookie, point guard Jameer Nelson was entering his third year as a pro. “He was a little different than what he is now,” said Nelson. “I’d much rather the J.J. now than J.J. as a rookie.”

A rarity in today’s NBA, the pair have remained with the Magic their entire careers. They’ve grown closer during that time and they look to one another for advice. “He just matured at every aspect of his life,” said Nelson. “Everything, from basketball to off the court to just being a friend. Everything about the guy has changed. He’s a man of God, he does things the right way … I’m not saying he didn’t before, but he tries even harder now.”

This season Vaughn has praised Redick for doing things the right way. He’s waxed poetic on his professionalism and preparation even more than his proficiency from the perimeter. From getting extra shots up after practice to the way he dresses on game days, Vaughn relies on Redick to quietly set an example for his team.

You could say Redick has chilled the f—k out.

Profile Paroxysm: Andre Drummond: Big Kid

Via Panini America.

Andre Drummond didn’t have a driver’s license when he moved to Detroit this past summer. His mother, Christine Cameron, gave him rides so he could get around the city and train at the Pistons’ practice facility. She’s currently living with him and his younger sister, Ariana, just a short drive — which Drummond now can do on his own — from the Palace of Auburn Hills.

Drummond is 19 years old. His three favorite movies are March of the Penguins, Happy Feet and Happy Feet Two. Last year, he was the world’s largest Gumby for Halloween. Asked to sketch something for the NBA’s trading card partner at the Rookie Transition Program, he produced the bugged-out Kirby at the top of this post.

His age isn’t immediately obvious looking at him, though. While the majority of rookies need to fill out their frames, Drummond’s draft preparation involved shedding extra weight so he could be lighter on his feet. Listed at 6’10 and 270 pounds, Drummond is easily the most physically imposing player in his draft class and on his team. He has center strength with wing player agility and athleticism. He covers ground on defense and scouts salivate. He dunks and blocks shots and fans fawn.

He did these things last year at UConn and the previous two at St. Thomas More high school. At each stage, though, the conversation surrounding him changed more than Drummond did. In high school he was the consensus No. 1 player in his class, understood to be raw but considered a can’t miss prospect. Heaps of hype followed him to college, and when he and his team didn’t dominate as easily as expected, people looked at his physical prowess and questioned his motor, his mind and his love of the game.

“What went through my mind is this is a freshman in college,” said Jere Quinn. Quinn is the head coach at St. Thomas More, a man Drummond describes as “like a father to me.” Turns out, sometimes if you’re a young, goofy kid and you don’t yet possess a polished offensive game, you’ll be painted as someone who doesn’t take the game seriously.

“When I first met Andre he was trying to sell that he was a 3-man,” said Quinn with a laugh. “It was like, ‘Oh, great. Great, but we’re going to make you into more of a power player, if you’re okay with that. I think your livelihood will be revolving more around the basket.’ But I mean he puts the ball on the floor pretty well, he’s got pretty good vision, he catches freaking everything. But at the same time he enjoys it. He seems to enjoy it. And that was the irony when people were calling me last year and they were asking about his motor. I said, ‘You’re talking about a kid who loves to be in the gym to the point where he was an assistant coach for the JV team during our season his senior year.’ I said, ‘That’s not a kid who doesn’t like basketball. You’re not volunteering to coach the JV team sitting on the sideline in a shirt and tie in your senior year if you don’t love being in the gym and love the game.’”

“I just like working with kids, man,” said Drummond. “It’s always been a thing of mine. Just trying to give back and just share some of the knowledge that I have.” As well as coaching, Drummond was a residential assistant and a tour guide for prospective students.

“He was 18 years old,” Quinn said. “With expectations to get University of Connecticut back-to-back national championships. It’s just like, let’s slow the process down. Let him be 18. Now, let him be 19. Next year, let him be 20. He’s a young kid who enjoys life, who enjoys his family, who enjoys basketball, who’s got unlimited potential [which] I believe he will eventually maximize. But let it happen in the proper course. And in the interim, just enjoy the kid.”

“He’s your typical 19 year old,” said fellow Detroit rookie Kyle Singler, whose path to the NBA included four years at Duke and a year in Spain. “I remember when I was that age, I was just a kid that’s fun-loving, not a care in the world. He’s just a down to earth guy.”

“At times I definitely forget that I’m five years older than Andre,” Singler said. “At the same time we’re rookies, we’re at different points in our career.”

While Singler lived on his own in Madrid before becoming a Piston, Drummond is happy to have his family with him as a pro. “It’s great just having them out there in the city with me because I won’t be by myself,” he said. “Having a home cooked meal every day is not too bad, neither. And just having them there for support really is the biggest thing for me.”

Cameron goes to games in Detroit and, when her son plays on the road, she calls or texts afterward. “His mom gets it, his sister’s adorable,” said Quinn. “He’s got a good package as a family. And I think that’s one of the reasons Andre is so even-keeled and level-headed because when he was with us her focus was never really on the athletics, it was more on the academics and his character. Which quite honestly didn’t need a lot of work.”

What do need work are Drummond’s fundamentals. His ability to affect a game with his athleticism and bulk was evident from his first preseason outing. But to the chagrin of Pistons fans who rightfully see him as the franchise’s future, he’s only averaging 18.5 minutes per game as he figures out the nuances of the professional game. Even without a go-to post move or any semblance of an outside shot, Drummond is posting per-36 minute averages of 12.6 points, 12.5 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 1.5 steals while shooting 57 percent from the floor.

“Watching him on film, he’s a beast,” said Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “He’s strong, he’s big, he’s aggressive, he’s learning the NBA game. I’m sure he, like most rookies, makes a lot of mistakes — offensively, defensively, he’s not where he’s supposed to be — but physically and athletically he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with in this league.”

Detroit head coach Lawrence Frank isn’t limiting Drummond’s minutes because of any off the court issues or a deficient work ethic. He knows the fans, and some writers, want to see him on the floor more often and, to them, he stresses patience. Frank continually says Drummond is a “tremendous, tremendous young man” with a bright future who will see his minutes increase if he keeps up what he’s been doing.

“He just continues to get better,” said Frank. “He’s got a great spirit and energy about him and, every day, he comes to work. He’s a sponge.”

Drummond says the toughest part of the NBA transition has been the travel. He also mentions, like most rookies do, the physicality and speed of the game. Getting used to that as well as new terminology, new teammates and an entirely different lifestyle from what he was used to at college and boarding school is not easy, but he’s doing the work to learn. Enter the Pistons locker room before a game and you’ll find him hunched over a laptop with assistant coach Roy Rogers, going over game tape.

“That’s just something I’ve always done even throughout college — watch film on different players and different schemes that they have,” Drummond said. “But coming to the NBA, it’s a lot more high-tech stuff so we break it down to just one player and the different things that they do. So that’s one of the biggest things I’ve been working with.”

“He’s a great guy because he’s very very coachable,” Frank said. “And when your better players are coachable that sends a message to your whole team. So as he continues to grow and develop, as long as he keeps that ‘we’ mentality and that coachability mentality, then he has an unbelievable upside.”

There are no questions about his attitude coming from the people closest to him, and those who were yelling about his supposed lack of love of the game are quiet these days. “What’s there not to love?” says Drummond. “You’re playing the game that you love. Night in and night out, it’s a passion game.”

Paroxysm At Gametime: Raptors Show Signs Of Life Against Scary Shooting Guards

Photo by Bruce Guenter on Flickr.

It’s Friday, December 13 and the Toronto Raptors are in disarray. They’ve lost 13 of their last 14 games. Three of their five opening day starters are out with injuries. Toronto is two and a half months removed from president and general manager Bryan Colangelo saying, “There’s that feeling that there could be something special about this group, but time will tell.” With reporters making jokes about a way to commemorate the Raptors’ record potentially falling to 4-20, time has emphatically rejected the “special group” hypothesis.

The Raptors are matched up with an 11-11 team from Texas. Head coach Dwane Casey’s main challenge is containing Dallas’ new starting shooting guard, O.J. Mayo. Entering the game, Mayo is averaging 25.1 points per game in wins, shooting 54.7 percent from the field and 61.4 percent from 3-point range. In losses, Mayo is averaging 16.7 points, shooting 42.2 percent from the field and 40.3 percent from 3-point range. Casey says the Mavericks have given Mayo the ultimate green light and he’s the reason they’ve treaded water without Dirk Nowitzki. Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle says opponents are now trying to attack him defensively because he’s been so effective as a scorer and he’s most impressed by how hard he’s worked at improving his game. “He’s seeing a lot of attention from the opponents defensively with double teams and things like that,” Carlisle says. “He’s trying to understand as time goes on the importance of discipline and patience.”

Toronto gives Mayo plenty of attention, trapping him on every pindown, forcing him to give the ball up. He never gets in rhythm and scores just 10 points, making two field goals on a season-low eight shots. He turns the ball over six times. The Raptors win by a score of 95-74, playing the determined defense expected of a desperate team.“They had a lot to do with us playing poorly and after tonight it’s very, very clear that whatever problems the Raptors franchise have are completely unrelated to coaching,” Carlisle says. Casey refers to his team getting back to the basics in practice, working on fundamentals. He calls stopping Mayo a team effort and credits Mickael Pietrus and Alan Anderson in particular for stepping up to the challenge.

Mayo says he’s disappointed in how handled the traps and he’s a better player than he showed. “I’m playing like crap,” he says. “I can’t worry about the trap more than I’m worried about attacking. I gotta continue to attack even though there is a trap and then use my outlets as far as my other teammates. I’m playing like crap in that area right now to be honest, so I’ll look at the film and get better.”

Vince Carter knows how frustrated Mayo is and has some veteran advice for him. “Stay the course,” he says. “Easier said than done, I know. Stay the course. In his new role, if you would, playing the big minutes, our go-to-guy, leading scorer, they’re going to key on you. So it’s our job to make it easier for him. It’s our job just to move the ball and make plays. He has to be patient. He’s a competitor. He wants to win and he wants to do all he can.”

“It’s the first time in my career it’s pretty much been happening,” Mayo says. “So, I’m struggling these last two games with the turnovers, taking care of the ball. But I’m going to get better, though. I gotta look at some film and obviously sit down with coach and see what I can do in those areas.”

Carter says he will watch film with Mayo, too, and he absolutely remembers when he started seeing schemes set on stopping him in Toronto over a decade ago. “It’s tough. It’s a whole new world for him,” he says. “It’s going to take time and I think he’s patient enough, he wants to win, he’ll learn it. And I’m going to help him.”

At the conclusion of his media session, Mayo is milder. “You’re going to make shots, you’re going to miss shots,” he says. “Have some games where you make plays, you don’t make plays. Crappy games, great games. So it’s a season, man, it’s like a relationship. It’s a rollercoaster.

“It’ll be alright,” Mayo says, and that seems self-evident with how well he’s played this season. Whether Toronto will be alright is a different issue.

***

On Saturday, the Raptors are preparing for a matchup with an 11-11 team from Texas. Casey’s main challenge is containing Houston’s new starting shooting guard, James Harden. Entering the game, Harden is averaging 27.5 points per game in wins, shooting 47.5 percent from the field and 35.8 percent from 3-point range. In losses, Harden is averaging 21.9 points, shooting 37.6 percent from the field and 32.1 percent from 3-point range.

After practice, DeMar DeRozan explains how they were able to limit Mayo. “Just put pressure on him, got the ball out of his hands, contested every shot he took and if he’s hitting shots and making plays out of that, God bless him,” he says. DeRozan has been close friends with Harden since high school and emphasizes that, just like it was with Mayo, it will be a collective effort to try to keep him under control. His coach concurs. “You gotta give them different looks,” Casey says. “If you come down and give a guy like O.J. Mayo and Harden the same look every time down the floor, they’re too good. There’s not one guy in this league that can stop them one on one consistently. You may get them a couple of times, but consistently, they’re too good. That’s why [Harden] is who he is. He has a max contract, they gave it to him for a reason.”

***

Just prior to Sunday’s game, Casey says that he wants the defensive effort to carry over from Friday. “It’s infectious and guys [are] talking, playing together, everybody on a rope, staying together, getting back in transition, pointing. You can hear good defense and I think that’s one of the most important things you saw the other night.” He reiterates that you can’t stop Harden but “what we want to do is kind of control him as much as possible and slow him down where he doesn’t just feel like he’s in a gym by himself.”

Harden is anything but by himself early in the game, with the Raptors blitzing him on pick and rolls. His first shot attempt comes more than five minutes into the game, a difficult leaner from 18 feet on the right baseline. It’s the kind of shot he’d normally avoid. Toronto jumps out to a 10-2 lead and Harden scores his first points splitting a double team and getting fouled at the hoop with 5:08 left in the first quarter. Unlike Mayo, Harden slows down and adjusts to the way Toronto is playing him, registering an assist or a “hockey assist” on four 3-pointers in the final 2:21 of the period to come back and take the lead.

The Raptors scale back the help on Harden in the second quarter and, for the rest of the game, the Rockets shoot 3-for-16 from behind the arc. In the fourth, Toronto elects to switch on Harden’s pick and rolls with Amir Johnson. Harden gets to the rim and shoots 14-for-15 from the line to finish with 28 points, but he shoots 7-for-18 from the field and almost none of the shots are easy. It’s a great game by any standard, but he can’t get his teammates going and Houston loses 103-96, shooting 41 percent from the field.

“We had to adjust our blitz to make sure we get it out of his hand but not give up threes,” Casey says. “That was a byproduct of you have to choose your poison because not only is he a scorer, he’s an excellent passer out of the double team.”

“James is a tough, tough cover,” says Alan Anderson, who shared Harden duty with Mickael Pietrus and Terrence Ross. “He has the ball probably every time they come down the court. He’s isolation, he’s getting ball screens, he’s shooting threes, midrange, he’s doing everything.”

“I tried to take a couple charges on him, but he was so quick and I couldn’t get there,” Johnson says. “As long as you can contain a guy like that and contain the rest of the team and just let him do all the scoring, we pretty much did our job.”

More important than the defensive details is the fact that the Raptors look competent on that end again, as they were in 2011-2012. “We’re getting back to the way we want to play as a team,” says Casey.

“We’re going to all talk,” says Johnson. “Even if we’re just yelling anything out, you know what I mean, just calling names, we’re just going to yell, just try to have fun with them. Just get the offense confused. Instead of them attacking us, we take it to them and attack the ball and it’s really looking good so hopefully we can keep that up.

“We sit here and watch film every day and it’s just working for us,” Johnson continues. It’s just two games, though, and just a few days ago it felt like the franchise was falling apart. Any optimism emanating from the two-game winning streak should be tempered by the fact it is the team’s first two-game winning streak.

“Everything is turning our way and it’s starting to click,” Johnson says. Then he remembers not to get ahead of himself. “I don’t want to jinx nothing.”

Paroxysm At Gametime: Jose Calderon, Indispensable In Toronto

The Toronto Raptors miss Kyle Lowry. They miss his scoring punch and his perimeter defense. They miss the way he bulls his way to the basket and puts his opponents in the penalty. They miss him on the break and on the boards. They lost by 20 when he went down with a right ankle sprain about two weeks ago and have lost four of six since. But while Lowry might be the embodiment of Dwane Casey-style basketball at the point guard spot, Toronto’s head coach is anything but averse to starting Jose Calderon in his absence. With the way Casey talks about Calderon, praising him not only as a player but as a professional, as a man, it’s abundantly clear how he values his contributions in Toronto.

After the Raptors’ 97-86 win against the Orlando Magic on Sunday afternoon, Calderon’s supporters weren’t in short supply, and Casey was the first to acknowledge the way he ran the team en route to 18 assists.

“I think his leadership is huge,” Casey said. “I thought Andrea [Bargnani] played with that bounce, that passion that we’re looking for, too. Jose kind of got him going, was cheering him, trying to get the ball to him, and kind of got Andrea involved early, which is important because we’re going to go the way Andrea goes offensively.

“Jose is a leader,” he continued. “Again, I can’t say enough how much I respect him, his game, his leadership. His heart and soul is in the right place for this organization.”

As well as involving Bargnani in the first quarter, Calderon engineered a fourth quarter flurry. The Raptors ended the third down by two, then won the final frame 30-17, including a 19-5 run. Calderon played played the point perfectly on the offensive end, assisting on 10 of his team’s 12 made field goals and not committing a single turnover down the stretch.

“I mean, it shows for itself,” guard DeMar DeRozan said of Calderon’s importance to the team. “He gets everybody the ball where everybody’s comfortable. He knows where everybody likes the ball a lot. He pushes the ball. He makes it easy for all of us.”

The game seemed extremely easy for Amir Johnson in that fourth quarter, where the big man scored 14 points and made all five of his field goal attempts, totally in tune with the point man he’s played with for the past four years. The two of them in tandem is a familiar sight in Toronto.

“We kind of talked when I first got here and I just told him I like to run the floor, if you’re able to throw the lob up there I’ll go get it anywhere you throw it,” Johnson said. “Then I guess from then on we’ve been working on that and doing the lob play, so it’s been working real well for us.

“I think he definitely knows where are the spots I want it,” he continued. “You know, you can hear him, actually, during the pick and roll. He just says, like, roll, and I know the spot where he’s going to pass it to and then I can get into my launch pad or jump shot so it’s a good connection.”

The connection most crucial for Calderon, though, may be the one he has with his coach. “We create a great relationship from the beginning, from day one last year. I think we see basketball the same way,” Calderon said, before acknowledging his affinity for Casey away from the floor.

“When you have that connection it’s always easy to work with somebody. It’s been really good, confidence is there both ways,” Calderon said. “But that’s not only here [in the arena]. On the outside, the way you talk, I think, when you talk, when you respect each other, it’s always good.”

Calderon’s on-court stylings under Casey are just about the same as they’ve always been. He plays mistake-free ball, not spectacular but so, so solid. He’s fourth in the league in assist percentage, per Basketball-Reference.com, just like he was last year. In six games as a starter, he’s averaging 11.8 assists, a mark bested only by Boston’s Rajon Rondo three weeks into the season.

Despite, or perhaps even because of this production, Calderon’s name continually comes up in trade rumors. It makes some sense from a business standpoint, with Toronto committed to Lowry as its long-term starter. There’s no guarantee that the Raptors will be able to work out a deal with the 31 year-old Calderon to return when he hits free agency after the season and his $10.5 million expiring contract could be the best bait they have if they’re looking to add talent.

The problem: a move would almost assuredly cause serious short-term damage to the the Raptors’ playoff hopes. Calderon’s shown not just his dependability with Lowry on the sideline, but his irreplaceability. He played 42 minutes against Orlando (and 50 of a possible 63 in a triple overtime game last week against Utah) because the team relies on him to get the ball to the right spots. While Casey has called third-string point guard John Lucas III a future coach and the spirit of the team, he knows Lucas will always be a scorer much more than a table-setter. He said before and after the Magic game that he prefers to play Lucas alongside Calderon or Lowry rather than in place of them.

Calderon’s gone from substitute to starter and back again too many times to count in his Toronto tenure, but his demeanor hasn’t changed. He’s taken several injuries and a failed trade to Charlotte in stride and he’s stuck it out through a painful rebuild. If Calderon and the Raptors part ways during the season or the summer, his departure will be felt up and down the organization. And the team acquiring him will know exactly the type of player, person and teammate it’s going to get.

Paroxysm At Gametime: More Chances For Nick Young

By @AnthonyBain

On Saturday in Toronto, I told Philadelphia 76ers guard Nick Young that I’d recently watched Second Chance Season, the absolute emotional rollercoaster of a documentary about his final year of high school and his family’s triumph over tragedy. His face lit up like no other in that winning locker room.

“Oh, my man!” he said.

You see similar smiles in the documentary — when he greets friends on the first day of his almost-lost senior year, when he watches a USC game from the stands — but you also see Young shed tears. You see him discuss the day a gang member murdered his eldest brother, Charles Jr., waiting for his pregnant fiancée to pick him up after class at community college. Young was only five years old at the time. He also cries following a loss in the last game of his career at Cleveland High School in Los Angeles, in a locker room much smaller than the one at the Air Canada Centre.

The film follows Young’s chase for a city championship and NCAA eligibility. Three appeals to the athletic board got him an extra year of high school basketball, with his wasted freshman year — split between two schools and marked by skipped classes — finally deemed a direct result of hardship: he couldn’t stand to sit near members of the gang to blame for the loss of his brother. Three tries at the SAT finally gave him the score necessary to earn a college scholarship and go after his NBA dream.

“I got a lot of people depending on me,” Young said in the film on the day of his third SAT go-round. “It’s like I’m supposed to be the future, I’m supposed to be the savior of everybody and I just can’t get past this one test.” He heard the results at his graduation. “Happiest moment of my life,” he said, beaming in his grad garb, upon hearing the good news.

If you’ve seen Second Chance Season, you see Young as a superlative success story. He refused to give up on himself, keeping faith and making dreams come true for himself and his family. If you haven’t, though, you might just see him as an NBA punchline, a loser, a coach’s nightmare. That’s almost a nice description compared to some of the things written about his game.

On the court, Young scores. He shoots jumpers the same way he speaks and carries himself, with an oh-so-easy release and a slight fade. On good nights, he scores often and from everywhere, almost independent of how well he is defended. He doesn’t even need 20 minutes to score 20 points. The flip side is they aren’t all good nights, and he might need more than 20 games to register 20 assists.

The Sixers are Young’s third team in six seasons and Doug Collins is his sixth head coach. He watched his Washington Wizards teammates in the playoffs from the bench as a rookie in 2007-2008, then went 77-210 over the rest of his tenure in Washington, tasting the postseason again only after a midseason trade to the Los Angeles Clippers last year. In his first playoff game as a Clipper, he swished three three pointers in a single minute near the end of the fourth quarter, part of a 26-1 run that gave his team one of the greatest comeback victories in postseason history. That minute was more productive than the 37 total he played In Games 4, 5 and 6 of that series, in which he scored seven points on 2-for-12 shooting.

Young’s high-risk, high-reward game is an odd match for Collins on the surface. Collins’ Sixer teams rely on ball movement and good decision-making to stay above the league’s cellar in terms of offensive efficiency. It’s funny, then, that the coach convinced Young he should come to Philadelphia as a free agent with an early morning phone call. “For a player, that’s all you want: to feel wanted,” he said. “To feel like somebody really wants you to be on their team and needs you, that’s a confidence booster. The opportunity was there, I just took it.” After talking to Young, Collins sold signing with the Sixers to his parents.

Young connects with Collins in part because “he’s a very spiritual person.” He says that playing for him is different than any experience he’s had in the NBA thus far. Collins envisions Young as an offensive game-changer. Some might scoff at the sheer volume of shots he takes when he checks in off the bench, but that’s his job. “When he’s out there, I look for him,” said Sixers point guard Jrue Holiday. “I tell him all the time, ‘My first five passes, like when you’re in the game, are going to you.’ So I’m going to put him up. I think he’s the type of guy, every time he shoots, you think the ball’s going in the hoop.”

“Anytime you add a scorer, you gotta learn how to utilize him and so I’m still in the process of figuring out how I can best take advantage of his talents,” Collins said before his team’s 93-83 win over the Toronto Raptors. “The biggest thing we’ve asked him to do is lock in on the defensive end and do the things we need him to do defensively, which he’s done. He’s graded out very high on all of our game films with his defense and now [he needs to] just get into that rhythm of where his shots are coming from and taking good shots.

“You know, a lot of times when you play on a bad team, there’s a lot of garbage time and we don’t want those kind of minutes here. We want all minutes that are countable and we want him to continue to grow. We think he has a very bright future,” Collins said before praising Young for providing boosts in wins against the Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics.

Against Toronto, Young heated up as soon as the second quarter started, scoring 11 points in five minutes to erase a Toronto deficit. He was the biggest part of a 12-0 run and the 32-7 quarter that decided the game. Collins called the second unit “fantastic” postgame, giving them credit for the win and causing several smiles in the scrum by referring to Young as “Swaggy”.

This is the precisely the type of play that Phildelphia wants from its main bench scorer, but it won’t do anything for his public perception. That’ll only change with efficiency, consistency and winning. “I’m used to it,” Young says of criticism coming from outside the locker room. “I use it as fuel. You can only want to prove somebody wrong.

“You get to the point where you don’t want to read it no more,” Young continued. “You kind of zone everything out and just go out there and play your game.”

Eight years removed from high school, Young took a moment to reflect on the difference between the kid he was then and the man he is now. “I don’t know, not too much. Not too much,” he said with the same laid-back, entirely Californian delivery he had as a teenager. “A lot of growing. I grew up a little bit. I grew up a lot. I’m still fighting, still got goals. Obviously my goal back then was to make it here. Now I’m trying to stay here and become an All-Star sooner or later.”

Regardless of what anyone says, Young will believe in himself like he did as a high schooler, and he’ll keep shooting.

Quincy & Reggie & Alexey & Andrei: Two Pair

Photo by chough on Flickr

BALD, BEARDED BROTHERS IN BOARDS

Saturday, November 3, 2012, Barclays Center. A group of players is waiting for an elevator, including Toronto Raptors rookie Quincy Acy and ex-Raptor, current Brooklyn Net Reggie Evans. Some of Acy’s teammates can’t help but laugh. “It was funny,” said Toronto’s Aaron Gray. “We said, ‘Oh, you finally met your twin, huh?’”

It was a meeting many months in the making, as Acy compared his game to Evans’ when he traveled from team to team to take part in predraft workouts this past summer. Gray watched the draft on television and texted teammate Ed Davis after Toronto selected Acy with the 37th pick of the draft. “He said, ‘Damn, man. Quincy Acy is the next Reggie Evans, ain’t it?’” said Davis.

The similarities are striking. As well as the bald head and the beard, on the court the two are all hustle, desire, effort. At 6’7 and 6’8, respectively, both Acy and Evans are undersized but unafraid of battling in the paint. Acy has more athleticism and is a better shooter than Evans, though he has a lot to learn about the professional game and it’s unlikely he’ll match Evans’ historically relentless rebounding rate.

Acy first heard the comparison when he was a senior at Baylor and he’s not mad at it. “I took it on as a role. I saw what he did in the playoffs and helped his team win. It’s a great comparison,” he said.

“Both of them are energy guys, guys that have multiple efforts,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey in July at NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. “I would say Quincy’s probably ahead of Reggie now offensively as far as shooting the ball, making free throws and as a passer he’s ahead of him right now. But the one area where Reggie’s ahead of Quincy is Reggie brings it every possession. And I’ve told Quincy that, he’s got to learn to do it every possession where he’s competing, hitting people, playing with energy and not losing that focus. And he will do that, he’s just a young kid. I told him conditioning can’t be a factor. Can’t get tired when you’re in as a banger.”

On Saturday in Brooklyn, Evans provided his team with a boost, grabbing 13 rebounds in 15:41 of game action in a 107-100 win. Put another, more impressive, way: he rebounded 78.6 percent of shots missed while he was on the court (via Devin Kharpertian). While this was happening, Acy watched in a suit, inactive for a second straight loss to start his career.

With the Raptors’ deep frontcourt rotation, Acy will likely have to wait his turn and keep battling and banging in practice and perhaps the D-League before he sees significant floor time on this level. Fortunately, Casey sees some personality traits in him that helped Evans when he encountered him 10 years ago. Casey was an assistant for the Seattle SuperSonics then, and they’d brought Evans into camp as an undrafted rookie. He earned rotation minutes by late November. “I think they’re the same,” said Casey. “I think they’re the same guy. Both of them are quiet, to themselves, tough, proving to the world that they belong. Both of them are hungry, hungry guys.”

Davis concurs. “Shit, I’ve been the one saying it the whole time,” he said. “He act just like him, talk like him. They both wear their ugly-ass Gucci bookbag. They act just alike, man.”

I CAN SEE RUSSIA FROM MY HOUSE

Sunday, November 4, Air Canada Centre. The visitors locker room is mostly empty, but Minnesota Timberwolves rookie guard Alexey Shved is in the corner locker preparing for his second NBA game with player development coach David Adelman. Andrei Kirilenko, Shved’s teammate first with the Russian national team, then with CSKA Moscow and now with the Timberwolves, is one locker over, taking a break to from his book to answer a question about what people should know about the 23-year-old who looks significantly younger.

“[Shved] needs to cut his hair,” said Kirilenko. “But I’m kind of trying to figure out myself at his age. I had a mohawk and crazy stuff on my hair so I guess it’s an age thing.”

Kirilenko and his hair made the transition from CSKA Moscow to the NBA 11 years ago, trying to fit in with a veteran Utah Jazz team featuring point guard John Stockton, power forward Karl Malone and head coach Jerry Sloan. He became a full-time starter by January. Shved is trying to fit in with a veteran Minnesota team featuring point guard Ricky Rubio, power forward Kevin Love and head coach Rick Adelman. The Timberwolves’ two stars are injured, though, and Rubio’s absence has meant Shved being thrown to the, um, wolves.

Last Friday in a 92-80 win over the Sacramento Kings, Shved saw 15 minutes of court time. He missed all three of his shots, failed to record an assist and committed two fouls and a turnover. Shved wasn’t pleased with his play but doesn’t want to make the season opener about himself. “This not the same level like in Europe,” Shved said. “I want to work. I want to play. It’s my first game, very important to me.” He described his play as “not best, not good” but stressed that it was more important that his team came away with a victory.

Kirilenko’s advice to Shved after Game 1 was simple: forget about it. “You can’t really look back,” he said. “You always have to move forward. Every time you don’t do something, like you didn’t make your shot or you have something like, let’s say a not successful game, you can’t look back. You have to analyze it and move forward.

“In Europe you have too much days between the games, so you have a chance to work on it. Here, you don’t have a chance to work on it … And sometimes you’re thinking too much. I said, ‘Don’t think. Just do it. Just do it, just naturally.’”

Against the Toronto Raptors, Kirilenko was Minnesota’s best player, finishing with 17 points, six rebounds, three assists, three blocks and a steal while shooting on 6-for-7 from the field in a 105-86 loss. Shved, meanwhile, had eight points on six field goal attempts, plus four assists and a steal in 22 minutes. He also had three of Minnesota’s 24 turnovers, and you could imagine Kirilenko telling him, “Move forward, don’t think!” in Russian after one of his shaky passes. Seeing him find open teammates out of the pick and roll and hit a spot-up three-pointer, one saw brief glimpses of the confidence and comfort level he displayed in the Olympics and the Euroleague. Still, Shved knows it will take time to find his place, and he’s happy that Kirilenko will help him get there.

“He’s a good basketball player, he’s a good guy,” Shved said. “He can tell me about a couple of moments like in the game and out of court. I’m trying to listen to him because he’s played here like 10 years and he knows everything.”

Shved had his hair cut on Monday.