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David Aldridge

After a tough January, Vince Carter is averaging 18.6 points on 52 percent shooting in 20 games since.
Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images

Magic's Carter finding groove after rough start to 2010

Posted Mar 15 2010 9:23AM

He reminds you, Vince Carter does, that January, bad as it was, was just one month.

"I can see if it was two or three months like that," he said last week. "It was one month that didn't go my way. I couldn't get frustrated about it, because we were still winning. That's the wonderful thing about being on a talented team like this."

But rare is the month in which a player who's been as good as Carter for most of his career plays as horribly as he did to start 2010. Thirty-one bleak days that made everyone that follows the Orlando Magic wonder just what they were getting from the 33-year-old, and if he was going to take the team's title hopes down with him, miss after miss, worse game after bad game. He was supposed to make people forget about Hedo Turkoglu, and instead every clank brought Brother Hedo's features into sharper focus.


For the month, Carter averaged 8.7 points, and shot 26 percent. He scored in double figures only four times in 14 games. And his memory may be a little clouded by his poor play; Orlando was a .500 team (7-7) as he bricked away the days.

In the end, though, Carter got some of his groove and swagger back -- and, not coincidentally, Orlando has started to look again like the Eastern Conference frontrunner many expected it would be at the start of the season. Carter's averages have improved and held steady in both February and March: 18.6 points on 52 percent shooting.

So, what happened?

"I really can't answer that," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "He's really playing well now, very efficiently. He had some injury stuff early, both his legs and his shoulder. I think he feels better. He seems very comfortable playing with everyone else. He's shooting the ball well. Everything's gone well for him. He keeps playing like that, obviously, we're pretty good."

Carter was ratted out by his North Carolina buddy Jerry Stackhouse, who disclosed while hosting his radio show in Dallas in February (before he signed with Milwaukee) that Carter had told him his knee wasn't right. Asked about Stackhouse's disclosure now, Carter smiles, and mentions another body part.

"The shoulder was bothering me," he says. "It was kind of affecting my shot. But I just, I've never been a person, and I refuse to use that as an excuse. Because when I step on the floor and play, and I choose to play, I have to produce and I have to perform. And it was a battle. But I was able to make it through."

Vince Carter's Month-By-Month Statistics
Oct. 2 15.5 1.5 3.5 .550 .625
Nov. 12 20.6 5.5 2.1 .404 .338
Dec. 13 18.4 5.2 4.1 .404 .278
Jan. 14 8.7 2.7 2.2 .284 .224
Feb. 12 18.6 3.8 3.2 .515 .511
March 8 18.6 3.8 2.9 .520 .485
TOTAL 61 16.6 4.1 2.9 .423 .361

The Orlando front office tore up the team that made it to the Finals last season, in part because it didn't want to pay Turkoglu what he wanted, but also because it believed that Carter still had plenty in his tank -- enough to take the pressure off of Dwight Howard to make shots and/or free throws at the ends of games. If Orlando had great success running 3/5 screen and rolls with Turkoglu and Howard last postseason, it anticipated that Carter could have the same impact at the ends of games running slightly different sets and plays.

So the Magic let Turkoglu walk, and sent starting two guard Courtney Lee, forward Tony Battie and guard Rafer Alston to the Nets for Carter and forward Ryan Anderson.

Carter went to great pains to assure Howard that, although he was coming back to his native Florida, he wanted no part in taking over the team. But his arrival has changed the chemistry. For whatever reason, Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis have not been as efficient this season as the team tried to get Carter enough shots to feel comfortable -- and to encourage him to be more aggressive with the ball. Van Gundy spent much of the first two months making that request with more and more urgency. And then, the bottom fell out.

Carter says he understood what Van Gundy wanted. He wanted it, too.

"He wants the best and he tries to pull everything out of you," Carter says of his coach. "He wants everybody prepared and knowing what's going on ... it's tough, sometimes. I mean, you hear so much (from him) sometimes, you're like, 'Ahh, I need a break.' But that's just the way he is, and he wants to have us prepared. Especially with a team like this."

Howard points out that the Magic team that made the Finals had had a solid rotation for several years, with all knowing their expected roles, whereas this one is trying not only to break in a new starter in Carter, but new bench players: Anderson, Brandon Bass and Jason Williams.

"We knew it was going to be a lot of ups and downs," Howard said, "a lot of games where we didn't play as well as a team as we wanted to. Because we're trying to learn each other. When you put a whole bunch of new guys on a team, you can have the most talent in the world, but if you don't know how to play together, use it, you're going to have those ups and downs."

The trend line for Carter has been up for six weeks. He's started to attack the basket early and often, including a 48-point explosion against New Orleans on Feb. 8. In a big game against the Lakers earlier this month, Carter scored 15 of his 25 points in the first quarter, getting to the foul line time and again against Ron Artest and other L.A. defenders. But Carter still qualifies this newfound energy burst as something he'll do only as long as he's asked.

(This drives my TNT colleague Reggie Miller, who never had to be asked to take over a game, nuts.)

In the interim, Carter has tried to help out in other ways, such as working with Howard not just on free throw technique, but developing a consistent routine when shooting foul shots.

"I'm not saying I'm a free throw coach," Carter said. "I'm not leading the league in free throw shooting percentage or anything. It's just a helping hand. I told him I want to help him with that, and make him a better free throw shooter. Because I was like, if that percentage goes up, our team gets better. You cannot foul him. If you foul him, he's going to make it. We have this communication. He figured out his routine, and what felt comfortable for him shooting, and after that we stuck with it. I was always in his ear, and I was always giving him thumbs up or thumbs down when he shoots his free throws. It's to the point now when he shoots his free throws, he knows if they're good or bad. And that's when you know he's made it to the other side."

Howard says their conversations focused on the common sacrifices everyone would have to make: more people involved would mean fewer shots.

"Vince was just telling me he wants to win," Howard said. "He wants to win a championship."

That's been the question about Carter for a decade: Just how bad does he want it? Does he want to win enough to not attend his graduation the day of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semis in 2001? (I defended his decision then; I defend it today. We kill athletes for not taking education seriously, and when one does -- at least enough to fly down to North Carolina to get his diploma, then fly back to Philly in time for the game -- we kill him for that decision, too. We're hypocrites.) Is he willing to offend teammates, ruffle feathers, be an assassin in the locker room and on the court?

And even today, Carter is determined to try and win his way: a middle ground between passive and aggressive, taking over and laying back, being the man and being one of the guys. Even in the worst slump of his career, if the Magic won the game, he could sleep.

"That was the relieving part for myself," he says. "I tend to go home and beat myself up sometimes over it, because I try to step on the court and do what's needed for my team each and every night. It was just one of those battles. I'm always critiquing myself and wanting to do better, but at the same time not trying to do much change to my approach to how I was playing. And that won."


So, who's the top senior college player prospect for the NBA Draft?

The veteran player personnel director stumbled over the phone.

"Um, let me get my notes," he said this weekend.

Such is the reality of the Draft. Dominated by underclassmen and international players, it has left the woebegone college senior on the outside looking in. What used to be a positive -- a four-year man, who's learned how to play, how to lead, and how to win -- is now often viewed at the other end of the telescope. Only six U.S. college seniors went in the first round of last year's Draft (though 15 were chosen in the second round), and that was up from five in the first round in 2008 and 2007. (The last college senior to be taken first overall in the Draft was Kenyon Martin, in 2000.)

As veteran Tip readers know, we cannot mention the names of underclassmen who are expected to declare for the Draft on these pages until they officially commit. That makes handicapping this June's festivities somewhat a hollow exercise at the moment, as the non-seniors tend to dominate the Lottery and most of the first round, for that matter. Nonetheless, with March Madness now in full swing, it's appropriate to look at the players we can without causing a fuss. So here are, based on conversations with some of my guys around the league who do this for a living, some of the seniors who may well break through and be drafted in the first round.

There were only four seniors that most of the birddogs thought would likely go among the top 30 picks. None is likely to break into the top 10, and maybe not even the late Lottery, but all of them will ultimately shake hands with the Commish. Here they are, alphabetically:

1. Da'Sean Butler, 6-foot-7, small forward, West Virginia

Butler had a great Big East tournament for the Mountaineers, leading them to the tournament title with two game-winning shots, and a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs. At the next level, Butler's strength and defensive prowess will get him and keep him in some team's rotations. "He's not as good as Evan Turner (the Ohio State sophomore), but he plays the game similar," said one scout. Another scout says Butler is just fair in terms of lateral quickness and burst, "but he's an extremely tough, aggressive defender. That's probably what teams will depend on him on night in and night out at the next level, but there will be nights when he gives you an offensive boost."

2. Damion James, 6-foot-7, small forward, Texas

James thought about entering the Draft after his junior season in Austin but decided to stay, and it was the right choice. The Longhorns have been up and down, but James has been rock steady. "He had a great year," one scout said. "He always plays hard. Offensively you're not sure where to play him, but defensively he guards a lot of different guys. And he's a good rebounder." James' ability to stay in front of players at multiple positions will help him in the NBA, another scout said. "The toughest thing for him is he's going to have to explain to all these (pro) teams why his team plummeted," the scout said. "And some teams question his ability to play on the perimeter as a below-average scorer. (But) he can probably guard two or three positions at the next level, and probably guard them well."

3. Stanley Robinson, 6-foot-9, small forward, Connecticut

Averaged 14 and 7 for the Huskies, but Connecticut's swan dive at the end of the season cost it an NCAA berth, and Robinson wasn't able to stop it. "He's going to have to show something in the workouts," one scout said. "He wasn't very good at the end of the year, but then again, neither was anybody else on that team." Another scout, who has Robinson going in the second half of the first round, concurred: "They just imploded at the end of the year, and we -- meaning the NBA -- unfortunately read a lot into that ... (but) he's a first-rounder because he's more talented than those other guys. But he was invisible." Another scout, though, says that Robinson was the victim of a talent drain this season in Storrs: "He was much better on a better team," the scout said. "On last year's team, when they had multiple pros, he was able to do what he'll do next year -- play above the rim. They went from a Final Four team to not even in the tournament, so when their talent level dropped he tried to do more for them than he's really capable of doing. So you saw some of his flaws."

4. Jarvis Varnado, 6-foot-9, power forward, Mississippi State

All the scouts love the nation's No. 2 man in blocked shots per game, generously listed at 6-foot-9 but probably an inch or two shorter. "If he was a 6-10 shotblocker, you'd be talking Lottery," one scout said. "But we're not talking about 6-10; he's 6-7. He does have a skill, though. Someone's going to take him in the first round ... Not only can he block shots, but if he blocks three he probably alters five or six. Big-time skill."

"He's got to get some props," another scout said. "You're going to have him in the game to fly around; it doesn't matter much where you play him. Offensively, he's going to play that Ben Wallace role, anyway -- get out of the way. He'll be able to play center against some people in the NBA, but against other people he's going to be overmatched." Another scout said Varnado does have a little bit of offense in his game. "Here's what's interesting about him," the scout said. "He's gotten better every year. He's got a little jump hook. Left shoulder turn. What he's realized is, he doesn't try to do things that he can't. He doesn't expose himself. I think he's a late first if all the kids stay in school, and if all of them come out he's probably a second."

There are other seniors who the scouts feel could go late in the first round or in the second, depending on need and who's picking and what underclassmen eventually decide to enter the draft. They include (alphabetically): Trevor Booker, 6-foot-7, power forward, Clemson; Matt Bouldin, 6-foot-5, shooting guard, Gonzaga; Dwayne Collins, 6-foot-8, small forward, Miami; Sherron Collins, 5-foot-11, point guard, Kansas; Jerome Dyson, 6-foot-3, shooting guard, Connecticut; Landry Fields, 6-foot-7, shooting guard, Stanford; Luke Harangody, 6-foot-8, power forward, Notre Dame; Jerome Jordan, 7-foot, center, Tulsa; Quincy Pondexter, 6-foot-6, shooting guard, Washington; Jerome Randle, 5-foot-10, point guard, California; Andy Rautins, 6-foot-4, shooting guard, Syracuse; Jon Scheyer, 6-foot-5, point/shooting guard, Duke; Greivis Vasquez, 6-foot-6, point guard, Maryland

Top O' the World, Ma!

(Last week's ranking in brackets)

1) Cleveland [2] (52-15): Made it look easy Sunday in handling the Celtics.

2) Orlando [3] (47-21): Lost at home Sunday to Bobcats, but Magic look to be getting in order at just the right time of the season.

3) Dallas [1] (45-22): How does a team this good, playing this well, lose at home by 34 to one of the worst teams in the league? As the kids like to say, smh.

4) L.A. Lakers [4] (48-18): Are they road warriors or road worriers?

5) Denver [5] (45-21): A former Mr. Fifteen, Johan Petro, comes out of mothballs with Kenyon Martn hurt and posts a double-double Friday in key road win at New Orleans.

6) Atlanta [7] (42-23): Every time you watch Josh Smith fill out a stat sheet, and hear his teammates gush about his leadership, ask yourself why Mike Woodson still doesn't have a contract extension.

7) Utah [6] (42-24): Jazz running into injury bug again -- at the wrong time of the season, again.

8) Phoenix [8] (41-26): A thousand NBA games for Nasty Nash, which is about 300 more than Cubes thought he'd play at a still-high level.

9) Oklahoma City [10] (41-24): Thunder a half-game out of home-court in the West after winning 17 of its last 20. Does anyone else think Russell Westbrook should get some all-NBA consideration? Just consideration.

10) Boston [9] (41-24): Running out of time to make anyone think they're anything more than a second-round sacrifice. What quality East team would you say the Celtics could beat four times right now? Cleveland? Orlando? Atlanta?

11) Milwaukee [13] (36-29): Bucks closing in on first playoff appearance since 2006; won 18 of 22 since late January. Is there a center outside of Orlando playing better in the East than Andrew Bogut?

12) Portland [11] (41-28): Suspect Brother Hedo was not welcomed with open arms Sunday. Yet Blazers are probably better off with Andre Miller for less than half of what they were going to pay Turkoglu.

13) San Antonio [12] (39-25): Richard Jefferson looking like he might just be figuring it out -- in the nick of time.

14) Charlotte [NR] (34-31): Beaten the Cavs, Lakers and Magic this season. Lost twice to the Nets this season. Go figure.

15) Miami [NR] (35-32): Won six of seven entering huge three-game stretch this week at home: San Antonio on Tuesday, Orlando on Thursday, Charlotte on Saturday.

Team of the Week


Charlotte (4-0): Capped off unbeaten week with win at Orlando on Sunday, ending Magic's eight-game win streak, and extending its own win streak to a franchise-tying six straight. And the Bobcats did so without All-Star Gerald Wallace (ankle). Four of the next five on the road before a crucial five-game homestand at the end of the month that features showdowns with Milwaukee and Toronto, with whom they're fighting for playoff position in the East.

Team of the Weak

Clippers (0-4): L.A. not only loses every game this week, and goes 0-for-5 on its road trip, but loses by an average of 18.8 points. Now seven straight losses overall, nine losses in 10 games and 19 losses in the last 24 games.

Nobody Asked Me, But ...

Are Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee fool's gold?

Andray Blatche has averaged 23.8 points and 9.6 rebounds since Feb. 19.
Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images

The Wizards, post-fire sale, have some reason for optimism going into next season: a Lottery pick, cap space, the Joy of Six --Gilbert Arenas, upon his return to the team next season (and he is coming back, see details below) will be wearing number 6 instead of his normal 0, having petitioned and been approved by the league to change his number. But none of it will lead to anything unless the 23-year-old Blatche and the 22-year-old McGee are real pieces around which to build, instead of putting up fake numbers on a bad team that isn't going anywhere.

As historically bad as the Nets are, they have a legit piece to build around in Brook Lopez. The Timberwolves have Al Jefferson and Kevin Love and Jonny Flynn. Golden State has Stephen Curry. But those players have proven themselves over the course of the season, or seasons. Washington's dilemma is whether or not to believe what Blatche and McGee have produced since the Wizards opened up playing time for them by trading Antawn Jamison to Cleveland and Brendan Haywood to Dallas.

Since replacing Jamison as the starter at power forward Feb. 19, Blatche has averaged a gaudy 23.8 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists, shooting 53 percent from the floor and 77 percent from the line, in almost 39 minutes per game. McGee took over a game earlier than that for Haywood, and has averaged 10.2 points, 5.9 boards and 2.2 blocks, shooting 53 percent from the floor.

Until this year, not many people around the league thought a lot about Blatche's potential. That's changing.

"He's definitely a piece," an Eastern Conference executive said.

"I don't think anybody's ever questioned Andray's skill level," Wizards coach Flip Saunders said. "It's been all the other factors. What you hope happens is, as I told him, the more success you have on the court, the more responsibility you hold off the court. And that kind of goes hand in hand. There's no question he's a building block ... JaVale, I think he's a building block."

Blatche and McGee's emergence hasn't changed the Wizards' bottom line much; Washington has lost seven straight and faces even more pain in a western swing that starts Monday in Salt Lake City. But that streak has also coincided with the loss of Josh Howard, the key piece Washington got in return from Dallas, for the season with a torn ACL.

McGee is Washington's only answer in the middle at the moment, and his freakish wingspan and jumping ability are must-keeps for the Wizards as he learns the game. He gets almost all his points for now running the floor and on putbacks; he has no low-post game of which to speak. But considering how raw he is -- as Saunders points out, McGee has only played organized basketball for four years, and didn't play a ton in two years at Nevada before declaring for the draft -- and the incredible abiity he has to block and alter shots, Washington will throw him out there every night.

"When you have a building block, you have to have players that have a unique ability," Saunders said. "Something special. JaVale has a unique ability to block shots. So you envision him having the ability of being, to be a more dominant type of guy, where he can protect the rim. If you look at his stats, on a per-minute basis, he's up there with most of the centers. And Dray, you have a guy who has the ability to score on the box, and make jump shots."

Blatche chafed at his role behind Jamison, but he'd spent much of the first three years with Washington doing nothing but justifying the team's lack of faith in him. His rookie season in 2005 was marred by an attempted carjacking before the start of training camp in which he was shot in the chest, but survived. In 2007, he was arrested by Washington police on solicitation charges (which were dropped after he attended a seminar) and in 2008, he was cited by Virginia police for reckless driving and driving with a suspended license.

JaVale McGee has averaged 2.2 blocks since taking over for Brendan Haywood.
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images

But Blatche maintains he's learned from all those mistakes. He's got a shirt and tie on now after games, and goes home more than he goes out. He says he takes tape home now to study.

"Me personally, I just want to win," Blatche says. "I want to prove some people wrong who said we were going to come in last place for the second half of the season. I want to go out and win. I want us to get better. And I want all the guys on my team to take it as a learning experience, and get ready for next season, when we have other players come in, so we already have a step ahead of other teams. I want guys to take this more seriously with me. I want them to get prepared for next season."

Now that he mentioned it, about next season ...

I thought when team president Ernie Grunfeld publicly said that Arenas would be back with the Wizards next season, that was ExecuSpeak for, "We're not going to give him away; if you want him, make me an offer. And a good one." But sources maintain that Grunfeld wasn't just protecting his asset's value; he has told people in the organization that he's serious about trying to re-introduce Arenas to the D.C. fan base next season as the team's starter at point guard. (It's an area of need, as Randy Foye has struggled in the role this season.) Now, a lot obviously depends on how much time Arenas gets from Superior Court Judge Robert E. Morin next week as he is sentenced following his guilty plea in January to one felony count of carrying a gun without a license. But if Arenas is available to play next fall, it seems he's playing for the Wizards.

A healthy, one-would-assume-contrite Arenas -- he was averaging 22 and 7 when he made the dumbest decision of his life -- along with that Lottery pick, and forward Al Thornton, and maybe a solid if not spectacular free-agent pickup, would at least make for not-dull nights in D.C. next fall. But if Blatche and McGee are for real, and are for real about growing up and becoming real contributors? To sleep -- perchance, to dream: ay, there's the rub.

Hamlet. Good going to his left, as I recall.

... And Nobody Asked You, Either

No good questions from you this week. Are you doing brackets or something? Send better stuff next time to

MVP Watch


1) LeBron James (26.5 ppg, 7 rpg, 8.5 apg, .410 FG, .607 FT): Coming back slowly from turned ankle, but Cavs dominated anyway this week in opening up three-game lead on Lakers for best record in the league.

2) Kobe Bryant (26.5 ppg, 8 rpg, 7 apg, .500 FG, .800 FT): I'm sorry; was there an actual debate going on somewhere out there about whether he's the best clutch player in the game? 'Cause if there was, there shouldn't have been. I have no quarrel with the New Jacks of NBA stats, but when you try to define things like "clutch," you lose me. When you have your own personal highlight reel of six game-winning shots this season, there is no further discussion about whether you're clutch.

3) Carmelo Anthony (25 ppg, 8 rpg, 3.3 apg, .477 FG, .929 FT): George Karl is out this week with cancer treatments, and KMart is out for a while with a bad knee. Melo will have to assume even more of a leadership role than he's already carrying this season if the Nuggets are to hold the fort the last month of the regular season.

4) Dwight Howard (22.3 ppg, 13 rpg, 2 bpg, .800 FG, .586 FT): Streak of 20 straight double-double games broken in laugher Thursday over Chicago, but Howard has been dominant at both ends of the floor.

5) Kevin Durant (32 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.3 apg, .544 FG, .947 FT): Durantula has gone for 30 or more 37 times this season, and OKC is 26-11 in those games. He shoots, he scores, they win.

Dropped out: Dirk Nowitzki

By the Numbers

18 -- Years since the Bucks swept a season series from Indiana, which Milwaukee did on Sunday with its fourth win over the Pacers this season.

1,173 -- Career games played by Jason Kidd through Sunday, making him the NBA's current active leader in games played, two ahead of Shaquille O"Neal. Kidd is 29th on the all-time list in games played, and should pass Scottie Pippen (1,178), Terry Cummings and Patrick Ewing (1,183 each) by the end of the regular season.

25,000 -- Fine received by Suns' Coach Alvin Gentry on Saturday after being ejected from Friday's game with the Lakers and not leaving the court in a timely manner.

I'm Feelin' ...

1) The bottom half of the Eastern Conference was the stuff of folly the first half of the season, but in March, the Bucks, Bobcats and Heat have all picked up their games significantly. Still not sure Charlotte or Miami can win in the first round, but Milwaukee is going to be a tough out. At the least, there shouldn't be four 4-0 sweeps, as I feared early on.

2) Holler if you had the Knicks putting six in double figures, dropping 128 big ones and beating the Mavs by 34 -- in Dallas.

3) All right, I'll pick four: Kentucky, Georgetown, Texas A&M, Syracuse. (Can't pick chalk this season!)

4) It's a good problem for them to have, but I think the Hornets are rapidly approaching a Mark Price/Kevin Johnson situation with Darren Collison. Where Collison is KJ, BTW.

5) Something about this story makes me feel good. Best line, from one of the players: "We all have mothers. So that's a coach."

6) OK, at first glance, 20,000 people in Snuggies looks kind of stupid. Then, it looks kind of cool.

7) Now that we've got the preliminaries out of the way, Pacquiao-Mayweather. Make it happen, somebody.

Not Feelin' ...

1) If there's one thing that irks me, it's executives that don't get in front of a story. If you want to fire Eddie Jordan, Comcast-Spectacor, then do it. Stop waffling, and stop leaking stuff to everyone in town. Leaving a good man figuratively twisting in the wind is not a good business practice if you're looking to woo the Next Big Name Coach out there.

2) I don't care what the circumstances are, Mike Dunleavy shouldn't find out he's fired by turning on his computer. It wouldn't have killed you to wait a day, Donald Sterling.

3) You're not exactly engendering a lot of confidence with your play of late, Raptors. You better count your blessings that Joakim Noah's foot is still on fire.

4) Has it been 13 years already? Wow. RIP, Biggie.

5) How is Duke a higher No. 1 seed than Syracuse? The Blue Devils didn't exactly beat the '27 Yankees to win the ACC Tournament -- and, yes, I know the Orange didn't win the Big East tourney, but they did win the regular season title outright, while Duke shared the ACC regular season with Maryland. And is anyone going to argue with a straight face that the ACC is better than the Big East this year?

Tweet of the Week

Listen don't believe the hype or the propoganda... I shower
-- Nuggets rookie guard Ty Lawson (@TyLawson3), Thursday, 12:12 a.m, refuting rumors spread by teammate Arron Afflalo earlier in the week about alleged personal hygiene issues. We can only put both sides out there and let you, dear reader, decide who's telling the truth and who's lying. Sigh.

Mr. Fifteen

This week's Mr. Fifteen is Bulls forward Joe Alexander. The 23-year-old is hoping for a fresh start in Chicago after a disastrous year and a half in Milwaukee, where Alexander was the eighth pick overall in the 2008 draft. He'd left West Virginia University after his junior season, intriguing pro scouts with a rare athleticism in a wholly undeveloped 6-foot-7 package that had only been playing organized basketball for five years, having spent much of his youth abroad in Beijing, where his father had worked for many years in business, and where his brothers became high school basketball stars. But Joe Alexander opted to come back to the States while a teenager to play high school ball in order to draw attention from U.S. colleges. He finally worked his way to West Virginia, and helped lead the Mountaineers to the Sweet 16 of the 2008 NCAA tournament. Alexander's pre-draft workouts were explosive, and the Bucks hoped he could play some power forward in a small but fast lineup with Richard Jefferson at the three spot and Andrew Bogut at center.

Despite his struggles, Joe Alexander is staying upbeat about his future in the NBA.
Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images

Less than two years later, only Bogut remains, with Jefferson in San Antonio and Alexander in Chicago after being included in the trade deadline deal last month that sent John Salmons to the Bucks for Alexander and Hakim Warrick. Alexander's fate in Milwaukee was sealed after the Bucks declined to pick up his third-year option last fall, making him one of the highest non-injured draft picks in history not to reach a third year with the team that drafted him. His prospects in Chicago are not that good, either, with Luol Deng a fixture at small forward and rookie Taj Gibson now getting extensive minutes at power forward. But Alexander worked his way into the top 10 of the draft, and he's planning to work his way into someone's rotation in the next couple of years.

Me: What did John Paxson and Gar Forman and Vinny Del Negro tell you when you got here?

Joe Alexander: They told me that they think I have a bright future, but as for right now, they don't know whether I'm going to play a little bit, or not at all. So they told me to just work hard and be ready.

Me: I see you out here almost three hours before a game with coach (Dave) Severns (the Bulls' player development coach). Is that a daily occurrence?

JA: Yeah. We try to focus. Coach does a good job of trying to get out here and spending time with me. So I'm going to try to do everything he wants.

Me: At this point, what are the things you have to work on?

JA: I'd say the biggest thing is probably footwork. It's a big thing, especially when you get tired. Then your old habits come back into play. Footwork, and just to continue to learn the game, mentally. The Xs and Os.

Me: Were you surprised that the Xs and Os were something you needed to pick up on?

JA: It was so surprising that I didn't even realize I needed to pick up on it until the end of my rookie year.

Me: How did you figure that out?

JA: It took a lot of sitting down with our player development coaches in Milwaukee, and them kind of opening my eyes. I couldn't really see it myself. But it took them to show me.

Me: That whole experience in Milwaukee ... did you get any sense of what it was they were looking for that they didn't see from you?

JA: Well, it's a tough subject to talk about. When I iniitally got there, they obviously wanted me to be able to produce, 'cause I was a high pick and they had high hopes for me. I started off the year injured, and after that, I didn't pick up on the Xs and Os of the game. (Scott) Skiles had a lot of plays that players needed to pick up on, and I didn't do that. So between not getting a fast start and then not picking up the plays midway through the season, they were really down on me. And I was down on myself. My confidence plummeted, and their confidence in me also dropped.

Me: That had to be a strange feeling, as successful as you'd been in college, and getting picked so high.

JA: It was strange. I think confidence was actually my biggest problem when I came in. I was just so confident that I could play that I wasn't in tune to listen to anybody. If I had tried to relax a little bit and said that I had things to work on, then I probably would have been better off.

Me: Memphis just sent Hasheem Thabeet to the D-League. When the Bucks told you they wanted you to go to the D-League, what was your reaction?

JA: I was angry. Because I had just returned from a long rehab, that I thought I had worked really hard to come back from. I only practiced once or twice, and I thought I played well enough in practice to play. And it didn't seem like they even wanted to get a second look at me at all. So I was angry.

Me: Was the experience at all helpful; at least you did get some playing time.

JA: It was very helpful, actually, and if I could do it again, I would. Because it allowed me to get back on the court after my injury. It allowed me to learn. It gave me a starting role and I played good minutes.

Me: Did you think at all that maybe you shouldn't have come out after your junior season?

JA: No, not at all. I don't think it was a matter of not being mentally or physically ready. It was just some bad luck. I got hurt. I tore my hamstring twice this year, and I think if that hadn't have happened, I would have been fine.

Me: Players in this league say that confidence is almost everything. Can you have a lot of confidence being here with this team, knowing that you may not play a lot? Or do you think you'll do better if you're here next year, with a full training camp?

JA: Whether it will work for me here, I can't say for sure. Sometimes even good players don't work out at certain places. At the end of the day, whether it works out for me here or somewhere else, I know I'm a player and I know I can play in this league. But so far, I really like Chicago, and I hope it works out.

Me: Who do you lean on at times like this?

JA: I really just try to have faith in myself, and remind myself of the fundamentals of becoming a good player, which is if you work hard over a period of time, then good things will happen. I do talk to the assistant coaches (at West Virginia), and Bob Huggins ... I have so much respect for those guys, too, Larry Harrison, and Eric Martin, and Billy Hahn. It seems like whenever I'm down, and really need someone to give me, not just a pick-me-up but real wisdom, those guys always have come through for me. I do lean on them sometimes.

Me: So the future's still bright for you?

JA: Yeah, absolutely. I've by no means written myself off. In fact, I think right now, I'm able to play my best basketball that I ever have. No one's just seen me on the court do it yet. Sometimes that's the case. And that doesn't mean you're a bad player. It just means you need more time.

They Said It

"I think it's fair to say he can afford it."

-- NBA Commissioner David Stern, detailing to the Associated Press on Friday that Michael Jordan is the sole financier in his purchase of the Bobcats from Robert Johnson, and should receive approval from the NBA's Board of Governors within the next couple of weeks. Various sources and reports put the purchase price somewhere between $250 and $275 million, with Jordan putting up more than $100 million in cash and assuming debts of another $150 million or so.


"We come out here, we talk about it, we have a billion meetings. We can talk about it all we want. Unless we do it, it really doesn't matter."
-- Raptors forward Chris Bosh, decrying both his team's slide to the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, and a horrible loss to the lowly Warriors on Saturday.

"If I hear I look like John legend 1 more time. Lol. FYI, he looks like me damnit."
-- Cavs guard Mo Williams, Tweeting his displeasure at being compared to the Grammy Award-winning singer/composer. As always, judge for yourself.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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