Podcast: It Was All A Dream

Anthony Bennett Cavs

Mark and McNeill talked about the NBA Draft, Canada Basketball, the big trade between Boston and Brooklyn, Bill Simmons and Doc Rivers, free agency and some possible trades.

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P.J. Tucker’s Long Journey Back To The NBA

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A few hours before the Phoenix Suns took on the Toronto Raptors this weekend, Michael Beasley was transfixed with the blister that was festering on the toe of P.J. Tucker.

Before Tucker could escape to the trainer’s table to get his blister popped, Beasley joked, “Man, I want to see him pop that thing!”

It has taken six long years, but, unlike his blister, Tucker’s dream of playing in the NBA won’t be popped anytime soon.

Back in 2006, Tucker was drafted by the Toronto Raptors in the second round of the NBA Draft with the 35th pick. Tucker’s time in Toronto was nothing more than a blip in the team’s history as he only played 17 games before being waived by Toronto on March 24, 2007.

“Man, it seems like such a long time ago,” Tucker admitted. “So much has changed since I was here last.”

It hasn’t just been the city of Toronto or the Air Canada Centre that has changed. Tucker came into the NBA as a power forward trapped in a guard’s body. He was comfortable banging under the basket and cleaning the glass, however, at only 6’5”, he was at a severe height disadvantage every night.

While Tucker was able to get away with this style of play in college at Texas, it became clear in a hurry that his game would need to change and evolve if he wanted to stick around in the NBA.

Sure, there were nights when he scored in double-figures against Phoenix on December 19, 2006, where he scored 12 points and corralled nine rebounds, but those were few and far between.

For the most part he languished on the Raptors bench his rookie season while averaging 7.1 points, 1.9 rebounds in 12.9 minutes per game.

Since leaving the Raptors, Tucker has played in Puerto Rico (Quebradillas), Italy (Fabi Shoes MGR), Greece (Aris), Ukraine (BC Donetsk), Israel (Bnei Hasharon), and most recently in Germany (Brose Baskets).

Tucker averaged 16.2 points and 7.1 rebounds in 44 games last season in Germany and was named the MVP of the German League Finals.

“Things were different because I was getting 15-17 shots each game being the main guy on the team,” Tucker said about playing in Germany. “When I come here (to Phoenix) I needed to play a specific role. For me, it’s about seeing both sides of it. It’s about growing and maturing on and off the court seeing how I can affect the game not only with scoring. It’s about grabbing rebounds and doing all of the little things to help my team win.”

Even though Tucker had a successful season in Germany by all accounts – he was named an All-Star, Import Player of the Year, Forward of the Year and First Team Selection, all while winning the 2012 German Bundesliga Cup – it’s clear playing overseas had it’s share of challenges.

“It’s different because you’re not in America but the game of basketball was different, too,” Tucker explained. “It’s a lot harder to get plays run in the paint because there aren’t as many defensive fouls, there are no three seconds and you can knock the ball off the rim. Its a lot different (than the NBA) because the game is slowed down. It’s a lot more compact because the court is smaller and the three-point line is in closer than it is here in the NBA. You also have to get used to the way that they play, too.”

While playing overseas was an adjustment, it was an experience that helped him grow and evolve as a player. Now, instead of just being a gritty rebounder, he’s shown this season he can stick an open jumper and he has become a pesky defender that can guard multiple positions.

“I think this is exactly what we expected from him,” Alvin Gentry boasted. ”We were lucky enough to have him on our Summer League team and this style of play is what he brought to the team in the summer. Toughness. Very good defender. Relentless worker. He gives us a huge energy boost off of the bench.”

While being heralded as a bench player isn’t what most players dream of, just having the chance to play in the NBA this season is something that Tucker relishes and doesn’t take it for-granted.

“Oh, man, it makes being back in the NBA a million times sweeter,” admitted Tucker while cracking an ear-to-ear grin. “Coming back here to Toronto has put me back in the mindset of being a rookie. For me to be able to come back here now after all of these years is amazing to me.”

After traveling around the globe playing basketball dreaming of returning to the NBA, having the chance to play in front of friends and family once again is something Tucker appreciates.

No wonder a pesky blister wasn’t able to slow Tucker down from playing 12 minutes off the bench in his return to the city where his NBA career started six long years ago.

The Flawed Pre-Draft Workout Process

“I’m from Oakland. Gary Payton was that kind of person, really competitive. Jason Kidd, Brian Shaw. I feel I have to bring that same thing to the table as an Oakland point guard. I want to compete and I feel I still have to prove myself playing against higher lever guys and I’m happy to have the opportunity.”

This was Weber State point guard Damian Lillard, explaining his decision to run through drills last weekend in Chicago despite being given the option to skip them altogether.

Less than a week later, in a private workout with the Toronto Raptors, who own the No. 8 over-all selection in the NBA Draft, Lillard was literally peerless – that is, he showcased his skills absent of any draft-eligible potential rivals.

So, was this a case of empty, meaningless words from a guy shying away from the same competition he supposedly embraces? Quite the contrary – this was one of the many league-wide examples of the power of NBA agents (in this case, Goodwin Sports Management CEO Aaron Goodwin).

As the logic goes, agents want to avoid exposing their clients to potential direct comparisons that could negatively impact their draft stock and, thus, cost them money. While mitigating risk is sound, sensible business, the flip side is problematic: instead of proving themselves through one-on-one competition, players are limited in what they can showcase and team personnel is limited in what they can learn.

Ed Stefanski, the Raptors’ executive vice-president of basketball operations, has been around the game too long to get too worked up over league business that falls outside of his control, but you can sense his inherent frustration as he struggles to evaluate prospects like Lillard.

“It’s a lot more difficult when the player goes one-on-none, not having any competition against him,” admits Stefanski. “[...] We bring him in, we interview him, we get to talk to him, we get to see the kid, we have a meal or two with him, so that’s probably the main reason we bring him in.”

Two days later, following a solo workout with UNC’s Harrison Barnes (whose agent, Jeff Wechsler, represents former one-on-none’er Kyrie Irving), Stefanski was more direct.

“One on zero is very hard to make any assessment,” says the former Nets and Sixers GM, before acknowledging that the club has seen much of Barnes during his two-year career at Chapel Hill.

For their part, even if the draft prospects understand the intentions of their representatives, it’s not as though they enjoy going at it alone.

Lillard’s decision to opt into the Chicago drills came on account of Goodwin giving him the option. The 22-year-old’s decision to participate looks like a good one in hindsight, as he left a positive impression about his character and work ethic, as well as answering some questions about whether putting up big stats in a weak Big Sky Conference inflated his value.

As ESPN Insider Chad Ford put it on Monday, “Weber State’s Damian Lillard was the real star of the draft combine. He was the best player to agree to do the drills and it paid off for him. Many of the NBA executives in attendance had never seen him play in person before and the rest had only seen him only a handful of times. Lillard shot the lights out, had a couple of terrific dunks in the drills and 3-on-3 play, played hard and was very good in interviews with teams.”

For Barnes, the lack of competition in his workout with Toronto was actually an obstacle to be overcome.

“Obviously, it’s difficult to work out by yourself – your legs are going to go a little bit quicker that you expect them to,” says the Tar Heels standout. “You’ve got to continue to stay positive, continue to grind it out, continue to work hard.”

To summarize, draft prospects are being protected in a counter-intuitive manner that isn’t preferred by team executives or even by the players, themselves (unless, of course, they are paying lip service to their desire for competition in a bid to appear tougher). At a defining time when many clubs are setting a course for the future of their organization, it’s the agents who call the shots.

The Continued Evolution Of Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard entered the 2011 NBA Draft with relatively little fanfare. A majority of the attention was directed towards Kyrie Irving, who went first overall to the Cavaliers, while Derrick Williams, Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette and the Morris twins were nice secondary stories.

Leonard had been projected by many to be drafted in the top 10, but he slipped to the 15th pick when the Pacers selected him. He was then traded to the Spurs for George Hill.

On the podium, minutes after his draft selection, Leonard appeared confused about the type of role he would play in Indiana until he was informed that he was traded to the Spurs.

“I had a meeting with them, and I got a great vibe from them”, Leonard said of the Spurs last June. “Just any team I’m on, I’m happy with right now. I’m just going in, trying to do whatever the coach wants me to do to make the team successful.”

On December 26, Leonard earned the trust of Gregg Popovich by scoring six points and six rebounds against the Grizzlies in 14 minutes. Since then, his playing time has steadily increased. He averaged 28.2 minutes in March, and 21.2 in April while contributing 11.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.7 steals.

He is far from an offensive threat, but in true San Antonio fashion, they haven’t asked him to step outside of his comfort zone. He fits very nicely into what Popovich has done this season, but there may come a time when his stature will be a problem. Leonard is too small to bang with a traditional power forward, and if asked to score more as a power forward, he won’t be nearly as efficient.

An injury to Manu Ginobili opened up a spot in the starting lineup in early January, and Leonard has handled the promotion well. He was featured a bit more offensively as a starter, attempting more shots (8.0 compared to his previous 4.9) in eight more minutes of playing time.

This new role involved playing tougher defense, hitting a few perimeter shots and crashing the boards. Leonard grabs a higher percentage of offensive rebounds than Tim Duncan (8.4% to 7.7%), rarely turns the ball over, and has a low usage rate for someone with an above-average PER (17.0). Leonard also has the second best defensive rating among San Antonio’s starters.

In this year’s playoffs, Leonard is averaging 8.2 points and 4.2 rebounds in a reserve role for the Spurs. His impact was felt in the series against the Clippers, in which he averaged 10.6 points and 6.3 rebounds. During that series, he was often matched up against Chris Paul for defensive purposes. Paul struggled with Leonard guarding him, averaging only 8 points and 8 assists; 9.7 points less than his averages against the Grizzlies in the first round, which stood at 17.7 points.

If the evolution of Leonard continues at this current rate, he can potentially be seen as this generation’s Bruce Bowen.

Under Popovich’s leadership, Leonard is on his way to NBA stardom, and continues to validate why he was the steal of the 2011 NBA Draft with each passing game.