The Art of Playing Hard
Rodman was a freakish athlete whose ticket to the Hall of Fame was punched at the defensive end and for his ability to outrun the basketball. Singler, though an underrated athlete, is a more skilled player whose path to the NBA was cleared by his innate understanding of how to play the game. Rodman took an unlikely journey to the NBA, routed through one of college basketball’s dustiest bins, Southeastern Oklahoma State. Singler, a McDonald’s All-American, starred on its biggest stage at Duke.
But at the root of their success – though Singler has only taken the first step on a path Rodman successfully navigated for 14 years – is this: They never played a game where they were outworked.
Lawrence Frank talks about it all the time, how playing hard is a skill, as surely as defending adeptly or rebounding well or shooting accurately. But while it’s relatively easy to define the skills usually required for proficiency in those areas, it’s a little tougher to put your finger on what it takes to play hard for every possession of 82 games.
Surely, it starts with the mental discipline to keep yourself in constant motion, or to be constantly vigilant as to what the next motion should entail.
Singler, one of the NBA’s surprise rookies, says it’s something he’s always been able to do, though he also says it was something pounded into him at an early age by his coaches even before playing high school basketball in Medford, Ore., but then reinforced both in high school – where he led his team to a state championship – and at Duke, where as a junior he starred for Mike Krzyzewski’s fourth national championship team.
“It always falls back to your habits,” Singler said. “I was fortunate to have coaches when I was in high school, and even when I was younger, and then when I was at Duke. You always have to stay focused. You always have to play hard, put forth your maximum effort. It goes back to when you were younger and your habits and the type of coaching you got when you were that age.”
Singler said there are times he feels himself falling below his acceptable threshold and gives himself a scolding.
“If I notice myself not playing hard or not putting forth the effort I know I can, I definitely get on myself,” he said. “There have been plenty of times where it’s happened. Again, it just goes back to when I was younger and having those guys always get on me for not doing the easy things that you can control.”
Frank chose Indiana University as a kid growing up in New Jersey to study at the feet of a coach, Bobby Knight, who – as much as anyone ever has – got his teams to play hard. He knows that many teams or players talk a good game, but too often words don’t translate to effort.
“Everyone always goes into the game saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to outwork the opponent,’ and then stuff happens,” Frank said. “When stuff happens, how do you respond? Is it frustration? Is it gear down a little bit? Is it excuse making? Or is it stay with it and grind?”
For Singler, it’s always that last one. In part, it’s now so ingrained he knows no other way. In part, it’s because he believes that’s the surest way he can affect the outcome.
“I almost have to (work harder),” he said. “The things I can help the team on are those things I’ve always been – I’m always willing to do the things that are going to help the team win. For me to help put points on the scoreboard, I’ve got to fill the lane in transition, get easy baskets that way. That’s my role and those are the things I’m going to have to do to help this team.”
Frank has quickly come to trust Singler, playing him an average of 32 minutes a game in his 10 starts through Saturday’s game at Dallas, even though Singler is now manning a position – shooting guard – that he’d never played in his life. No matter where he lines up, though, the constant with Singler will be his ability to play hard.
“The one thing it requires is effort,” Singler said. “The will to put forth that effort. It’s more of an internal skill. It’s something you’re usually born with and you’ve done your whole career. It’s not something you usually pick up once you start playing in the NBA.”