In Big Ben’s Footsteps

Macklin following Wallace’s blueprint for carving out an NBA niche

Vernon Macklin
Vernon Macklin hopes to follow in Ben Wallace's footsteps
Dan Lippitt (NBAE/Getty)
As Ben Wallace weighs his future, Vernon Macklin sweats and strains to ensure his own. If he gets it right, he hopes it turns out the way it did for the guy who came out of Virginia Union, near Macklin’s native Portsmouth, undrafted in 1996.

Not that the Pistons rookie envisions four Defensive Player of the Year trophies or multiple All-Star berths ahead of him, necessarily, just that in Wallace he found the inspiration to see his path to a long and enriching NBA career.

“I had one of my cousins call me and ask, ‘Did you learn that since you got to the NBA or did you have that?’ ” Macklin said this week, talking about the eye-popping numbers he put up in the D-League: 14.5 points, 14.3 rebounds in 10 games.

“I was like, ‘Honestly, I don’t know. I just know it was one day I saw a lot of the things Ben Wallace was doing. When the shots went up, he’d either hit you or get to the ball quicker than you.’ He’s got the mentality that when the shot goes up, now it’s you vs. me. I’d never had that mentality.”

And now he does. There’s no more concise way to describe how Macklin went from a so-so college rebounder – he averaged 5.4 a game as a Florida senior – to a dominant one in the D-League in a category that scouts say, along with blocked shots, most reliably translates from one level to the next.

As a McDonald’s All-American and high-profile recruit who first went to Georgetown and then played for two years at Florida in the wake of its consecutive national titles, Macklin had always believed – and had always been told – that a player was defined by his scoring ability.

After a year in the NBA, spent under the guiding aura of the Ben Wallace who remains an icon in and around Portsmouth, he came to know better.

“I told me best friend, ‘Man, I figured it out. Everybody telling me, shoot the jump shot. Learn to shoot that jump shot, because you’ve got to score in the post to make it to the NBA.’ Naw. I’m going to be a hustle guy.”

So that’s his summer mission. Macklin came out of Florida listed at 227 pounds. He’s now a solid 250, noticeably thicker and more defined in the chest and arms, and he’s going to spend most of his summer working under Arnie Kander at the team’s practice facility with the intent of making a push for a spot in Lawrence Frank’s frontcourt rotation next season.

His next big chance to make an impression will come in the Orlando Summer League July 9-13. That will be two weeks after the NBA draft, when the Pistons figure to have added at least one more young big man – quite possibly with the lottery pick. But it will come before the second and third waves of free agency and before the off-season trade market has hit full rev. A strong showing by Macklin in Orlando – more of the same from his D-League run – and he could influence front-office thinking.

In his exit interview with Lawrence Frank last month, Macklin was told to “be selfish, be hungry” – a message Frank gives all of his players, the intent being that it’s their time to improve and not have to be concerned with filling a niche in the bigger team picture.

“Being hungry, being selfish – selfish in a good way,” Macklin said. “Being in the gym, working with Arnie, working on my legs, being in great condition. I want to come back and be that high-energy guy, so I’ve got to be in shape for that.”

Frank held up Joakim Noah, another former Florida Gator and someone Macklin has worked out with in Gainesville, as a role model – a player who doesn’t need the ball to make an impact.

“That’s the kind of player I want to be,” Macklin said. “The shot goes up, the other team’s got to worry about me going to get the rebound. I’ve got to be in shape so I can be that guy and never get tired. When I see guys down and tired, that’s the time for me to crash the board even harder.”

There might have been more to Macklin’s modest senior rebounding numbers at Florida that the “a-ha!” moment of seeing Ben Wallace chase every shot down as a lion pursues the hyena. As Kander studied Macklin’s college tapes, he noticed that a player whose with the reach of 7-foot-1 wing span always seemed to come up just short of getting to the basketball.

“What does it mean if your body can’t get there because of your knees, your hip or your back?” Kander asked.

With Macklin, it turned out to be his knees. He had a persistent case of tendinitis, a condition Kander says can be fairly easily remedied once its source is understood.

“Maybe you’re not using something properly,” Kander said. “Maybe it’s shoes, maybe it’s arch support, maybe it’s getting more flexibility in your hips.”

It didn’t affect Macklin last season and now, he says, his knees feel terrific. What Kander wants to work on next with Macklin is translating the obvious athleticism he displays when he runs into the same type of burst in the post.

“His great gifts are in running,” Kander said. “He’s a movement-based guy. Once he stops moving and he’s in the post, he looks a little more rigid and stiff. He hasn’t developed the athleticism over the rotational movements.”

Part of Macklin’s workouts with Kander involve repetitive, one-step movements to the basket, dozens and dozens at a time.

“I feel it becoming more fluid just now,” Macklin said after finishing up a session. “When I first started the drill, I was like, huh? Now, I got it. Arnie will keep working with me.”

And the Pistons will keep working with Macklin. They aren’t necessarily banking on him to crack the rotation next season, but nobody ever banked on Ben Wallace lasting 16 seasons when he arrived in the NBA, either.