Reason I Never Made the NBA #1873: The Rise of the Uber Athletic, Two-Way Wing Player

As a kid, I had the same dream of making it to the NBA as millions of others. This series will feature my random observations about the game of basketball, both professional and collegiate, as well as my long overdue attempt to gain closure on the fact that I will never step foot on the hardwood as the Lakers’ starting point guard.

In the first installment of this series, I thought I’d start with a rising trend in the game: the necessity of having a wing player who could contribute on both ends to the team, as well as to the end of the week SportsCenter Top 10s. Essentially, it’s the group of second comings of Scottie Pippen himself, the 40 to Jordan’s Drake, (I already apologize to anyone offended by this comparison) the multifaceted athletic wing often tasked with guarding the other team’s best offensive option.

Let’s take a look at the All-Pippen Team of young NBA stars:

  • Kawhi Leonard, a.k.a. The Claw, who equally sends shivers down the spines of his matchup and little green three-eyed aliens in toy machines everywhere.
  • Jimmy Butler, whose improvement from 2014 to 2015 must have a Samson-like correlation to his new haircut.
  • Paul George, who stormed onto the scene in 2014, only to leave us all wondering “What if?” about his 2015 season after his injury with Team USA during the summer.
  • Andrew Wiggins, the new kid on the block anointed with being the next T-Mac, possessing the kind of freak athleticism that makes an average NBA fan almost resentful of their results in the genetic lottery of conception.

And of course, as a Laker fan, I must make mention of the cautionary tale named Wes Johnson. Taken 4th overall and the possessing shoes coated in a mixture of Flubber and jet fuel, he has all the tools to be on the All-Pippen team. But to the frustration of Laker Nation, he can go from looking like a mix of Bow Wow in Like Mike and the Purple Monstar in Space Jam to Carlton on the Bel-Air Academy squad in Fresh Prince. However, with injuries all over the roster, so I guess we have to love tolerate Wild Wild Wes.

But what is it about this type of players that makes them such a necessity to winning basketball? Ever since the game shifted to becoming more offensive minded, it became a necessity to have that one player that could handle the large order of guarding the likes of Kobe, KD, Melo, Lebron, etc. And it’s no new formula. Teams have always fiddled with the idea of a “stopper”, giving careers to the likes of Bruce Bowen, Tony Allen and Shane Battier for many years. But as the game evolved, it became necessary for all 5 players on the floor to be contributors on the offensive side of the floor. As a result, it became a job requirement for these young players to grow their offensive games, despite having all the physical tools to be a stopper for years.

Now when you think of Kawhi Leonard, what comes to mind immediately? That’s right, his defense. Anything else? Exactly. Leonard’s awe-inspiring defensive showdowns with the best scorers in the league are must-see TV, yet I can’t even remember what his voice sounds like or if he even has teeth. He has a poker face to rival Derrick Rose’s during the 2012 All-Star game player introductions.  And that is what makes him such a nightmare to face. There’s nothing worse than a guy holding you to 4/17 from the field with 5 turnovers, except a guy who looks like he’s about to fall into a nap at any moment while doing it. And a guy rocking cornrows at that! Nobody’s been afraid of cornrows since Iverson, Melo and even Trey Songz ditched them. But with his step into the spotlight of NBA stardom, Leonard has grown into more than the prototypical 3 and D player. As avid basketball viewers can see, he has been trusted with the reins of a Spurs’ offensive position many, many times throughout the season, becoming yet another go-to player on a team that already features Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan. Not to mention that picture circulating on the internet about the size of his hands and their ability to make his opponents feel simply inadequate. (Pause.) And what’s even crazier is he’s only 23, the same age as me. Goddamn it.

As far as Jimmy Butler goes, he was always someone I considered to be good, but forgettable in the larger picture of the NBA. I mean, he was on a team with the NBA’s resident Bad Luck Brian, Derrick Rose, and the king of hustle and passion in Joakim Noah. Boy, was I wrong. Rose’s overall letdown of a season (relative of course to the unfair expectations placed on him), and various other injuries to the Bulls roster left Butler in a position to shine. Everyone knew he could defend, from the great playoff games between the Bulls and the Heatles, even without the United Center’s favorite floor general. (No, it’s not you Mario Chalmers) But as his leap offensively this year has shown, Butler may be the beacon of light amidst all the dark clouds of ESPN alerts regarding Rose’s season to season availability. He proved that he could effectively be a focal point for the offense, a strong counterpart to the big man rotation of Mirotic, Gasol, Noah, and Gibson. And there’s his ownership of every ESPN and TNT commentators favorite feel good, nothing to something story. This kid can ball, and adversity from the past is just exactly that. Jimmy Buckets is getting the max deal real soon, whether it’s from the Bulls or another team. (God, I hope Mitch Kupchak is waiting already to write a fat check to Butler).

Paul George, whose reincarnation as PG-13 provides no commentary on his R rated game. (Did I really just commit that cinematic rating reference? That was such a cop-out. I apologize). I’ll look past the blue balls he gave all Laker fans when we put the Illuminati level theories together about his choice of 24 as his jersey number, his background in Palmdale, and his then-pending free agency as a way to anoint him the next coming of Kobe at Staples Center, and I’ll tell the truth, this guy, when on the court is one of my favorites. Highlight reel athleticism? Check. I’ve spent many hours watching the NBA Top 10 Dunks of the Week then trying to recreate them with him on NBA 2k. (Yes, I have him traded to the Lakers in Association Mode. So what, a guy can dream.).  Lockdown defense? Check. The 2015 season just wasn’t the same without the marquee matchups between him and Lebron throughout the year. Deep ball? Check. Everyone remembers the years he was in the Slam Dunk Contest, but in 2013 the dude was in the 3-Point Shootout too. He’s my personal favorite on this list, and this year serves a reminder of the gaping hole he left on the Pacers’ roster, as they struggle to make the playoffs in the godawful Eastern Conference. And the guy has two first names! How could he be anything less than amazing? (See: Chris Paul, Ricky Bobby, Ray Charles, Andy Dick).

Lastly, the youngest on this list, Andrew Wiggins, who goes by nicknames such as The Earwig, Ludwiggins van Beethoven, Nephew Drew, and Canada’s Best Import to the US Since Maple Syrup and Drake. Okay, maybe none of those nicknames are real, but one has to catch on. I loved watching the game where Kobe passed Jordan on the scoring list versus the Timberwolves because he also subsequently took a walking replay of his younger self to school on more than a few possessions. (Almost chillingly coincidental for Wiggins to be on the court as Kobe passed Jordan, who Kobe essentially is the walking replica of. Well played, Adam Silver.) Now I’m on the team of people who think the Cavs shipping him to the NBA’s version of Siberia was the best thing that could happen to young Ludwiggins. (I was so hyped with coming up with that nickname I am now going to use it almost exclusively.) He landed on a team going nowhere, with all the opportunity in the world to be the go-to guy and make mistakes on the job. Every two way star on this list needed some kind of shot to shine, and young Ludwiggins now has the time and touches to build his way up to his Basketball Sonata No. 22 in C major. I’ve been excited about him ever since that video of his vertical leap surfaced on Instagram, and he has the tools to be terrifying on both ends, and he’s essentially a consistent jump shot away from being unguardable. Either way, he has me thinking about buying a Wolves jersey that doesn’t have Olowokandi Hoiberg Madsen Marbury on the back.

As exciting as it is to watch the NBA turn into the league of point gods (see: Westbrook, Curry, Lillard), I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love me some wing play. (Pause? Something sounds off about that statement.) The average age of these four players is 23, which hits my current age right on the nose. Since I can enjoy their defensive prowess from the safety of my living room couch, it’s safe to say I don’t envy the players that have to worry about checking these four on a night to night basis. From raining threes and putting their defenders in the rim with a nastiness I can only compare to a burning wicker basket full of kittens, to handing the most potent scorers a set of clamps suffocatingly reminiscent of the brick wall in the Cask of Amontillado (that’s right, an Edgar Allan Poe reference. Who knows what limits I can reach with these?), the two way player has reached the levels of flour and eggs in the recipe of winning basketball.

Now if only the Lakers can stumble upon one of these sometime soon. (Cough. Justise Winslow. Cough.)

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