All It Took Was An Opportunity

Like every game for the past 4 years I watched the contest between The Lakers and Thunder breaking down the game for Kobe and trying to pick up things to learn. It was an exciting game filled with WWE antics and heroic plays by both teams. It wasn’t a perfect game by any stretch as players on both teams struggled to make shots, although made shots when they counted.

What was encouraging to see was the two heroes for the Lakers who were buried on their bench for the whole year played major roles in their team’s success. Jordan Hill (acquired at the trade deadline), and Devin Ebanks(second year player who’s seen more action in the D League than on the Lakeers) played big minutes down the stretch in the Lakers double overtime victory. Mike Brown did what few coaches do and that’s experiment with an unpopular lineup in the heat of the battle. Coaches for the most part go with players that they are comfortable with especially when things are going badly very rarely do you ever see them go with players that have been buried on their benches as long as Hill and Ebanks have. Both Ebanks and Hill aren’t perfect players by any stretch of the imagination. For Hill his offense on the block is lacking and isn’t he smartest big man out there. But, what he can do is impact the game with his activity level and his rebounding. As you can see with his 15 rebound performance in Sunday’s win he changed the game with his ability to get to balls and be active on the offensive glass giving the Lakers many second chance opportunities. For Ebanks his Achilles heel has always been his shooting. But what he can do is change the game with his ability to finish at the rim and guard people with his size and length. Too much has been made about what these players couldn’t do instead of what they could.

This whole season has been a constant reminder to players, coaches, and scouts that sometimes you don’t know the true value of your players that are sitting at the end of your benches until they are given an opportunity. Everyone on the planet has experienced Jeremy Lin’s success as he took the NBA by storm for the Knicks for almost two months. Lin sat on the bench for the Warriors and Rockets before lucking out with the injury situation for the Knicks, getting the opportunity to play big minutes and never looking back. Lin wasn’t the only one as players such as Avery Bradley(Boston Celtics), Gerald Green(NJ Nets), and John Lucas Jr (Chicago Bulls) all benefitted from major minutes with their respective teams. Most if not all of the mentioned players were written off from the basketball world for one reason or another. They were wasting away on the end of benches in Green and Lucas’s case in the minor leagues and countries that most of us have never heard of. For coaches and scouts evaluating players for the top prospects have about a 70% success rate when you are talking about lottery picks. Most players for the most part pan out when it comes to producing serviceable NBA players. Players selected in the second half of the first probably have about a 40% success rate. Evaluating players selected in the second round as well as undrafted, free agent, and minor leagues are very hard to gage. Playing time is allotted to a team’s stars, serviceable veterans, and drafted rookies. Other players that are lucky enough to make teams have a tough time getting any day light to show what they can do. Unless their team is out of the playoff race early, injuries to 3-4 players, or trades involving less players coming back than sent out they will sit on the end of their team’s bench.

For a player, the message here is you always need to stay ready. There is no time to feel sorry for yourself or point fingers to your coach or anyone else why you aren’t getting any playing time. Many players who struggle to get minutes tend to lose focus and their attitude tends to dip. There is no time for finger pointing and blaming others. One thing about NBA veterans especially those who have been in it for a while understand it is a long season and they never know when their number will be called. They can go 10 games without playing and all it takes is one game for them to get back in the mix and have to provide minutes for their team. You never know when opportunity will knock on the door giving you a chance to show how you can help your team win. Basketball is a very tough sport to make a name for yourself in if you don’t carry a big name or reputation. For most that opportunity will never come as sometimes it just isn’t your time. Jeremy Lin’s story is a fantastic one that has a E Hollywood Story written all over it. Here is a kid that was at the end of his team’s bench once given minutes turned into the NBA’s top 10 point guards almost overnight. If it wasn’t for having luck of multiple injuries to Knicks point guards for the most part Jeremy Lin would have never done anything worth writing about in his NBA career. What people should get out of his story is you never know when opportunity will come knocking. Until that happens you need to stay focused and prepared for your number to get called. Losers make excuses for never getting a chance and winners stay prepared for their time to come.

For a coach or scout you have to stop worrying about what players can’t do and concern yourself what skill they do have to help your team win games. There have been countless players written off for things that they couldn’t do. I remember people complaining about Rajon Rondo not being able to shoot coming into the draft. What they didn’t focus on is his ability to change speeds and get in the lane, vision/passing, and his unbelievable athletic ability. Kevin Love wasn’t athletic enough , but they forgot the fact that he was one of the smartest players in the league and can rebound at a level only a few that have ever played the game could. The list goes on and on of players and what they couldn’t do. Most NBA players can only do 1 thing, but they do that one thing better than the majority of players in the world. I’ll be the first one to admit to writing off players that ended up bighting me in the ass a year or so later. Making mistakes is a part of life, it’s the people who learn from those mistakes and don’t repeat them who go on to do great things. As a coach try to give opportunities to players in practice as much as you can. Identify the one or two things that a player does well to help you win and plug them into a roll that can maximize that skill. If you have a shooting guard that can’t shoot, but can guard people and finish then on offense space them out on the weak side and have your players give them the ball on penetrate and kicks or doubles from the post. If your post player can’t score on the block or shoot, but can run the floor and dunk then put them in screen roll as well as rim running them in transition instead of running isolation plays for them. We can be here all day with examples of this, but you get where I am heading here.

Not everyone that sits at the end of your bench can be a Jeremy Lin. You can give them all the minutes and opportunity in the world and they will never produce the results that he did. Every player in the NBA can be productive as they are there for a reason. You need to put them in situations where they can help your team win. Sometimes you get a snapshot of a player and they don’t perform so the first thought that comes through your head is they can’t play especially if they are a young player. As a coach you need to have an open mind and continue to give them opportunities. Writing off players especially when it was only their first few games opens yourself up to make mistakes when evaluating their talent. You need to coach them up and build their confidence up to give them more opportunities. In basketball at some point players are who they are and it doesn’t matter how much coaching is done they will never live up to expectations and you have to face the facts. I have the philosophy for an NBA player that they are who they are after their rookie contract is up. After year five they are who they are. There are very few examples of players that make big jumps in development after year 5 in the NBA. Sometimes it takes players a few years to compete physically and/or mentally in the NBA, but usually by year 5 they hit their development plateau. I think back to Darko Milicic who is the punch-line to most NBA draft jokes. As most know he was selected second in the NBA draft ahead of Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade among many other all-star players. He played for a team that was coming off an NBA championship coached by a very hard nosed coach in Larry Brown. Darko got very little opportunity and wasted away mentally as well as physically at the end of Detroit’s bench. By the time he was traded to Orlando he was only a shell of what he could have been. Obviously he may never have been as good as D Wade or Anthony , but if given the proper development and encouragement could have made a much bigger impact on the game. This isn’t a negative against the coaches that he had, but it just wasn’t the right fit for him as if he was in a situation that could have given him more minutes in a traditional lottery setting with a coach that could have catered to young players a little more things could have been different.

Opportunities in all stages of life don’t come very often. Sometimes you get labeled in life very early and can never move on from that label. It’s a way of life and very few can ever get out of it. You need to stay focused on the task at hand and stay prepared for opportunities that come your way. Sometimes you need to ignore labels and create your own opportunities. For those of you who are in positions of power paying attention to what others tell you only sets you up for failure. It is your job to investigate all assets that can help you be successful and put them in position to help you. Many players got to places on pure talent and reputation, but for a few they got there because of opportunities that were given to them. Basketball is a never ending popularity contest and it is very frustrating. There are many good players that never get a chance because they didn’t play in a certain league, don’t fit a certain mold,or aren’t a certain height. For most they are dismissed to the land of misfit toys because of things that they can’t do. Hopefully because of the play of Jeremy Lin and others like him that the landscape of basketball will change and more players will be given the opportunity to achieve their dreams. For Jordan Hill and Devin Ebanks today may be the start of them helping to put energy on the Lakers second unit and help them win their 18th NBA Championship. All it took was an opportunity.

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