The Bubble Boys
By Dustin Krugel, Suns.com
Posted: Oct. 4, 2002
Every year there seems to be one player, a long shot, someone who seemingly jumps out of nowhere and earns a spot on the Suns’ Opening Day roster.
Last year it was undrafted rookie guard Charlie Bell. In 2000, there were Puerto Rican center Daniel Santiago and CBA forward Ruben Garces.
This year Chris Burgess, Dan Langhi, Maurice Baker, Bobby Lazor and Anthony Goldwire want to be that guy who defies the odds. Their quest began earlier this week with the start of training camp in Flagstaff.
With 18 players currently in camp and only 12 roster spots up for grabs, it’s conceivable none of the five recently signed free agents will survive the final cutdown, but injuries always have a way of opening up a spot.
“All those guys on the bubble, or whatever you call it, are working hard,” Johnson said. “They are getting a good look and are competing. I don’t think they’d be here if they didn’t have a shot.”
Johnson can certainly relate to their predicament. He was once a non-roster invitee to the Suns' 1992 camp, brought in solely as insurance in case starter Kevin Johnson pulled up lame with an injury. Four days before the season opener he was cut only to be added two days later when KJ injured himself.
“Kevin got hurt and I was able to come back, and I could fit into what was already going on,” “Fourth Quarter Frank” recalled. “That was the good thing about it. I knew the system. They didn’t have to come in and teach me the system all over again.”
So how did he approach that training camp as a long shot?
“Just play hard,” he said. “Don’t worry about if someone gets hurt or hope someone gets hurt, just compete because I wasn’t necessarily competing against just those other Suns. Maybe I could get a look from another team we played in the exhibitions.”
Now Johnson will help decide the fate of five others who hope to follow in his footsteps and land a spot on the Suns' roster, but they will have to make a good impression soon because the clock is ticking. Johnson said he doesn’t plan on traveling 18 players to the Suns’ first preseason game on Oct. 11 versus New Jersey.
“I have to prove myself every minute of the day,” said center Chris Burgess, who is challenging third-year pro Jake Voskuhl for the third and final center spot on the Suns. “I have to let them know or reassure them, whatever it is, that I’m a player that can help them.”
Burgess didn’t get much love from NBA teams at the 2002 draft, but the undrafted rookie free agent has steadily improved since joining the Suns in July, when he averaged 3.2 points and 2.8 rebounds in limited minutes in the six-game Rocky Mountain Revue.
The 6-10 center actually entered the college ranks as the 1997 Sporting News National High School Player of the Year at Woodbridge High School (Calif.) before enrolling at Duke. In his final season at Duke, Burgess helped the Blue Devils reach the 1999 NCAA title game where he, ironically, lost to Voskuhl's UConn team. In an effort to get more playing time he transferred to Utah, but an ankle injury and a torn plantar fascia in his right foot prevented Burgess from reaching his full potential.
Burgess doesn’t dazzle anyone with his athleticism on the court, but he has shown the ability to run the floor, nail the open 18-foot jumper and pass the ball well for a big man. Those are all qualities that are desired in Johnson’s new motion offense.
“I’m not going out of my shell to show these guys I can dribble between my legs and crossover a big men, but I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think (my chances) were good. I think that’s the bottom line,” said Burgess, whose path to the Suns was recently chronicled by USA Today. “Otherwise, I would be overseas playing. I would have already taken the guaranteed (contract) over there. I’m not greedy. I just want to play in the NBA and fulfill a dream. You have to have that attitude or you don’t have any chance, anyways.”
A little over a week ago former Rockets forward Dan Langhi was sitting at his Houston home with his wife contemplating a couple of overseas offers from European clubs. Then the Suns called.
The next day the 6-11 forward was on a flight headed to the Valley of the Sun, where he signed a partially guaranteed contract with the Suns and earned his meal ticket to Suns’ camp.
“It was difficult, but it’s part of the business,” said Langhi, who originally was a second round draft choice (No. 31) by the Mavericks in the 2000 NBA Draft, but was traded on draft night to the Rockets. “You just have to learn to keep your head up and keep your confidence going, and when your opportunity comes, you have to make the most of it.”
After two forgettable seasons in Houston where he rarely took a seat off the bench, Langhi, who averaged 2.9 points and 1.6 rebounds in 67 career games with the Rockets, knows nothing will be handed to him in his second go-around with an NBA team.
“In this business if you let up you can be gone the next day,” said Langhi, who is competing to be the backup to small forward Shawn Marion. “If you are not working, someone else is working. You can’t really let your guard down.”
Maurice “Mo” Baker was one of college basketball’s finest players in his junior season (2000-01) at Oklahoma State, averaging 19.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists a game. But ankle and groin injuries in his senior season (2001-02) caused his numbers to plummet to 12.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg and 3.3 apg.
Still, the 6-1 guard was projected to be a second round pick in last June’s draft and the Suns worked out the athletic combo guard prior to the draft in Phoenix.
Baker was not drafted, but Phoenix was one of the first teams to inquire about the free agent guard and he eventually joined the Suns’ entry in the Southern California Summer Pro League.
Unfortunately, Baker re-aggravated his college injury and played in only four summer league games. He wasn’t cleared to play again until earlier this week.
“If I play injury free, my game will show,” said Baker, who became close friends with Cavs’ forward Darius Miles as a youth in East St. Louis. “I'm going to play hard. I'm going to do all the little things the coaches want me to do. All I've got to do is stay injury free.”
If Baker’s injury problems persist, he could be a candidate for the injured list.
Former Arizona State forward Bobby Lazor certainly has the most frequent flier miles of anyone on the bubble.
Since not being selected in the 1999 NBA Draft, he has played professionally in five different countries (United States, Japan, France, Italy and Puerto Rico).
The 6-9 forward, who was originally born in Scottsdale, Ariz., averaged 18.0 points and 16.8 points in his senior and junior seasons at ASU on combined .523 shooting from the field, plus 8.3 rebounds.
“It would be amazing,” Lazor said of the possibility of playing in the Valley of the Sun again. “I couldn’t even put it into words. It would be like a dream. It couldn’t be any better, but we’ll see what happens.”
Lazor said he tries not to think about the long odds of making the team and instead focuses on the task at hand.
“The important thing is every time you are out playing, you need to try to show something," he said. "You can’t take any afternoons or mornings off. I think someone in my position has to play well most of the time and always look to improve my game.”
Anthony Goldwire finds himself in the same predicament he was in eight years ago, but instead of KJ at the point, the Suns now have Stephon Marbury.
In 1994, the Suns drafted the 6-2 playmaker in the second round (No. 52) with the intention of allowing him to compete for the backup point guard position behind their starting All-Star playmaker.
“I was a rookie and I didn't really understand the game. Now I understand the game a lot more,” said Goldwire, who has played for the Hornets and Nuggets, and also overseas in Italy, Spain and Greece. "I've matured a lot. A lot of things have changed in my game. When I came in I was a guy that always penetrated a lot, but over the years I've worked on my outside shot.”
While Goldwire’s game has grown, he said nothing has changed about the organization that first brought him into the league, minus the personnel.
“Same Arena, same (public relations) people, same strength and conditioning coach, Robin Pound, he's still here,” he said. “The coaching's different and the players, but everything else is the same. I was just thinking about my first time coming in and how it felt to be a part of a great organization when I first got out of school, being with Kevin Johnson, Charles Barkley and Danny Ainge. It feels good to come back.”
Goldwire admits his chances of making the team aren’t great, but said anything can happen.
“I know coming in, unguaranteed, having to make the team, things have to fall in the right place,” said Goldwire, who played in 204 games with Charlotte and Denver and averaged 7.1 points and 3.1 assists. “All you can do is go out and play hard, and just go from there… I've been in enough NBA training camps now that I know all you can do is just go out and play hard.”