Journeying No More
J.R. Giddens has come a long way, and he’s finally ready.
by Adam Fleischer
Being selected as the last in the first round of the NBA Draft may not bring the exposure and lucrative contracts that many top picks enjoy, but it does usually mean that you’re joining a team that knows how to win. J.R. Giddens, selected by the Boston Celtics with the 30th overall pick in June’s draft, is going to get the chance to be on a successful, veteran-led team early in his career.
An All-American out of high school in 2003, Giddens played his first two seasons with Kansas but was stabbed during an incident at a bar in ’05 leading to a decision to transfer to New Mexico, where he finished his career this past season. Although the path was not easy, Giddens continuously performed at a high level, averaging double figures in scoring all four years. As a senior, he dropped 16.3 points per game and became the first guard to ever lead the MVC in rebounding at 8.8 per, helping him to earn Co-Player of the Year honors.
SLAM caught up with Giddens to discuss his journey in college, seeing his former teammates win a national title, and life in the NBA.
SLAM: How has it been adjusting both to NBA life and to life in Boston?
J.R. Giddens: Adjusting to NBA life and life in Boston has been a lot of fun because Boston is an east coast city, and I’ve never been on the east coast. And in terms of getting used to being a Celtic, you know, with these guys, I learn a lot every day. I’m just trying to soak everything up so it’ll make me a better player and person.
SLAM: Your high school class had a bunch of great players including LeBron, Chris Paul, Luol Deng. Were you able to keep in touch with any of the guys as they made their way to the League?
JRG: Leon (Powe) and (Kendrick) Perkins are both on the team with me now. I keep in touch with some of the guys; I see Von Wafer and LeBron, but I haven’t really spoke to him yet. I got a lot of good memories from those days, because that’s when the best of the best meet up and you just get to go at it. Obviously, it’s a lot of fun if you’re an athlete and a true competitor.
SLAM: You played with Perk and Powe back then and you guys are about the same age but they have a couple years under their belt in the League. Have they been able to help you as you’re making the transition?
JRG: Yeah, they’ve helped me a lot, especially Perk. A lot of times, Powe will be like, “Hey, rook,” or “Hey, young fella,” and I’m just like, Leon, we’re the same age. (Laughs) It’s cool. I’m not worried about it cause I’m having a blast.
SLAM: Back in 2003, you played in the Global Games. That must have been a crazy time between High School All-American games, senior year and choosing a school for college.
JRG: It was amazing because I got to play against a lot of good players from all over the world and then the older USA team, too. You get to experience people from all over the world; you have you’re playing style and they have theirs, but you both get buckets and it’s juts a wonderful experience cause you get to meet a lot of people.
SLAM: Kansas won a national title last year. What was it like seeing some of the guys you used to play with get that championship?
JRG: I was happy for Kansas because I used to be a Jayhawk, and I was happy those guys got a ring, especially guys like Russell Robinson, Darnell Jackson and Brandon Rush. You know, anybody that can win a national title deserves it, so I was happy for them and the state of Kansas cause I know how much they wanted it. And for Coach Self and his coaching staff cause I know how hard they worked to bring a national championship to Kansas.
SLAM: Roy Williams, who recruited you to come to Kansas, left before you ever got a chance to suit up for the Jayhawks. How did you feel during that whole time period?
JRG: Well, when he left, it hurt me a lot, but I’m a realist and you gotta think rationally. I knew that he was doing what was best for him, so I can’t be selfish in that situation. But it got me to a great school at Kansas and it was only four-and-a-half hours away from Oklahoma City, my hometown, so I figured that Kansas would still be a great fit and give me a great opportunity to further my playing career.
SLAM: You played for three coaches, and signed with Coach Williams out of high school, who makes four. Can you talk a little about what that was like and how it’s reflected in the player you’ve become? Was it at all frustrating?
JRG: Well, I played for three: (Bill) Self, (Ritchie) McKay, and (Steve) Alford. I don’t look at it as a negative. All the coaches I played for, I just picked something up from each of them; three different coaches, three different playing styles. And it was three different systems, so I think it prepared me because, in the NBA, there’s a chance that you play for multiple coaches. Obviously you wanna stay with the team that you get drafted to, but if it turns out differently, you’re gonna have to play for a different coach. So I just looked at it as preparing me for a career if I get traded in the NBA. But, as long as the organization and I are on good terms, I would love to continue to be a Celtic.
SLAM: There was an incident at Kansas in which you were stabbed in the calf and needed 30 stitches. How tough was it getting back on the court after that?
JRG: It was very tough because I had to learn how to walk all over again, and I didn’t have my balance, speed or strength. We didn’t know if my leg was going to come back to 100 percent. All we could do was just pray and hope that it came back to 100 percent. It was rough, though. I remember my first year back playing ball, it was really hard to come off a screen and plant so I just had to work to strengthen my leg. But, in the end, I was able to bounce back from it and becoming more agile, bigger, stronger basketball player. Plus, when I was healing up from that, my other little nicks got fully healed up too. It rejuvenated my body.
SLAM: Was it hard to deal with those periods of time when you had to sit out for a while, between the injury, transfer, and brief suspension once you moved on to New Mexico?
JRG: At times, but stuff is gonna happen and all I can do is make sure that I’m doing everything I can to get out there on the court and perform successfully when I do get out there.
SLAM: Did being at New Mexico give you more of a chance to shine?
JRG: I wouldn’t say that. I think it just gave me a chance to be more versatile cause I was on a team that didn’t have as many superstar players. It kind of gave me a chance to shine, but at the same time, it was still about the team.
SLAM: Having been in some dunk contests, like the NCAA last year and some Midnight Madness fun back in ’06, are you hoping to get a chance in the NBA contest?
JRG: I’d love to be in the NBA dunk contest, ’cause that’s going against some of the best dunkers in the world. But, I don’t know; I don’t think I’m actually a dunk contest guy. Maybe I’d dunk in some drills and scrimmaging, but other than that, I don’t dunk much. I just work on my game. So, if I was to be in the NBA dunk contest, I think I’d actually have to practice instead of just going out there and winging it.
SLAM: Your averages of three-point attempts per game were around nine your freshman year and dropped down to about three as a senior. During the same time, your free throw attempts were going up. Was there a conscious decision you made that caused that sort of shift?
JRG: Back at Kansas, I was about 185 or 200 pounds, so I was more of a shooter. But at New Mexico, I started getting bigger and I had better ways to use my body. Plus, being a taller guard and getting a bigger body, I started posting up more and started becoming more of a driver and playmaker instead of a spot up shooter and dunker. It just gave me a more all-around game.
SLAM: How do you think playing four years of college will help you as you move to the pros?
JRG: You get better with the more ball you play, and you get that experience through playing time and being on the court. Four years of college basketball and three coaches allowed me to pick up on a lot of basketball. Really, I had five years, cause I still played even when it was just practicing that year that I was out. Practice was competitive dogfight everyday.
SLAM: Did you ever consider leaving school early?
JRG: I did, but during my junior year, we had lost 15 out of our last 18 games, and so stock isn’t too high if your team isn’t winning. And, more so, I went to New Mexico to play and give them a great season, and I didn’t feel like I delivered. You know, being highly touted and then us having a bad season, I kinda wanted to go out with a bang, so I had another year to try to do it and Coach Alford was a great coach. So it was like, I can sit back and learn for another year to better prepare me for the league, so that’s what I did.
SLAM: What were your thoughts on draft night?
JRG: I was in New Mexico watching with my coaches and teammates. I remember my brother told me that I was on Pluto; my mind was on another planet. Until my name got called, I didn’t get my mojo and my swagger back. It was an emotional day because you don’t know where you’re going. I remember, at one point, I looked up and asked my brother, “am I gonna get drafted?” Because the worst things were popping into my head, I was just sitting there in the dark praying for the light to come on. So I got the phone in one hand, I’m holding somebody’s hand with the other, and when they said my name, the room just erupted. It was about 70 or 80 of my closest people. Did you see the movie Waiting to Exhale? It was just like ahh (lets out sigh of relief), I can breathe easy. Because when you’re trying to fulfill your dream, and you’re chasing it, until you hear your name and you’re there, it’s always in the back of your head: Am I gonna make it? Am I gonna get there? If you’re a rational thinker, you have to think about hey, this might not happen, but you gotta do everything you can to make it happen.
SLAM: What has it been like stepping onto a team that won the title last year? Do you feel the team-first concept that got so much media exposure last year?
JRG: It’s beautiful. You really sit back and you learn so much from these guys. I feel like it’s Basketball 101 all over again because you see their work ethic, the energy and preparation that they bring–whether it’s pregame, after a good game or bad game. The whole ubuntu thing, they really let you know what it means. It’s really being in a whole different world because it’s not just an average NBA team, they’re fresh off a world championship so you have no choice but to sit back and learn and sometimes be in awe. I’ll be on the sideline and just be like, wow, that’s great execution; that’s why they’re such a good team. They’re so unselfish and defensively minded, you see how in the system everyone plays their part and these guys got to the point where, obviously there’s a lot of big name guys, but they’ve mastered it where they all play together and it’s beautiful. Basketball is poetry in motion watching them.
SLAM: How is it playing with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, who play similar positions as you?
JRG: They always show me things. I’m learning something everyday. One of the vets is always pulling the young guys to the side. They help all the time.
SLAM: What is it like to know it may be hard to crack the rotation in the early going?
JRG: Not playing can be frustrating, but it’s part of the game and you just gotta sit back and wait your turn. During the whole process, what I gotta do is get bigger and stronger and faster and become more prepared for when I’m on the court. The first practice was kinda fast, with a lot of new plays, and it was kinda crazy. But now I’m getting used to it.
SLAM: What is your goal for the season?
JRG: Over an 82 game season, my goal is to become better and help these guys as much as possible and fulfill my role, whatever that may be–if it’s head cheerleader or as a role off the bench. Whenever Doc does give me the OK or let’s me crack the rotation, I know I’ll be ready.