As our summer mainstay, Aaron's going to be writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. Intent is to get you talking, thinking, and appreciating the myriad of wonderful folks who play in our favorite sports league. This morning's three players, in our first installment: Jarrett Jack, Ishmael Smith, and Pau Gasol. Due to length, we'll hold off on an all-five grouping and post three more players later in the day.
• • •
Follow Jarrett Jack on twitter at @JarrettJacko3.
Here we start. Not LeBron, not an All-Star, not a DPoY -- Jarrett Jack, the starting point guard of the New Orleans Hornets.
I want to get one thing clear, before we discuss our first player. The order here is completely random. Totally random. I set up a random draw for each of the 370 players from a 0 to 1 uniform distribution, then ordered the list based on that. No changing the order mid-stream, no rearranging deck chairs to get the players I like the most done first. I've done very little in the realm of actually examining the order -- to some extent, I'm going to be as surprised as anyone at the order the players come up. Helps make sure I stay honest with these, you know?
Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that despite the list's random order, I'm not sure I could've personally chosen a better first player than Jack. Jarrett Jack is a prime example of that large swath of players that find themselves slightly under the standards for mass relevancy -- not quite an all-star, not quite egregiously overpaid, and not quite a college star everyone recognizes. If you saw Jack on the street, you might not recognize him -- he's a bit tall, and built like a mack truck, but he's not necessarily going to stand out in a crowd as an NBA player. In basketball terms, though, he's a bit too underheralded for my taste. Jack can play, if you give him the chance. And last season in New Orleans provides a good example -- Jack played more minutes per game than he ever had in his career, and the man produced. He put up the 12th of this season's 24 triple-doubles, held the offense down, and provided some defense on the perimeter within Monty's brilliant switching system on a Hornets team that was nowhere near as bad as its record, and nowhere near as bad as I'd predicted they'd be. He isn't a $10-15 million a year guy, but at the price he'll probably command after this season ($6-7 million), he'll probably be worth it as a 4th or 5th starter.
And then there's the personal story, which is wonderful. I don't want to belabor the point when you should just go and read Holly McKenzie's magnificent opus on the pair, but Monty Williams and Jarrett Jack's family have a long history together -- Jack's dad was one of Monty's strongest influences when Monty was a young player, and in return, as an assistant in Portland Monty helped raise Jack to play the right way when Jack was coming up in the league. It's a pretty neat story, especially when you hear either Monty or Jack talk about the other. There's clearly a level of mutual respect and kinship between the two that's rare, both in professional sports and in general life. It was a rare collection of factors and luck that conspired to bring Jack to Monty's tutelage in the first place, and a nice capper reunited them in New Orleans. Thanks to all that, we get an engaging pair that's fun to cheer for and makes each other better. All things considered? You probably could've guessed this, but I hope the Hornets keep him. Monty and Jack together again is one of those wonderful twists of fate that make the meta-stories of the league interesting.
It's one thing to read story after story about a player meshing with a coach and becoming friends -- they're heartwarming stories, no doubt, and interesting to boot. But the personal touch on Jack's parallel journey to Monty's first coached team combined with the Hornets' general need of a point guard makes this a pairing I really hope sticks. Jack's not my favorite player, per se, but he's by all accounts one of the good guys. To me, he's one of the myriad of people that make the NBA better than just any old sports league. Absolutely a good representative of the guys that make the NBA a league of people I really like, and the reason projects like this are so fun to me. So good on you, Jack, for being the guy you are. Keep rockin' it.
• • •
Follow Ishmael Smith on twitter at @ishsmith.
Ishmael Smith is a tiny guy. Maybe not relative to most of our readers, but relative to most NBA players -- he's 6'0", and from footage I've seen, I'd say that might be an inch generous. He's played for four NBA franchises (along with a single D-League crew) thus far in a relatively spotty career, never taking a particularly large role and never being called on to do much more than playing 10-12 minutes every two or three games. Unlike most marginal NBA players, Ish Smith has a glorious NBA skill that's led to a somewhat outsized NBA following: an absolutely electric transition game. Seriously. He may be a bit tiny, but Smith is fast -- if he gets the ball and has enough daylight to get to the rim, he's got the ability to dazzle. Never was this more obvious than in his brief jaunt at his 2010 Summer League play, where NBA aficionados got the chance to see undersized wonders in him and Pooh Jeter explode into semi-prominence and display their NBA-ready skills. In Pooh's case, it was an overall multifaceted game and a decent looking shot for a small guy. In the case of Smith, it was an electric ability to get to the rim and run NBA-level transition plays even without NBA talent around him.
Make no mistake -- if Smith was a few inches taller, a little bit stronger, and had a slightly less busted shot? He'd probably be a Ramon Sessions-type of player, very valuable to the right system. His transition game is absolutely sublime. For this reason, I'm holding out hope that the Magic resign him -- he's one of the more entertaining garbage time players to watch, and while he doesn't have a particularly high ceiling, there's something to be said for resigning a nice guy with a great motor and at least one entertaining NBA skill. I'm not gonna fool myself into thinking Ish will be a starter in the league someday, because he probably won't. But he can be a solid backup's backup if he works his shot a bit, and there's no doubt in my mind that as long as he stays in the NBA his transition brilliance will make him a compelling garbage time all-star. Fun fact: before he played his first NBA minute, people had a nickname for him. Ish "the Dish" Smith! ... whoa there, buddy, I didn't say it was a good nickname.
• • •
Follow Pau Gasol on twitter at @paugasol.
Pau Gasol is -- beyond his quality as a player, which we'll get to -- an interesting person. He's one of the most book-smart players in the NBA, having dropped out of one of the top medical schools in Barcelona at the age of 18 to follow his growth spurt and pursue a far more lucrative career in basketball. He didn't drop out because of grades, or some inability to hack it -- he dropped out because, well... if you were a 7'0" man with a talent in sport who could make hundreds of millions of dollars playing a game you love, wouldn't you? He actually thought, early in his career, that if he retired early enough he'd take a stab at getting his M.D. post-NBA and practicing medicine. Age and being all-too productive in the NBA put an end to that pipe dream, but (luckily, I'd say) hasn't put an end to the inherent curiosity of Pau Gasol. Despite the dropout, he certainly hasn't dulled down his interests or his tastes -- still goes to the opera, still volunteers at hospitals, still studies new languages to keep his mind fresh. He reads glorious thousand-page histories and plays French concertos on the keyboard. He does it all. A renaissance man in every possible respect.
As for his game? Fun. Historically, Gasol's statistical game is virtually peerless, and we'll get to that in a bit. Let's discuss his style in a more improvisational manner. Gasol is a bit emotional, at least in his on-court stylings -- he's got the mood and sensibilities of the Opera stars he loves to watch. Not in his ability to flop, no -- in his ability to simply emote that which he's feeling through his play. If he's frustrated, his play becomes out-of-sync and tenuous. If he's happy, his game has a certain element of joy -- every hook shot let off with a smile, every rebound pulled down with abandon, every bench cheer a cause for incredible celebration. It's not an broad mirror that overwhelms the way he plays, like Ricky Rubio's infectious enthusiasm or Manu Ginobili's pathological intensity. No, it's more a seasoning. A slight shade of emotion sprinkled over his already entertaining game.
And it makes Gasol, more than most players, something of an open book. Is he frustrated about trade rumors? Well, you'll probably be able to tell by watching him play. Is Kevin Garnett's illegal defense getting him down? There'll probably be a lack of pep to his step. Is he playing too many minutes? You'll know far before you realize what's going on. And so on, and so forth. It's one of the reasons the Lakers have been at their core a frustrating team for their fans -- Pau Gasol's game just seems to be so much better when he looks happy and confident. He's happiest when the Lakers are dominating. He's at his least confident when things are a bit rough. And so, somewhat predictably, many Laker fans notice the dismal depths into which Gasol sinks and scream and shout. Sometimes, they overlook the effortless dominance exerted by a happy and contented Gasol. They overlook the wonders Pau can produce when he's happy and at peace with himself and the league.
But that was then. This is now. Pau is older than you think. He's been in the league 11 years, which usually wouldn't be all that much, but he brought with him a ton of miles from his playing days in Barcelona and he runs a full-on all-out schedule for the Spanish National Team, almost every year. The description of his statistical game that you may be waiting for SHOULD come here, but I don't really have the heart to give it beyond the basics. Pau's last two seasons were two of the worst of his career if you consider them in totality -- which is pretty astonishing, given that he was a strong MVP candidate through the first two months of the 2011 season. He's played tired, exhausted, and far too much. His post moves aren't quite as effective as they used to be, his shot isn't quite as wet, his rebounding isn't quite as prolific, and he's simply starting to show signs of age. I was of the opinion that in 2009 and 2010, Pau Gasol was the 1b to Howard's 1a -- easily the second best big man in the league, and one could make a rather compelling case that he was the best.
Not anymore, though. He's now in a stage of his career where -- on this Laker team -- he'll be reduced to the fourth option on the offensive end and essentially turned into a spot-up shooter and rebounding whiz-kid. I'm not sure if I like it. Far be it from me to root for a Laker -- as a Spurs fan, you must understand, I'm not great shakes for the franchise -- but Pau is easily my favorite Laker of the last 10-20 years. He's just about the most interesting person in the league, his game provided so much joy to watch before the Lakers' recent downward spell, and the way Pau's game emanates emotion has always been an aspect I greatly respect. Now, as his age increases and his usage level drops to subterranean levels, I'm left silently wondering who in the world is really going to remember Pau Gasol. When we discuss Kobe's storied legacy in the future, and list off the greatest big men in the Lakers' history, who's going to be the one to bring up their Big Spaniard?
Well, okay. I'm a Spurs fan. So I probably won't be person to those discussions. But if for some reason I happen to be, I'll tip a hat in his direction. You should too. Think about him. Realize what he's meant -- to you, the league, his nation. Really. He's pretty excellent. So here's to you, Pau. Interesting to a fault, emotive to the core, and may never get quite the appreciation he deserves from the throngs of Laker fans descendent upon comment pages and sports bars everywhere. You did good. Wish everyone could've seen it before your game began the slow, plodding decline that old age brings all the greats.
• • •
At the end of each post, I'll be scribing riddles for the next batch of players. Whoever gets the most riddles right will get a shout out at the end of the next post. Tweet me your answers at @docrostov, or post them in the comments. If several people tie, I'll post everyone who tied. No overtime in this riddle-guessing competition, guys.
- Warriors fans are going to regret passing on Player #4 for a very, very long time.
- In a strange and inverted way, Player #5 follows in Chris Bosh's three-toed dinosaur-shaped footsteps.
- Now HERE'S a player I don't want anywhere near any team I like. The lovefest ends with you, Player #6.
These three will be posted later today. Enjoy.