Is There Light at the End of the Tunnel for Former 'Next LeBron' O.J. Mayo?

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Is There Light at the End of the Tunnel for Former 'Next LeBron' O.J. Mayo?
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

During the summer of 2007, you’d have needed the Hubble Space Telescope to spot a hotter rising star than O.J. Mayo, the impossible basketball specimen out of Huntington, West Virginia, who was touted as the next LeBron James.

Seven years later, Mayo’s star is on the cusp of collapsing upon itself:

Given his productivity over the course of his one season with the Milwaukee Bucks—which included career lows in points, rebounds, assists and field-goal percentage—such news should come as no surprise.

Instead, let's reserve that word for just how far this one-time phenom has fallen.

 

The Heir Apparent

MICHAEL SWITZER/Associated Press

In the spring of 2007, Mayo verbally committed to the University of Southern California—this after a stellar senior year in which the 6’5” slasher had become one of the top high school recruits in the country.

Oh, and he scored a 29 on his ACT, per the The Dallas Morning News.

In fact, the only thing stopping him from making the leap straight from prep to pro was a new provision in the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement that stipulated all players must be a year or more out of high school to enter the draft.

Not to be curtailed, Mayo went on to author a stellar freshman season, averaging 20.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists on 44 percent shooting, including a eye-popping 41 percent from three-point range.

Kevork Djansezian/Associated Press

After one year in college, he promptly declared for the draft. Not long after, however, came charges that the lottery-pick-to-be had accepted upwards of $30,000 in improper benefits from one Rodney Guillory, as first reported by ESPN. And while Mayo denied the allegations, USC was eventually forced to vacate its 21 wins for the 2007-08 season, per ESPN.com.

A little over a month later, Mayo was selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the No. 3 overall pick before being quickly dealt to the Memphis Grizzlies in a draft-day trade that brought Kevin Love to Minnesota.

By the end of the 2008-09 season, Mayo looked every bit the part of a hoops prodigy, tallying 18.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists on 44 percent shooting and landing on the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team. Considering his 25 percent usage rate, that level of productivity only seemed more impressive.

He may not have known it then, but his career trajectory was about to take an unexpected turn—and not for the better.

 

Sinking Stock

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

The next three seasons would see his production all but flat line—the result, at least in part, of Memphis’ shift toward an offense built around the frontcourt prowess of promising youngster Marc Gasol and veteran double-double machine Zach Randolph.

But there was another, more immediate threat to Mayo’s role: Tony Allen.

In Allen, head coach Lionel Hollins had found the perfect complement to the basketball ethos that would become “Grit and Grind”—a hard-nosed hellion whose defensive endowments were matched only by his utter lack of offensive flair.

Slowly but steadily, Mayo’s role assumed that of an A1 bench scorer. Slowly but steadily, the promise of all those highlight-reel performances in packed high school gyms—what must have felt to him like centuries ago—faded away.

Michael Mulvey/Associated Press

The Grizzlies declined to extend a qualifying offer to Mayo following the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, which was almost unheard of, given the then 24-year-old’s once sky-high stock.

On July 19 Mayo signed with the Dallas Mavericks. With Dirk Nowitzki sidelined by injury, Mayo stormed out of the 2012-13 gate with what looked like the birth pangs of a renaissance season in the making. However, his play soon leveled off, and by the end of the season, he was once again back on the market.

He would sign a three-year, $24 million offer sheet with the Milwaukee Bucks on July 13, in a transaction that had many in the NBA blogosphere—including SB Nation’s Mike Prada—wondering what, exactly, owner Herb Kohl and company were thinking:

And if you strip away the shooting, Mayo didn't really improve that much last year. He still posted a PER below the league average, and while his assists were up, so were his turnovers. He also still isn't a particularly good defender, both on the ball and on the weak side. The Mavericks, a team in a similar position to Milwaukee with their cap space and standing in their conference, showed no reported interest in bringing him back even as a Plan B to Dwight Howard. Two teams have now let Mayo go without shedding a tear that he left, and while Mayo has some value, that says something about his upside.

Mayo would play just 52 games the entire 2013-14 season, starting a scant 23 of them. His field-goal and three-point percentages both tied his career-worst marks. On a team that finished with a league-low 15 wins, Mayo was usurped on the shooting guard depth chart by Ramon Sessions, a player who’s spent the vast majority of his career as a point guard.

The Decline and Fall of the Mayo Empire
Season Points FG% 3P% PER
2008-09 (rookie year) 18.5 .438 .384 14.2
2013-14 11.7 .407 .370 11.2

Basketball-Reference.com

Which brings us to today and reports that Mayo is once again not long for his current employer. In the face of so much squandered talent, it’s wise to wonder: Just what, if anything, does he have left to offer?

 

Any Juice Left?

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

With a full two years and $16 million left on his deal, Mayo likely won’t fetch quite the number of suitors the Bucks are hoping for.

Still, a handful of teams may find it worth rolling the dice on Mayo’s contract, if only for the faintest hopes of a payout. Here are three potential deals the Bucks should pursue:

 

Trade 1

Chicago Bulls get: O.J. Mayo, Zaza Pachulia

Bucks get: Carlos Boozer

Assuming the Bulls strike out on Carmelo Anthony, their first order of business will be finding someone to help chip in with wing scoring. Mayo—for all his defensive weaknesses—can provide that in spades.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Pachulia, meanwhile, would allow the Bulls to give Taj Gibson even heavier rotation minutes. Pachulia and Mayo's contracts are not ideal, but both stand to be eminently tradable leading up to their expiration in the summer of 2016. The Bucks could even throw in a draft pick to sweeten the deal on this front.

For Milwaukee, the trade serves a dual purpose, making it worse in the short term while cleaving open more cap space next summer, when the youth-laden Bucks might see fit to start moving their way up the Eastern Conference pecking order.

 

Trade 2

Oklahoma City Thunder get: O.J. Mayo

Bucks get: Kendrick Perkins

Clean-cut and simple. The Thunder could use a bit of extra scoring punch along the perimeter, particularly with Thabo Sefolosha—never the offensive threat to begin with—possibly departing this summer. Mayo is now the Swiss Guard on defense, but in a winning system he could prove to be quite the potent third or fourth option.

The Bucks, on the other hand, would—as with the previous trade—be getting quite the expiring contract in return.

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

 

Trade 3

New Orleans Pelicans get: O.J. Mayo, $2 million

Bucks get: Eric Gordon

New Orleans’ backcourt logjam is, by now, well-documented. This trade not only allows New Orleans to get out from under Gordon’s onerous deal but brings back a player who is lately accustomed to coming off the bench, which should help with the team’s rotational politics.

Milwaukee, meanwhile, gets an upgrade at shooting guard who, if healthy, could be a legitimate long-term solution. If not, the Bucks could be left hoping Gordon declines his $15 million player option—unlikely, considering this might well be his biggest payday.

Those who are worried about the extra baggage coming down the pike with Mayo's arrival should read no further than comments made by former Bucks coach Larry Drew in response to questions concerning the shooting guard's lack of playing time, via Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

O.J. is a real pro. The one thing I tell him is just 'You've got to stay ready.' He missed a stretch of games due to illness. He got out of rhythm; he lost conditioning. We've been trying to work with him as far as getting it back. But right now that three-man rotation has been so good and I really don't want to disrupt that. I've had a sitdown talk with O.J. and just said, 'Look, you've got to stay ready for me.' He gave me the nod that he would. He was very, very good about it.

Chris Szagola/Associated Press

For professional athletes, seven years can be a lifetime. And while Mayo doesn’t make for near the bust of many an NBA counterpart, his slow, steady decline remains just as crucial a cautionary tale.

Still, in the right system—surrounded by the right stars and given the right role—Mayo's is one story that stands to have, if not a happy ending, then at least a satisfactory one.

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