Crossing Paths

Monroe preps to face his ideal role model: Tim Duncan
Tracy McGrady started to smile before my question was fully formed. McGrady and Tim Duncan took very different paths to get to the NBA – McGrady straight from high school, Duncan after four seasons at Wake Forest even though the NBA was pining for him by midway through his freshman year.

That was 14 years ago. McGrady and Duncan’s paths have crossed so often since, if you charted them it would resemble a double helix. They very nearly became teammates in the summer of 2000 when Orlando signed McGrady away from the Toronto Raptors and Grant Hill from the Pistons – the darkest day in the 54-year history of the Pistons in Detroit.

Tim Duncan almost joined them, but he couldn’t look Gregg Popovich, David Robinson and the people of San Antonio in the eyes and tell them he was bolting.

Which ought to hearten Pistons fans, because McGrady sees an awful lot of Greg Monroe in Tim Duncan.

“That’s who he reminds me of,” McGrady said before that question was delivered in completed fashion. “A lot of people think you’ve got to go out and lead by being vocal and demonstrative and getting in people’s faces. No. Just look at Tim Duncan and what he’s done over the last decade.

“Just phenomenal. Greg is that type of guy. Hopefully, he has a tremendous career ahead of him. It seems like he’s going to reach that, because he works extremely hard.”

Monroe’s stoicism is rare for a 10-year NBA veteran, let alone a 20-year-old. Yet you’ll elicit something of a reaction from him when you recite the twin predraft raps that helped deliver the Georgetown sophomore to the Pistons with the No. 7 pick in last June’s draft: suspect athleticism and low-key demeanor.

If Rasheed Wallace was at the far end of the continuum of demonstrative play, Monroe is way over on the other side – the Duncan side. That’s his nature, but it also was something Monroe noticed early on – remember, Monroe was all of 7 years old when Duncan broke into the NBA – about a player he came to admire as much as any.

“He wasn’t flashy, didn’t have a whole lot of hoo-rah, just came out and was tough,” Monroe said of his impressions of Duncan as a boy growing into his body in New Orleans and discovering his own special knack for playing basketball. “His mind was always focused. He had that high intensity level – you could see that – but he never let his emotions take over. I think that’s a part of the reason why he’s so successful.”

It isn’t lost on Monroe that he resembles Duncan not only in demeanor but in the fact neither will ever get rich selling video compilations of their best dunks. Duncan, Monroe understands, has built a slam-dunk Hall of Fame career on playing well at the rim but not necessarily above it.

“It’s not track and field,” he said Tuesday, as the Pistons prepared to fly to San Antonio for Wednesday night’s game against Duncan and the Spurs. “All the people, predraft, making their cases, once you get here, it’s all about skill. You have to have some type of athleticism, but once you’re on the court you have to just play and that’s what he did. He had a high skill level, he had a high IQ – he just outsmarted people.”

The Pistons were thrilled when Golden State passed on Monroe and enabled them to draft him seventh last June, but there is no doubt now that they’re even more enthused about what Monroe means for the franchise’s future. As sure as they were about Monroe’s maturity and selflessness last June, they’ve learned since that his desire to be great exceeded their wildest hopes.

And that gives them full confidence that Monroe’s skill level is going to exhibit the same constant improvement – meteoric, in instances – he’s exhibited during a rookie season that’s seen him go from not playing to being as critical to their success as anyone.

Monroe knows well he needs to develop a signature shot or move – a la Duncan’s mid-post bank shot – to further expand his reach. And if he didn’t, he’s heard it stressed from all levels – the front office, the coaching staff and teammates.

“I tell him all the time, because he has great hands and great feel for the game,” McGrady said. “The one thing he has to really (do to) open up his game is he’s going to learn how to shoot the ball from the outside. Get that in-between jump shot, become a pick-and-pop guy. If he becomes that, he’ll make himself a lot more effective.

“Just become a student of the game and watch some of the guys. He has the skills to really implement that into his game. It’s all about confidence – studying, watching and having confidence.”

Monroe has been and remains both a fan and a student of the game. Duncan – no surprise – was one of the players he studied most.

“He’s one of the guys I watched growing up – one of the best power forwards to ever play and probably the best while I was growing up. I saw him win all the championships. Being consistent – that’s what I remember about him. He wasn’t flashy. He just came out every night and produced.

“A lot of players learn from what they see. The moves they see, they mimic. Growing up, you would go in the gym and practice that backboard jump shot. I definitely watched him and tried to learn.”

Their paths will cross in San Antonio. Monroe won’t guard Duncan to start the game – he’ll go against former Big East rival DeJuan Blair of Pitt – but at some point, Monroe will be isolated, man against man, and try to stop someone he’s known as an NBA player virtually since his first memory of watching basketball from scoring over him.

On another level, he’ll be absorbing a little more knowledge of the game from a master of the craft and hoping he can come away from the experience inching a little closer to Duncan’s class.

“I’ll take every part of his game, really,” Monroe said. “A guy with that type of career, anything I can take from Tim Duncan, I would take. This is my first year. If I could be half as good as he has been, I’ll be happy.”

The Pistons, too.