Jason Kidd remembers what it was like. He was the new kid and, at age 21, his rookie trek through the NBA was one hard lesson after another. Kidd, after two seasons as the preternatural floor leader at Cal, realized quickly he wasn’t in college anymore.
“You’re playing against men,” Kidd said. “It’s a job, and there are men out there that are trying to embarrass you. So you had to understand that and you had to be prepared, and probably use that fear to help you have some success. That was the biggest thing, besides y’know, 82 games – no matter rookie or not, you’re not prepared to play that many games at a very high level.”
Especially not against elite competition. For Kidd, that meant Nets point guard Kenny Anderson, who hung 30 points and nine assists on Kidd in the rookie’s debut. A month later, it was Utah’s John Stockton going for 18 and 12 to the young guy’s 3 and 3 with four turnovers.
Shortly before Christmas, Kidd got outplayed on consecutive nights by Seattle’s Gary Payton and Portland’s Rod Strickland. On the other side of the holiday, it was Phoenix’s Kevin Johnson in a home-and-home with Kidd’s Dallas team, outscoring the rookie by a combined 48-18 while producing 18 assists and five turnovers to Kidd’s 27 and 12.
“They know the tricks,” Kidd said of the salty veterans every newbie faces. “And for a rookie, you’re just out there playing on straight adrenaline and talent, and not knowing how to win until you get older.”
Kidd’s fast break down memory lane was triggered by Lonzo Ball’s arrival in Milwaukee for the Lakers’ game at the BMO Harris Bradley Center Saturday night. The extreme hype that has accompanied the L.A. rookie through the season’s first four weeks came along to the chilly Midwest, even if father LaVar wasn’t in the house.
The thing is, Ball’s performance against the Bucks exceeded the hype. With 19 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists, Ball became the youngest player in NBA history – 20 years, 15 days – to post a triple-double. He added three steals and four blocked shots to go with four turnovers in nearly 39 minutes, and made seven of his 12 shots (including three of five 3-pointers) with that unorthodox, start-left, release-right shooting form.
Ball began the night shooting 29.2 percent overall and 22.2 from the arc, struggles that have been cited constantly as a liability for both him and the Lakers. But his teammates, so often the beneficiaries of Ball’s slick passing and uncanny court vision, have had his back through the misses and the clangs.
“Even if he’s in a shooting slump, he’s always shooting,” said wing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. “That’s cool.”
Ball remains unflappable on the matter. He knows the other things he does on the floor, and he sincerely seems to have his focus set on winning. Ball also knows that, in three games to open November against Portland, Brooklyn and Memphis, he was plus-10, plus-21 and plus-10 while shooting 6-of-30. And the Lakers went 2-1.
“I’m gonna keep shooting,” Ball said after the 98-90 loss to the Bucks. “My confidence is going to stay the same all year. I’ve been shooting all my life.”
Meanwhile Kidd, who was a 12-year veteran and seven-time All-Star before he logged two consecutive seasons of shooting 33.8 percent on 3-pointers, sounded a little protective of the precocious playmaker.
“Ball can play,” the Milwaukee coach said. “He’s gonna make his teammates better, he’s gonna make his team better. The triple-double, that’s gonna be the norm for him. He’s gonna fill up stats sheets. We’ve just got to give him time. People are trying to put him in the microwave and speed him up. He’s gonna make mistakes. He’s gonna have bad nights. But he competes and he’s going to find a way to win.”
Kidd added: “It takes time. When you’re a pass-first guy, shooting is second or third. You’re trying to make your teammates better. You’re trying to make the game easy for those guys who score the ball. For Ball or for myself, it would be, ‘Don’t worry what you shoot. Are you winning games?’ That’s what you’re being measured for.
When was it, Kidd was asked, that he finally felt comfortable launching 3-pointers?
“After I retired,” he said. “No pressure.”
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Eric Bledsoe had played in only three games before being traded Tuesday by Phoenix to Milwaukee – and none at all during the 20-day, unplanned sabbatical the Suns had given him after he Tweeted (“I Don't wanna be here”) about geographic and occupational preferences deemed out of step with the team’s mission.
The 6-foot-1, eighth-year guard had just resumed using the Suns’ practice facility for solo workouts, in fact, when the gripe for which he was fined $10,000 earned him his ticket out. Bledsoe caught up with the Bucks in San Antonio, played more than 28 minutes on Friday, then hopped on their flight and logged another 31-plus minutes against L.A. Saturday.
All of the Bucks were tuckered from the back-to-back turnaround, but for stretches against the Lakers, Bledsoe looked somewhere between taking that first punch from Mike Tyson and taking the last.
“I thought it was going to be easy,” Bledsoe said, smiling, after his new-home debut. “I thought I’d do better. ... We did a great job as a team closing them out. Some games are going to be like this.”
Bledsoe’s two-night line was modest: 24 points, nine assists, eight turnovers, six rebounds and 10-for-28 shooting, including 1-for-11 on 3-pointers. But he’s almost 60 minutes more familiar with Milwaukee than he was, as they prepare to face Memphis Monday and navigate from there the 69 games remaining.
“Sometimes [getting thrown into heavy action is] actually a good way,” Kidd said. “Because it’s just basketball. We talked about, ‘Just be yourself. We’re going to put you in situations that you’re accustomed to. And play to your strengths.’
“I thought for the 48 hours that he’s played, he’s been himself, attacking, getting to the basket, finding teammates, rebounding. ... He’s just showing he can do a lot more than score the ball. I think he helped our tempo at both ends, defensively and offensively.”
Bledsoe’s energy and physical play was evident, and productive defensively, in the fourth quarter against the Lakers. In one sequence, he sold a moving pick on Julius Randle to thwart L.A.’s possession and add to its pile of turnovers 23 high. He missed a jump shot, but got the ball back at the other end by diving defensively and calling for a timeout before falling across the baseline.
Bledsoe, from his time with the Suns, is no stranger to multiple point guard sets. So there wasn’t much learning curve for him when Kidd sent in Malcolm Brogdon and/or Matthew Dellavedova for variations of small ball.
“Sometimes the ball isn’t always going to bounce your way,” Bledsoe said. “But you’ve got to find a way to affect the game. That’s what I learned playing off the ball. You’ve got to find ways to affect the game, whether it’s key stops, key plays, anything.”
Bledsoe did get a crash course in playing with one of the NBA’s Flavors of the Month, early MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo. His biggest takeaway?
“Running the floor,” the point guard said. “He’s the type of player who can bring the ball up the court. I haven’t played with a player that tall bringing the ball up the court. That’s what I’d learned playing against him, he’s a jack of all trades. He can pretty much do everything.”
Antetokounmpo, by the way, said he welcomed Bledsoe as another reliable ball handler and offense initiator who can spare him some wear and tear fighting up court with the basketball – yet give it back when it’s Greek Freak time.
Bledsoe, asked if the trade, the grind of his first two games and an abrupt relocation to Milwaukee had combined for an emotional week for him, shook his head.
“Nah. It’s basketball at the end of the day,” he said, “and we love doing it. We want to be here.”
Hmm, sounded vaguely Tweetable.
* * *
Bledsoe had time for his emotions to simmer down after his Suns estrangement, but Brogdon did not. There had been rumors, some of which had him moving too. But when the smoke cleared, he went from the Bucks’ starting point guard building on his NBA 2017 Rookie of the Year season to one of two point guards coming off Milwaukee’s bench.
There appeared to be a little pout in Brogdon’s play in the opening minutes at San Antonio. Since then, however, he has humming along, playing no differently than if he’d been on the floor since tipoff.
After the victory over the Lakers – in which he played 33 minutes, scoring 23 points with three rebounds, three assists and three steals – Brogdon admitted he had just endured a few emotional days.
“Absolutely,” he said. “As a guy who started in the playoffs last year and earned the starting spot, it’s been an adjustment for me, moving to the bench. But I’m a guy who’s confident enough and team-oriented enough, I’ll come off the bench and give what the team needs. I’m just going to get it done.”
Do you do it for the team or do you do it because that’s who you are? The former might still be grudging, the latter a more clean break from ego.
“I think I do it for the team because that’s who I am,” Brogdon said, combining the two to win that word-play challenge. “Who I am is a guy who’s going to do whatever the team needs. Right now, I think the team needs me to come off the bench and be really aggressive.”
Some players would draw motivation from showing the coaches and management that they didn’t need the perceived upgrade at the point. Brogdon, well, he wouldn’t cop to that.
“I just go out there to show them I’m going to play the right way regardless of what position or what situation I’m in,” he said. “I’m going to play the right way, I’m going to know my role and I’m going to be who I am.”
That said, there seemed to be a little extra statement at the end of the third quarter when Brogdon cut and took a pass from Antetokounmpo. He went all the way up and slammed over Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma, almost as emphatically as when Brogdon dunked against Kyrie Irving and LeBron James last December when he mostly was known as an overripe (then 24), undervalued (second round, No. 36 overall) four-year product of Virginia.
Bledsoe, whose dressing stall is next to Brogdon’s in the home locker room, knows he was handed the less-experienced player’s spot with essentially no on-court competition. Of the past 10 Rookies of the Year, only Tyreke Evans and Michael Carter-Williams have been turned into reserves, Evans more successfully than Carter-Williams. So it’s not a prestige move for winners of that particular award.
“I just tell Malcolm to stay aggressive,” Bledsoe said. “Because we’re going to need everybody. This is going to be a good run for us, so we just have to make the most of it. ... I did it before. I don’t think he’s done it. It’s challenging, but at the same time, you’ve got to find a way.”
Kidd cited Dellavedova as a good example of a player morphing to fit a team’s circumstances. He started for the Cavaliers in the 2015 Finals alongside James against Golden State and now, a little more than two years later, he’s third on Milwaukee’s depth chart at his position.
“Delly’s been in that situation in Cleveland, playing with their stars and being asked to do something different,” the Bucks coach said. “He just knows one way and that’s to play hard. If he starts he’s gonna play hard, if he comes off the bench he’s gonna play hard.”
Besides, two- or three-guard lineups have become de rigueur in the modern NBA. With Antetokounmpo’s ball skills and ability to break down defenses, having more guys who can spot around the 3-point line for his kick-outs is essential too.
“It gives us a whole new look,” Brogdon said. “Two starting caliber point guards coming off the bench, that’s huge.
“That allows us to be more versatile. We don’t have to have one dominant ball handler. We can have three or four. That allows us to have more good decision makers on the floor.”
Making decisions, organizing an attack, massaging a game are all things on which Brogdon prides himself. They are strengths he sees in Ball as well, to bring this full circle to a newcomer who can only tie, not surpass, Brogdon on the Rookie of the Year ladder.
“He has a great feel,” Brogdon said. “I think, as a rookie what guys needs to be judged on most coming in the league is feel. Not skill, not shooting, not stats, not even passing. But that feel for the game, the ability to read situations and make the right play. And I think he’s a guy who does that better than almost any other rookie. That’s how I was – I prided myself on making the right play.”
Or the right move, as the case may be.
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