Garden Party

Monroe’s MSG exploits last year helped make him a Piston

Two big performances at Madison Square Garden as a Georgetown sophomore helped convince the Pistons Greg Monroe was the right pick for them in last June's draft.
Steve Freeman (NBAE/Getty)
NEW YORK – Just as every kid on the globe who displays a flair with the brush dreams of hanging his work in the Louvre one day, anyone who’s ever dribbled a basketball with more than passing efficiency aspires to drain 3-pointers and dunk on the sport’s biggest stage: Madison Square Garden.

Surely it was the case for New Yorkers Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, who stayed close to home and played college basketball at Connecticut of the Big East, which holds its postseason conference tournament every year at basketball’s universally acknowledged mecca.

For Greg Monroe, a Louisiana kid who migrated north to Georgetown to play his college ball in the Big East, there’s extra significance to tonight’s Pistons game at the Garden against the Knicks, when Monroe makes his NBA Garden debut: If not for some sizzling performances on that very stage last season, the Pistons might not have had their fingers crossed on draft night that Golden State would take anyone but Monroe with the No. 6 pick so he would fall to them at No. 7.

Members of the Pistons’ front office saw Monroe in person many times in his two years at Georgetown, but Joe Dumars saw him twice last season – both at Madison Square Garden. And in both games, Monroe was the best player on the floor.

Against Butler in November, Monroe had one of his finest statistical games with 24 points, 15 rebounds, two assists and two blocked shots as the Hoyas won. It would be Butler’s last defeat until narrowly losing the national championship game in April to Duke.

“He was the reason they won that game,” said George David, Pistons personnel director, who accompanied Dumars to the Butler game. “They went to him a lot in that game. It was a game they needed him to play well in order to win and Greg stepped it up big-time. He had some great moves in the post, some great passes.”

“It was a good win,” Monroe recalls. “We got a win – that was the most important thing. I remember it was definitely a great feeling. The Jimmy V Classic – there was a great crowd there. It was a great atmosphere to play in. We knew coming in they were a good team. That night we came out and we just wanted it more. We were on our Ps and Qs, we executed and we played great defense.”

David left the Garden that night struck by the thought that he would no longer have to worry about one of the common raps against Monroe.

“Having seen Greg a lot up until that time, both in high school and college, some scouts had knocked Greg, saying he didn’t play with a high enough motor and his demeanor was too low-key. That game was probably the first game that he showed he had it in him to be a high-level NBA player. He pretty much dominated the game. I thought he was the story of the game for either team.”

In March, Dumars returned to the Garden, this time with Pistons vice president Scott Perry, to watch Monroe in the Big East tournament when Georgetown crushed a scrappy Marquette team 80-57. The Golden Eagles had little size, but were considered one of the toughest teams in the Big East. And their quick frontcourt, led by 2010 first-round pick Lazar Hayward, would present a different kind of challenge for Monroe.

Again, he shined. Monroe scored 23 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and flashed playmaking skills rare for a big man with seven assists.

“Marquette was a tough basketball team,” Perry said. “They were going to definitely challenge Greg. You’ve got to see how he was going to respond against some quickness, guys who were smaller but quicker than him. The thing that’s always stood out about Greg was just his feel for how to play, and in that game he did a nice job of not only creating opportunities for himself but just opening up things for the rest of his teammates. There was no question he was the best and smartest player on the floor.”

“It’s always tough playing against them,” Monroe said. “(Buzz Williams) is a great coach (and) they play hard despite their size, so it was a tough matchup. Their big men were not really big men. They’re versatile, they play hard, they press – it was a tough matchup.”

NBA teams wind up scouting a lot of college games in the Garden, which is home to St. John’s in addition to annual host of the Big East tournament. But the Garden also hosts a ton of other college games throughout the season. High-profile teams like Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and UCLA use future Garden dates as a recruiting tool. The Garden hosts the Preseason NIT, the longstanding postseason NIT plus special arranged matchups such as the Jimmy V Classic.

So scouts flock to the Garden, partly because it’s always easy to get non-stop flights to New York, partly because the Garden caters to NBA personnel and provides scouts with great seats for optimal information gathering and partly because the matchups almost always feature NBA-caliber prospects.

But a little bit of the allure is in seeing how players respond to playing on basketball’s biggest stage. If they can make it there, perhaps, they can make it anywhere – even the NBA.

“It’s important to see kids when they play in big moments,” Perry said, “and see how they respond, because obviously there are big moments each and every night in the NBA.

“You definitely want to see how a guy responds in those moments, like in tournament games – that one-game knockout, to see if he’s a guy who is being aggressive during that time. Does he want the ball in key situations and is he trying to make plays to help his team win?”

Monroe said he was never consciously aware of the presence of NBA scouts when Georgetown played the Garden – Gordon and Villanueva both said they knew when they were at UConn where the scouts sat – but he was no less awed by the aura.

“Going in there is always a special feeling,” he said. “You always have a different sense when you walk into the Garden. There’s so much history in there. It’s a wonderful building. I’m pretty sure every player feels a little bit differently going into a game in Madison Square Garden.”

As kids growing up a cab ride away from the Garden – Gordon in Mount Vernon, Villanueva in Queens – the Garden is held in even greater reverence by them. Gordon got to play there in high school and both players had special moments there as collegians, especially en route to UConn’s 2004 NCAA championship, a run launched by their winning the Big East title as the No. 2 conference seed behind Pitt.

Gordon scored 81 points over three games on successive days, breaking a record held by Allen Iverson, and hit a clutch driving layup and two free throws late to clinch a three-point win over Pitt in the title game in being named Most Outstanding Player.

“I have a lot of great memories,” Gordon said. “Just being from New York, Mount Vernon, just a couple of minutes away from the Garden. It’s a great stage to showcase your talent. The whole ambience, the energy there – it makes for a great place to play basketball.

“You go in there, the lights are a little dimmer, the elevators, walking through there, it’s dirty – it’s like that, that New York, gritty feeling. You just love it. It’s always star studded. It’s the mecca of basketball. I’m eager to see it. (The Knicks) have been playing better basketball this year, so it’s going to be interesting to see how the energy is in the building. I’m sure it’s going to be really good, because in years past, even when they weren’t playing well, the energy was always good.”

“The Garden – there’s no building like it,” said Villanueva, who as part of a loaded UConn frontcourt – as a sophomore on the ’04 title team, Charlie V was joined by three future pros in Emeka Okafor, Josh Boone and Hilton Armstrong – had 16 points and 13 boards to lead UConn past Notre Dame in the Big East tournament quarterfinals that year.

“There’s something special about it – the lighting, it’s just different than any other arena. New York is the mecca of basketball. Everybody comes to see you play at the Garden. The Garden is where it’s at.”

Among other things, the Garden played a big role in delivering Greg Monroe to the Pistons.