Should Jodie Meeks Be a Key Cog in Lakers' Rebuild?

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Should Jodie Meeks Be a Key Cog in Lakers' Rebuild?
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Eighty percent of the guys on the current Los Angeles Lakers roster are without a contract for next season.

And, Jodie Meeks is one of them.

Meanwhile, the sharpshooter is having a career season, averaging 15.3 points per game and shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc.

Meeks is in the second and final year of his contract in Los Angeles, earning the modest salary of $1.55 million. Lakers management, meanwhile, is in the midst of clearing the deck of salary in order to create enough cap space to go after a maximum contract-type star, either this summer or next.

The obvious risk is that in executing this rebuild, the Lakers stand to lose a number of useful core players who are earning the NBA equivalent of the minimum wage.

One of the few highlights in this dismal Lakers season came on March 9 in a Sunday afternoon win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. You might have expected somebody to score a whole lot of points, but nobody figured it would be Meeks—dropping 42 off the bench and leading his team to the upset.

Doug Collins, the shooting guard’s former head coach, was doing color commentary that day for ABC and was effusive in his praise, describing the gunner as “one of the fastest players in the NBA, end line to end line.”

Collins later elaborated on his comment again for good measure, in case anyone hadn’t noticed before:

“He may be the fastest guy in the NBA.”

Meeks, the fastest guy in the NBA, really? You don’t usually think of him that way, perhaps because he’s not necessarily a great ball-handler. Collins later acknowledged as much with a laugh, during an exchange with Hubie Brown.

If Meeks had point guard handles he’d be making a fortune in the league, but that unfortunately isn’t the case. Nonetheless, he’s worked hard to improve that aspect of his game, and it has resulted in more drives to the basket and a lot more free throws—205 attempts through 63 games so far this season, compared to 96 attempts through 78 games last season. Plus, he’s knocking them down at an 85 percent clip.

Are the Lakers sure they want to lose this guy?

Meeks grew up in Georgia and was a basketball standout at Roswell High School before transferring to powerhouse Norcross High for his junior year. As a senior, he led the school to its first 5A state championship and was named The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Player of the Year.

The parade of recruiters and offers ensued, and Meeks committed to the University of Kentucky, ultimately making some Wildcat history.

In 2009, during a nationally televised game on ESPN, Meeks, then a junior, dropped an astounding 54 points on Tennessee, including 10 bombs from long distance.

Pat Forde of ESPN wrote about a game for the ages and about a guy who made a ridiculous 60 percent of the Wildcats’ points that night, breaking Dan Issel’s then 39-year-old school record for points in a single game, which was kind of a big thing:

When you say Issel's name aloud in the commonwealth of Kentucky, a heavenly chorus follows, and those within earshot bow their heads. It's a state law. He is the greatest scorer in the history of a program that has won 1,979 games, as well as its most revered player.

So when you break a Dan Issel scoring record, you have done something. When you do it on the road in front of 20,474 fans and the defending SEC champion, you have really done something. You have etched your name in Kentucky lore.

Meeks declared for the draft that year but the lore didn’t result in a top pick. He was selected No. 41 by the Milwaukee Bucks, and played in 41 games before being traded to the Philadelphia 76ers shortly before the trade deadline in February 2010.

That’s where he met Collins. The mercurial coach was hired by the 76ers at the end of the 2010 season and quickly got acquainted with his young shooting guard. As reported by Bob Cooney of The Philadelphia Daily News, Collins complimented Meeks' play that summer:

"He really caught me by surprise in Orlando [in the rookie summer league in July]. He was great this summer. He really gave us a burst of energy every time he played."

Meeks started 64 out of 74 games for Collins in his sophomore NBA season, averaging 10.5 points per game.  He also started the majority of games during the following lockout-shortened season of 2011-12. He became a free agent at the end of the 2012 season.

Kind of like he is now.

Interestingly, as noted by Marc Weinreich for Sports Illustrated’s Sport Wire, the 76ers had late in the season brought in from the Los Angeles Clippers another shooting guard—a guy named Nick “Swaggy P” Young.

The signing of Meeks by the Lakers during the summer of 2012 was part of a roster build-up that included two even more noteworthy pieces—Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. It’s tempting to focus only on the ensuing disaster of a season that unfolded last year, one that was riddled with injuries and led to this current train wreck, a team headed for a historically abysmal record.

But remember, the 2012 summer roster was constructed for a championship run and Meeks was viewed as a low-cost role player who could add a needed shooting touch off the bench.

The following off-season saw Nick Young—yet another gunner, albeit a flashier, more noticeable one—arrive in Los Angeles seemingly dogging Meeks’ footsteps. There’s been a lot of talk about Swaggy P possibly opting out of his player’s option at the end of this season. There’s not as much talk about Meeks becoming a free agent again, but teams around the league will be noticing.

Jodie Meeks isn’t loud or brash like the Swagster, doesn’t have a signature on-court celebratory move every time he nails a basket, isn’t sartorially resplendent and doesn’t have an awesome nickname.

Yet, he makes his presence known. Meeks also has co-existed just fine with his more limelight-conscious teammate—Young is averaging 16.8 points to Meeks’ 15.3. They are right behind Pau Gasol who is averaging 17.7 points per game.

It’s ironic that the team’s top three scorers are all in a position to leave this summer—and that the Lakers seem open to that possibly happening.

Such are the vagaries of rebuilding in the NBA under the current collective bargaining agreement, where every penny has to be carefully scrutinized and hoarded. And yet, Meeks and Young—a couple double-digit scorers on the young side of their prime and residing at the bottom of the earnings ladder—are not being locked up by the Purple and Gold?

Is this the best way to rebuild a team? Is this the best way to ensure that Kobe Bryant will have some young gunners surrounding him during his twilight years?

During the aforementioned win against the Thunder, Collins wasn’t just talking about his former player’s speed. He also described Meeks as “a rotation player on a really good team. I’m telling you, I coached the guy—he’s a winner.”

Sometimes, on-air commentary can seem like hyperbole, but scouts and general managers around the league do take notice when the praise comes from someone with a resume like Collins’.

The Lakers, a franchise that is so closely identified with championship banners, is going through an uncertain period in their long history. The real answers don’t come from what is written, but from tough decisions made by basketball professionals in the front office.

The answers also come from those calling the signals on the sidelines, and most importantly, from the athletes on the floor. For that is where games are won and lost, where shots hit the mark or bounce off. It is where players grind their way through impossibly long seasons marked by too many injuries.

And sometimes it is where quiet, unlikely heroes play out entire careers without ever sniffing a max contract or star billing.

Jodie Meeks, heading into his sixth season in the NBA, could be that guy. All he needs is a little bump in pay, a spot in the rotation and the security that comes from a team willing to make the commitment.

He won’t do everything for you, but he’ll do a lot of things—knocking down shots, playing hard, running the floor and being a linchpin in a difficult rebuilding project.

The question, of course, is whether the Lakers will take action before it’s too late.

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