“I was kind of an early bloomer,” Shaun Livingston was saying. “I played all the time, practiced all the time. So it just became habits, really.”
He was speaking modestly. Livingston was, in fact, one of those generational players, an adolescent with the potential to influence and reshape the NBA. He would grow up to become a 6-foot-7 point guard with the speed and skills to keep up with the smaller athletes of his age, and the vision to surpass them.
“Oh, I never knew I was going to be a great player,” insisted Livingston as he sat courtside after a recent morning shootaround with the Golden State Warriors. “I was kind of advanced for my age, just because I started early, when I was maybe 6 or 7 years old. And my dad always had me playing with older groups. But I never knew; still don’t, you know?”
He won state championships in grade school, middle school and high school in Peoria, Ill., not quite three hours southwest of Chicago. He became a household name in his small basketball world, coveted by coaches everywhere.
“When I was entering high school, my dad had me going around to different high schools, playing open gyms,” he said. “A lot of coaches thought I was coming to their schools. If I would have done it over, I would have just stayed at one particular school just to play pickup basketball in the summertime. So everybody would know I’m not, like, parading myself, selling myself. That should not happen as a kid.”
And yet it happens to the teenaged likes of Kobe Bryant, or LeBron James, or Livingston. The law of supply and demand catches the few of them by surprise just as they are learning to shave, before they’re old enough to vote. They must grow up on the court before they’ve grown up. Their approach to the game is steeled.
“There’s pros and cons,” Livingston said. “The pro, obviously, is you experience a lot at an early age, just being able to take that experience with you and continue to strive for more and greater. The cons are peaking too early, or not being able to enjoy the perks of childhood and stuff like that. It’s a trade-off.”
Not quite three years after he left high school as the skinny No. 4 pick of the 2004 NBA Draft, just as he was beginning to make good on his great expectations, Livingston suffered the most gruesome injury to his left knee. One unlucky, off-balanced landing under the basket prevented him from becoming the star he was meant to be.
But the trauma did not change the way he thought of himself or his approach to the game. It did not change his point of view.
Rehabbing, returning and renewal
“I couldn’t tell you how his thinking has evolved, other than the fact that he was a prodigy,” said Warriors assistant coach Ron Adams. “He was an amazing player coming out of high school. What has happened with Shaun -- it’s the path that we follow in life, the twists and turns.”
One outcome of that unpredictable path was revealed last June, after a couple of playoff injuries had sidelined Golden State MVP Stephen Curry for several games, and limited his effectiveness for several more.
“You don't win championships without the entire squad making an impact,” Curry would say after he was held to 11 points on 4-for-15 shooting in Game 1 of The 2016 Finals. And yet his Warriors were able to win that opening game -- on their way to seizing a 3-1 lead over Cleveland -- because Livingston filled in with 20 efficient points while converting 8 of 10 shots inside the 3-point line.
“He still has to manage his body,” Adams said. “It’s not automated. He can get too many minutes night after night. Steve (Kerr, the Warriors coach) does a good job of managing that, and Shaun is good at managing his own body. He tells people when he needs rest. I think that says a lot about Shaun, that it’s important to be on the same page with yourself.”
The great players learn to respect their own limitations. Discipline is built into the daily routine. Whatever needs to be done is done. This is how Livingston has learned to manage himself: as if still pursuing his dreams of basketball at the highest level, even if his body would not allow for it.
“I had him in Oklahoma City when he was hurt,” said Adams, who was an assistant to Thunder coach Scott Brooks from 2008-10. “We wanted to keep him. He could play a little bit, but then he couldn’t play several days after because the knee was acting up on him. So Oklahoma City at that time decided not to keep him. We loved him because he was great for us there, but he was still healing. Then it was fun to see the transformation from that time period to now.”
For the half-dozen years that should have been the best of his career, Livingston was limping through rehab workouts and NBA locker rooms in Miami, Oklahoma City, Washington, Charlotte and Milwaukee, then looping back around through Washington and Cleveland before establishing himself in Brooklyn. During his “breakout” 2013-14 season with the Nets, Livingston played 76 games, starting 54 of them, before he helped Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams reach the 2014 Eastern Conference semifinals.
Livingston, a free agent in 2014, was pursued by several teams that summer. He wound up in Golden State thanks largely to a chance meeting years earlier in the beginning of his recovery.
“Me and Jerry actually had rehab together,” said Livingston of Jerry West, who would later join the Warriors’ executive board. “He didn’t know that I was going to come back and play basketball again. Nobody did.”
Seeing both sides of the coin
With their offseason signing of Kevin Durant, the Warriors have run out to a league-leading 25-4 start even as they’ve struggled at times to organize their new quintet of stars. What is the proper scoring balance for their prolific trio of Durant, Curry and Klay Thompson? Will Draymond Green continue to average a scant 10.6 points per game? Where does sixth man Andre Iguodala -- the 2015 Finals MVP -- fit in?
“That’s one of our challenges early on,” Kerr said. “When Steph sits, we generally have K.D. on the floor and so we’re running more offense through him with the second unit. And obviously it’s totally different from last year. Last year we had [Marreese] Speights, [Leandro] Barbosa, [Festus] Ezeli -- we had such a different group. This year the dynamics are different because we have K.D. -- which is great.”
“We have the option for him and Klay to play with the bench guys,” said Curry of Durant. “You’re able to rest two guys in the starting lineup and bring them back quicker, while other guys get rest. It helps keep the flow, and just trying to keep the gas pedal down.”
The easiest mistake would be to forget about the end of the bench, and that is where their backup point guard comes in. Livingston is the only player on this lopsided roster who can relate to both ends of the Warriors’ spectrum. For years he was fighting to extend his career, even as his imagination continued to drum up visions of the high-level plays he would make to help Golden State win The 2015 Finals and return to The Finals in 2016 after an NBA-record 73-win regular season.
The original premise for the teenage Livingston was to become his era’s Magic Johnson and transform good starters into title contenders. That is still part of his role with the Warriors.
At the same time, he feels responsible for the likes Golden State’s bench, including defensive-minded rookie shooting guard Patrick McCaw, who has appeared in just 23 games. There are big men Kevon Looney and Damian Jones, too, who fell to Golden State at the end of the first round in the last two drafts because of pre-existing injuries. Over the long term, they could emerge as steals.
There is Ian Clark, the 25-year-old shooting guard who is averaging 7.3 points, and Javale McGee, the hyperactive, 28-year-old center who is trying to recover from injuries and rehabilitate his reputation for immaturity.
“Just showing them tough love but at the same time giving them confidence every step of the way,” said Livingston of his concerns for them. “When they’re on the court, be aggressive and understand that they’re here for a reason. We believe in them. So be free. Let your wings spread. That’s the only way you’re going to grow.”
“He’s bringing leadership and a lot of versatility,” said Looney of Livingston. “He can play off the ball, on the ball, he rebounds, he does it all. If we just listen, everything goes smooth.”
The development of young potential is driven by a sense of urgency that would be easy enough to rebuff, given all of the Warriors’ star power. Livingston knows how quickly the surest things can change. There figure to be injuries, matchup problems and other bumps in the road throughout April, May and June. There are other veteran role players -- center Zaza Pachulia (who’s been in the NBA since 2003), David West (a former All-Star) and Anderson Varejao (a key cog for the Cleveland Cavaliers for years).
But Livingston, more than anyone, understands and embraces his role as a bridge between the stars and the complementary players. His knee prevents him from dominating, and yet his abiding vision -- his imagination -- enables him to thrive under the greatest pressure.
'You can depend on him'
“I had dislocated my shoulder, and obviously he was still going through the trauma of the horrible injury he had,” Jerry West said of his rehab with Livingston. “When I would see him, he was just so unaffected by the injury. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen in my life, particularly for a young kid, and I was shocked how mature and how focused he was about being able to get back and play again.”
West, a Hall of Fame guard, assembled the Lakers’ championship teams of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant as general manager and recognized the winning qualities in Livingston.
“When you’re around him, you can see the goodness in him,” West said. “I do believe in the quality of people who do their job in a manner that doesn’t attract a lot of attention.
“It was a stroke of good fortune that we were able to land him, because you can depend on him.”
Livingston’s midrange game is of another era, which adds to his value on this team of longball shooters. He rules that space between his past and the present, between expectations and reality. It is no stretch to say that he sees his role within the bigger picture, which is why he donated $1 million last month to the expansion of his former gym at Concordia Lutheran School in Peoria.
“I sent him a little note about his contribution to the school,” West said. “He hasn’t been one of these players who made mega-money in our league. For him to do something like that shows he cares a lot more about the other things in life, about trying to help those less fortunate than us. His response back to me was that he just wanted to help. It really tells me that here’s someone that’s above and beyond a very good basketball player. It goes to the heart of what kind of person he is.”
On other teams, maybe for the majority that are not positioned to contend, Livingston’s software would be wasted. But on this team he is more valuable than his stats -- 4.9 points, 1.8 assists and 17.4 minutes, all at or approaching career-lows -- would suggest.
“I am grateful,” Livingston, still relatively young himself at age 31, said as an athletic trainer wrapped an ice bag around his knee at shootaround. “I think that’s the best word I can use. I realize this is a privilege, that the team is not obligated to give me opportunity, a job. On the other side of the fence …”
And then he interrupted himself.
“First bus!” he yelled out to the court.
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