LOS ANGELES — The Jeremy Lin comparison springs easily to mind for Mike D’Antoni, but not for the glorious reasons you might think.
D’Antoni brought up Lin’s name late Friday night after Kendall Marshall’s phenomenal first start for the Los Angeles Lakers. And the point was that neither Lin nor Marshall showed signs of even respectability in their very first chances under D’Antoni.
“Jeremy Lin did the exact same thing,” D’Antoni said. “The first time he went out in Boston, it was awful. And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ Then, obviously it happened to him.”
How did it happen after such a seemingly dead-end beginning? Because something did happen for Lin two years ago and for Marshall on Friday night, when he became the first Laker to deliver at least 20 points and 15 assists in a game since Kobe Bryant…12 years ago.
One of the funniest moments in the Linsanity documentary is Lin recalling being a mere extra man on the roster, asking D’Antoni if he should ship his car out to New York for the rest of the season. D’Antoni’s reply: “Uh, no. Probably not.”
“Marsh Madness” has a ways—and more than one Lakers victory—to go before splashing anywhere near as big as Lin did for D’Antoni’s injury-ravaged, point guard-needy New York Knicks. But no matter how it goes for Marshall in coming weeks, the fascinating aspect to this for now is in the details of his and Lin’s shaky first steps launching into such inspiring second steps.
It’s a meaningful lesson in coaching at any level in any sport.
When growth occurs, there’s always a combination of nature and nurture, but even when determining if a guy has what it takes to play at the highest level, don’t underestimate the need for a comfort zone.
The Lakers now, like the Knicks then, were beyond desperate for a point guard.
When Lin and Marshall got their first taste of playing time with their respective teams, utter desperation had not set in yet—so there was no security whatsoever for those guys.
That was a problem, because that meant there was also no confidence whatsoever for those guys, who legitimately worried that every second might well be their last in the NBA.
Lin said he took D’Antoni’s response about not shipping the car as a clear message: “I’m going to get waived.” Amid his own postgame whirlwind Friday night, Marshall shared his own uncertainties in talking about taking it week by week because he didn’t know if he would stay.
Marshall’s tweet on New Year’s Eve morning, before Jordan Farmar’s latest hamstring injury that night threw the door to Marshall’s opportunity wide open, had been: “2014, all I want is stability.”
When Farmar, the third-string point guard the Lakers eagerly anticipated blossoming with Steve Nash and Steve Blake already injured, went down with fill-in point guard Xavier Henry also hurt, the team clearly became Marshall’s to run.
The Lakers had signed Marshall, 22, out of the NBA Development League only two weeks ago—and D’Antoni had hardly been enthused about it, mentioning a conversation with former Phoenix Suns head coach Alvin Gentry about Marshall’s lack of a jump shot en route to being the Suns’ epic draft bust instead of the heir apparent to Nash.
To Marshall’s credit, he took the cuts and slights to heart, even listing them in his cell phone to recite every day in the D-League.
They say you can’t shoot. They say you’re too slow. They say you can’t defend.
With that motivation and a knack for passing, which led to him winning the 2012 Bob Cousy Award at North Carolina as the nation’s top collegiate point guard—and with some actual job security all of a sudden—Marshall led the Lakers to their first victory in seven games Friday night.
Lin’s first Knicks start in February 2012 was a victory over the Utah Jazz: 28 points, eight assists, eight turnovers. Marshall’s first Lakers start in January 2014 was also a victory over the Jazz and arguably more impressive: 20 points, 15 assists, one turnover.
Nash is now playing the role of 2012 Baron Davis—the big-name vet not ready to play because of his back problems—and isn’t expected back for a month, at which time Bryant, Blake and Farmar might also come back.
But for now, there is nobody but Marshall.
Once upon a time in that other fairytale, D’Antoni had nobody except Lin, saying the night of Lin’s stunning first start: “I’m riding him like freaking Secretariat.”
For his part, Lin understood the Knicks’ desperation but saw it from the perspective of security. He noted his eight turnovers in that first start and called it “unbelievable” how D’Antoni kept letting him play through the mistakes.
That’s one of D’Antoni’s greatest qualities, not being heavy-handed as a coach, and it’s why so many role players have been freed to emerge in his systems.
Even with obvious disappointments as the Lakers coach, D’Antoni has clearly proved one thing: He can make chicken salad.
Earl Clark stepped up late last season when D’Antoni rode him, partly out of injury need, and this season has seen rags-to-riches development from Henry and Robert Sacre, among others, as the Lakers posted a winning start without the injured Bryant.
Had Bryant or Henry or Nash or Blake or Farmar been able, nothing would be written about Marshall today. The cliche about luck being what happens when preparation meets opportunity definitely has legs.
Yet it can be hard to succeed with opportunity if all that preparation also meets…pressure.
D’Antoni put himself in Marshall’s initial difficult position as merely Henry’s and Farmar’s backup.
“It’s a big moment for somebody in their life,” D’Antoni said. “‘Do I go back to the D-League or I stay up in the NBA?’ That’s a lot of pressure.”
Fast forward to Friday night, which D’Antoni summed up this way: “When you’re the only point guard, you’re not really looking over your shoulder, because you kind of know that it’s going to be me…or me.”
For sure, another part of it is how much autonomy the point guard can have in D’Antoni’s pick-and-roll offense where the mantra is: “The ball finds energy.”
Who brings more energy than a point guard playing for his basketball life?
Well, a point guard playing for his basketball life—with a little much-needed comfort making for a whole lot of much-needed confidence.