Thursday, March 24, 2011

NCAA Iconoclasm

A cliché so real it’s not a cliché anymore?:
Stardom [for Jimmer Fredette], however, is unlikely, the scouts and front-office personnel said. Comparative players that came up were Jeff Hornacek, Steve Kerr, Kyle Korver and Jason Kapono.

Which is an, uh, what really? The only things that these five gentlemen share is pigmentation, and a fine jump shot. Other than that, the four and Jimmer are about as different as can be: Jimmer shoots from everywhere, attacks from everywhere, and has the mentality of a playmaker. He’s Stephen Curry, without the court vision; or Allen Iverson as strongman (stylistically, of course: odds are Fredette’s NBA career falls well short of either of these players). Both of these guys are black, though, so people just cannot cross over and make the comparison. Thank god Fredette has avoided the reflexive Larry Bird comparison: America, at long last, has moved beyond looking at every basketball-playing white guy and seeing Bird’s spectral presence.

But still: the NBA can't quite imagine the way they should, and perhaps as cynical bureaucrats at heart they have a point. How many unconventional NCAA players have succeeded at the toughest stage again? Still, they will always seem more notable because they are loved so--the unconventional player defies authority, and good for them.

An excellent Slate article makes the case that the reason people love players like Fredette—and Kemba Walker and Stephen Curry before him—is that they play so wrong: so selfishly, so reliant on individual brilliance to carry a limited team past all obstacles:
Sharing makes a lot of sense when you have talent at all five positions—when your team is Jimmer and the Fredette-ettes, it's a luxury you can't afford. Fredette, the great scorer and sporadic distributor, will shoot BYU into the next round or straight out of the tournament. A crossover, a jab step, a jump shot from in front of the other team's bench, 30 feet away from the hoop. Man, isn't it a beautiful travesty?

Playing the game wrong captures only part of the appeal of a player like Fredette or Curry. I’d argue the joy these players inspire is the joy of an inspired iconoclast: they have a genuinely different take on the game than everyone else, and aren’t afraid to conjure their way out of trouble. These players appear routinely; more often than we’d care to admit, in fact. Take for instance a legend that should have been, someone who fell just short:

Woodside versus Kansas was an absolutely absurd performance, the equal of anything Fredette or Curry or Morrison put up in the same genre. That Woodside’s team didn’t quite make it doesn’t take the joy out of what he did: he poured what he had into it. But more than the effort itself is the way he just wills himself into space, time after time—the perfect example is when he skips through a double team (2:22). Curry glides and floats around the court; Fredette pushes you; Woodside just gets there, in a slightly hunched over fashion. It’s great; it’s unconventional.

The NCAA routinely produces such iconoclasts because convention is so weak: you only need to lose one game; the best talent naturally wants to play in the best league; the coaching is weak as good recruiters get rewarded over good coaches, and so on. Iconoclasm flourishes in response to establishment decadence. Woodside is apparently playing in France now; I’m not sure he ever got a look with an NBA team. Say what you will about the managerial foibles of the average NBA team, but they are ruthless over time. The iconoclasts who survive there are really on to something.

(Oddly: isn’t it strange Rajon Rondo is purely an NBA player? He was nowhere near as interesting for Kentucky as he is for the Celtics, where he is the weirdest successful player in the NBA by far.)

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