NY Knicks Players Fighting for Their Basketball Lives
There's more to life than the NBA.
Unless, of course, the NBA is your life. All-consuming narratives are reserved for the select few, the ones who jumped high enough; scored enough; and, yeah, were tall enough to turn playground ambitions into lucrative paychecks and longstanding fame.
Across the Association, that lifestyle is in jeopardy for some, and it's no different for the New York Knicks within the confines of Madison Square Garden. Leading into training camp and next season, there are a handful of players fighting to save their reputations or build them from scratch.
They're not Carmelo Anthony, who is approaching a career-defining campaign. And they're not even Andrea Bargnani, the underachieving stretch forward/center. There will always be room for 7-footers who can score from anywhere on the floor.
They're players with something real to lose, like a job or their last shrivels of dignity.
No matter the circumstances in which he's battling, each player is looking to start anew, hoping to put himself in a position where a botched performance doesn't stand to cost him everything.
Jeremy Tyler has a great opportunity in New York.
The Knicks remain in need of a center to back up Tyson Chandler, and, as luck would have it, Tyler is taller than Pablo Prigioni, meaning Mike Woodson will give him time at the 5.
Drafted in the second round by the Charlotte Bobcats in 2011, Tyler has dressed for two different teams—the Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks—in two years. The Knicks will be his third in as many seasons. And they present him with a chance he may not get again.
Their backup center slot is wide open. Kenyon Martin will spend time assisting Chandler, but he's a gritty 4, not a natural 5. The same can be said for Bargs, though you'll want to substitute "gritty" with "pillowy." Then there's Amar'e Stoudemire, a frail defensive liability.
At 6'10" and considered an athletic fiend, Tyler can crack the rotation if he proves he can handle playing amongst men. Maturation has been an issue since he forewent his senior year of high school to play professionally overseas, a more brazen version of what's known as the "Brandon Jennings."
Things haven't quite panned out for the 22-year-old big man since then. His draft stock plummeted even before he was eligible to play in the NBA, and he's yet to do anything to reverse the "immature" label he's been brandished with.
That is, until now.
Playing for New York's summer league team, Tyler averaged 12.8 points and 6.4 rebounds on 56.3-percent shooting in just 17.6 minutes per game. Elbows were thrown; he was aggressive early and often; and, most importantly, he was committed in ways he never was before.
"What I thought was working hard wasn’t enough," Tyler told ESPN's Ethan Sherwood Strauss. "So you gotta step it up. Take it to the next level."
Entering his third season, on a team that is devoid of healthy size and desperate enough to give him burn, Tyler is going to get his shot—one last opportunity to elude the dappled reputation that currently precedes him.
C.J. Leslie has a chance to rewrite his NBA beginnings. That, or he may surrender to the despondency that often follows going undrafted.
Initially, Leslie was projected as an early-second-round pick. Some even thought he could slip into the first round. But draft night came and went; his name wasn't called; and so begins the long, arduous trek towards acceptance.
That's what Leslie is fighting for, after all—acceptance. Failing to make an impact in New York now doesn't mean that his is career over, but it does put him in an oft-inescapable hole. For every John Starks and Ben Wallace, there is a more traumatic tale, marked by failure and the harrowing reality of not being good enough.
Distancing himself from those that have fallen before him is going to be a process. The thing is, time isn't on his side. It never is in these situations. Only so many teams will give you a second look after going undrafted. Every opportunity could be your last.
Leslie is young and was once thought to be a surefire selection; New York won't be his only backer if he stumbles out of the gate. There will be others. With each floundered chance, however, future prospects dwindle. They whither away, until all that's left is a seat cushion for you to warm with your derriere. Or worse.
Leslie won't want it to get that far. He'll want to make an impression immediately, before he's faced with a more potent dose of uncertainty.
Mixed signals were sent during his summer league stint, during which he notched 9.2 points and 3.2 rebounds on 40.4-percent shooting through five games. He wasn't the efficient scorer he was while at N.C. State. Then again, not everyone is coming out of college.
Not right away, at least.
Sheer intrigue has carried him this far, to the Knicks, a team short of low-post scorers and prone to futzing around with its rotation. Carving out an everyday role as this season's Chris Copeland—sans the three-point shooting—would erase any existing doubt, but it's not (completely) necessary.
Maybe he gets the chance to play extensively; maybe he doesn't. Measuring his minutes, however, isn't nearly as important as gauging what he does with the ones he receives. His performance will be what eviscerates his draft-day slide or drags him further down a path he was never supposed to travel.
Eleven years into his career, Stoudemire still has something to prove.
Questions about his effectiveness cannot be posed. The numbers—14.2 points on 57.7-percent shooting in 23.5 minutes a night last season—and his work ethic speak for themselves. When he's on the court, it's clear that the fire's still burning.
But how long can he stay on the court? Or healthy at all?
STAT is going to be put on a minutes cap next season. There's no way around it. He's missed 72 games over the past two seasons, ruining any hope the Knicks had of becoming a superteam led by him and 'Melo.
Two seasons now separate him and the end of his deal, one that he's going to finish out. Those familiar with Stoudemire and the type of player he is know he won't retire. Not like this, when he still has unfinished business. As for where he'll close out his contract, who he'll be upon its conclusion and what the future holds beyond 2015, no one really knows.
What we do know is that in less than one year's time, the league's most untradeable player becomes movable. Theoretically.
Expiring contracts are hot commodities, even steep ones. Stoudemire's will pay him more than $23.4 million in the final year, making it a more taxing (sometimes literally) financial commitment than others.
If he plays well enough and remains healthy enough next season, there may be a team willing to pay him for one year in favor of shedding some dead weight. Or perhaps the Knicks wouldn't be so inclined to trade him; maybe they elect to ride this relationship out.
Either way, Stoudemire finds himself playing to preserve what's left of his reputation and to salvage what's left of his future, both in New York and the NBA in general.
For over two years, he has been fighting for his basketball life, waging a war against his own bodily limits. For over two years, he's attempted to maximize New York's investment to the best of his ability.
Which player has the most at stake in the scope of his NBA career next season?
For over two years, he's come up short. And yet New York has never been at a loss for hope, regardless of how irrational it seems.
Stoudemire can still be a key contributor on a contender—that's the hope. He can help make the Knicks a contender. That's still the hope.
Next season will either be a billboard for said hope, the same one that brought him to the Big Apple in the first place, or extinguish it altogether.
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