Man in the Middle: Perkins Making Presence Felt

By Peter F. Stringer
Parquet Magazine
January 11, 2010

Kendrick Perkins

Center Kendrick Perkins still gets overshadowed by the Big Three, but he's established himself as a presence in the paint for the Celtics.Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty

It's hard to believe that a man who stands 6-foot-10 inches and speaks his mind freely could go overshadowed, overlooked and underappreciated.

Through no fault of his own, Kendrick Perkins has been all of these things for the last few years. But the Celtics' burly center, now in his seventh season and known for only smiling when it's required, is finally being recognized as a more-than-dependable big man who can score when called upon and stifle his opponents by blocking shots, muscling them off the block or simply intimidating them with his presence.

And offensively, Perkins is asserting himself more this season than ever before, and he's doing it efficiently and within the flow of the Celtics offense. After two solid months of play, Perkins entered 2010 as the NBA's top field goal percentage shooter this season, connecting on his field goals (mostly rim-rocking dunks and up-and-under layups) at a 64 percent clip. At this rate (he's shooting .644 this season through January 10), he's on pace to shatter Cedric Maxwell's single-season field goal percentage record (.609), set in the 1979-80 season.

"He's been bringing it every night. Perk really doesn't get a lot of credit for things he does because of me and Kevin and Ray, but I really think Perk is one of the more underrated big men in all of the league," says Celtics captain Paul Pierce, who's watched Perkins, the team's best rebounder, develop first-hand over the last seven years.

Ensconced as the Celtics starting center since the 2005-06 season, Perkins, 25, is only outranked by Pierce in terms of longevity with the Celtics, dating back to his acquisition in the 2003 NBA Draft. Selected straight out of Clifton J. Ozen High School in Beaumont, TX, Perkins reportedly topped 320 pounds that summer.

His high school dominance (he says he once grabbed 35 rebounds in a game) and overwhelming size led optimists to draw comparisons to Shaquille O'Neal, but that same imposing stature simultaneously raised fears of Oliver Miller, John "Hot Plate" Williams and other promising pivots who'd managed to eat their way out of the league. Those concerns, in part, caused Perkins to slide down the draft board, where he fell to No. 27 overall, the position at which the Celtics had arranged to take him in a draft day deal with the Memphis Grizzlies.

Perkins recalled that he "almost died" on his first day of training camp as a rookie, and despite an aggressive post-draft workout regimen designed to drop weight and improve his conditioning, Perkins discovered that the rigors of professional basketball would demand a higher level of training and sophistication when it came to sculpting an NBA body.

"It's a matter of going into the off-season and doing the work. Not only do you want to lose weight, but you also got to make sure that you keep your strength," Perkins said at the time. "So you've got to lift at the same time. You've really got to step your game up because this ain't high school no more, so you've got to elevate your game."

He spent the next two years chiseling his body and refining his defensive game against Big Al Jefferson, another Celtics big man gifted with deft hands, smooth footwork and a slew of post-up moves who was quickly becoming the future of the franchise.

Despite their drastically different skill sets, Jefferson and Perkins became fast friends, motivating each other on and off the court, both during the season and in the summer time when both spent day after day together with strength and conditioning coaches rehabbing injuries, shedding weight, honing their skills and awaiting their opportunities.

"It was tough. I was about 323 pounds. Now I'm weighing 270. I feel better but that was an obstacle I had to get through in order to play," Perkins said of his work in the gym during his early career. "I knew I could carry that weight in high school and play, but I had to lose that weight to play in the NBA game, because it's a fast pace. You only get 24 seconds so you've got to be able to get up and down the court."

While the Celtics had made a point of allowing him to develop at his own pace, Perkins' blossoming was forcibly fast-tracked by the blockbuster trade in the summer of 2007 that sent Jefferson to Minnesota with a handful of young teammates in exchange for Kevin Garnett. The swap transformed the Celtics overnight into instant contenders, redefining the challenge facing Perkins. The future arrived early, and Perkins found himself playing alongside a troika of All-World performers with championship-or-bust aspirations. Outsiders instantly questioned him as a weak link, claiming the Celtics "had no center."

But the assignment from Celtics Head Coach Doc Rivers was simple: Perkins needed to simply play his role. Looking back on the team's transformation, Perkins makes no bones about accepting the fact that he subjugated his own game for the larger goal of winning a title.

Kendrick Perkins

Perk entered 2010 leading the NBA in field goal percentage, shooting over 64 percent on mostly slam dunks and layups around the hoop.Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty

"When you're playing with stars, you don't have to be a star. You're gonna get your props anyway," Perkins said in an interview before this season started, reflecting back on his role in the 2007-08 title run. "I'm in a great situation at a younger age, I'm playing with three future Hall of Famers. I'm starting on a championship team, and I just want to take advantage of it in every way."

Defense and rebounding were priorities one and two, and everything else would take care of itself. Perkins, one of the most candid pro athletes you'll ever encounter, told the Boston Globe in August of 2007, right after the Garnett deal went down, that he knew what was at stake and that he'd have to embrace the opportunity.

"I know if I don't take advantage of this opportunity, people are going to be saying, 'They need another center,' " said Perkins at the time. "If Rondo doesn't take advantage of it, then we're a point guard away from a championship. Paul, KG, and Ray have enough on their shoulders. They don't have to carry me, Rondo and Tony Allen. The only thing they should be carrying along is rookies. This is my fifth year. I've got to grow up."

Perkins did not disappoint, helping Garnett anchor what would become a championship caliber defense. Rivers has enjoyed watching Perkins develop from a young question mark full of potential to a consistent contributor who's just happy to do his job and get the win.

"Each year, he's gotten better," Rivers said of Perkins, a guy he's had to harp on in the past for occasionally sliding out of his role. "Even though there are nights he might step out of it a bit, he always gets back in it now. Now I think his goal is to be perfect at it. You can be an All-Star if you can perfect your role."

While you wont hear Perkins talking about being an All-Star, and many of the questions he gets from the media still focus on the stars he's matching up against rather than what he can do on his own, the guys in his own locker room appreciate what Perk brings on a nightly basis. Garnett, his tag-team partner in holding down the paint, has been something of a mentor to Perkins, and KG's seen quite a bit of development over the last three seasons.

"The one thing Doc expressed here is knowing your role, and he tries to go out and do that every day," Garnett said of Perkins. "But the thing that stands out about him is that he works on his game every single day and that's what you want from a young guy."

While Perkins seems to have always had a knack for the defensive side of the ball, his offensive game admittedly isn't completely polished. On occasion he reverts back to bad habits, most notably, gathering himself with a power dribble on dunks when a quick move to the basket would suffice -- and not allow defenders the second or so they need to recover and make a play on the ball. But at this point, Perkins has heard all the criticisms from all corners, fans and media alike, and he continues to make a conscious effort to correct the few remaining flaws in his game.

Like that power dribble...

"I think I used to try to gather myself to dunk all the time. I used to take that power dribble to dunk," Perkins said. "Now I'm taking the easy layup, the quick two, and that's been helping me a lot."
Perkins has not only been quicker with his moves to the hoop, but he's added some creativity to his repertoire as well, mixing in some reverse layups to his ever-growing arsenal of post-up and put-back moves around the basket.

While the Celtics' game plan will occasionally make a point of going to Perkins in the low post early on if there's an obvious mismatch, most of his offensive opportunities arrive when opponents over-commit to Pierce or Ray Allen after Perkins sets a pick at the top of the key. Once left unguarded on his roll to the hoop, Perkins finds himself dunking more often than not when the ball finally gets back to him.

"One thing I learned is not to chase the ball looking for post-ups all the time," Perkins said. "With Doc's offense, usually the guy who sets the pick-and-rolls is the guy who's open. It helps that they trap Paul (Pierce) and Ray (Allen). But I am always the guy who's left open."

Perkins credits Assistant Coach Clifford Ray with much of his development on the court, but he also has a tight bond with point guard Rajon Rondo off the court. Given that Rondo's another young starter playing in the shadows of the Big Three, the point guard uniquely understands the center's station in the Celtics' hierarchy. Whether they're playing cards or dominoes on the road, or just hitting up the bowling alley, "The Other Two," as Perkins calls them, use each other as simpatico sounding boards.

"Me and Rondo are real close, we always do stuff together, whether it's bowling, anything to take your mind off of something," Perkins said. "During the season it can get hectic, stressful if you go on a two or three-game losing streak, especially for our team, that's a lot of games to lose, it gets stressful."

Along those lines, Perk is about the most direct and candid pro athlete you'll ever interview. He rarely resorts to cliches, doesn't offer platitudes, and isn't afraid to tell you if he had a bad game. He'll call out opponents on occasion, but Perk looks first at the man in the mirror.

"It's just being real with yourself. There's no use in lying. Everybody watched the game. There's no use in making excuses, 'Oh I was hurt...' If you lose, take it like a man," Perkins said. "You've always got another game to bounce back. But you need to know how to look at yourself in the mirror. I always say that, you've got to look at yourself in the mirror first, then you can judge everybody else."
He's developed a reputation as a gritty, no-nonsense center who is as close to an enforcer as there is in today's NBA, a physical presence who carves out space with his elbows under the hoop, whether he needs to or not.

He's also a highly emotional player who's admittedly got something of a mean streak. It's headline news if Perkins cracks even half a smile on the court, and truth be told, he's beginning to draw the ire of officials around the league who don't appreciate his penchant for arguing calls.

But if you're going to be asked to tussle with guys like Dwight Howard on a nightly basis, there's little time for pleasantries or politeness and no room for pushovers. And occasionally you're going to need to blow off a little steam. While he'd be well served to maintain more emotional control and limit his technical fouls, at the end of the day, Perkins is giving the Celtics what they ask of him on a daily basis.

"He's starting to be more consistent each and every night. Defensively, what we're asking him to do, we're asking him to guard the best guys down low, night in and night out," Pierce said. "He's playing on a high level and in my eyes he's one of the top centers in not only the East, but in all of basketball."