Livingston Getting Interesting
PG was very impressive in win over Warriors.
by Colin Powers
With the game decided and less than three minutes on the clock, Shaun Livingston checked out. His work was done, his performance controlled and masterful, his place as a deserving and decisive player in the League once again clear and present. He took his seat on the bench next to former teammate, mentor, and now current Assistant Coach, Sam Cassell. Stone faced since an hour before the tip, for just about the first time all night, he lets himself smile for a second.
Moments later, the side of Shaun’s story you easily could have forgotten after watching him play was brought back to our attention. Surrounded by teammates enjoying their third win in four games, Livingston gently eased off the compression sleeve he wears on his left knee to reveal a glimpse at the scarring that gruesome injury left over three years ago. The trainer soon appears, placing a bag of ice both in front and behind the knee, wrapping them securely as routine demands. This is reality, and will be so as long as basketball remains his craft of choice. Beyond his young face, there is little about Shaun to indicate he is still just 24 years old.
As other players goof around in pregame one-on-one games with coaches and teammates, Livingston quietly prepares body and mind on his own. He eventually comes out and runs through lay-up lines for a bit, but once that devolves into all the guys breaking off and doing their own independent shooting, Shaun sweeps over to the bench and takes a seat. He’s gotten his work in already, drilled through an assortment of baby hooks and floaters, drop-steps and face-ups. His face is poised but hard, focused but almost heavy with the seriousness of the task at hand as he waits for this game to get moving, alone. The guys huddle up with Coach Flip and Sam offers some last minute reminders. Shaun nods his head, takes off the long and short sleeve warm up gear, and heads out to the circle; the guy burdened with the expectation of inheriting the throne from another towering L.A. Point Guard drafted two decades earlier is once again starting in the NBA.
And damn, the dude can still play. Despite his demeanor, this game is what Shaun does, and I’m sure he enjoys it beneath that steely resolve. On this night, Livingston immediately took control of the game, and the Wiz blitzkrieged the hapless and injury riddled Golden State Warriors from the jump. For a young team that frequently gets discombobulated and degenerates into stagnant one on one contests, Livingston serves as a calming and guiding influence. When guys start doing too much, dribbling themselves into trouble, forcing bad shots, etc., time and time again Shaun patiently got the ball, directed people to the right spots, kept the ball moving, made sure the right cuts were executed, and earned the team a good look at the bucket. Granted, G-State is far from elite as a defensive team, but Livingston’s ability to manipulate the D and make decisions in the lane was very, very impressive. His mind for the game was a step above anyone else on the court (Steph’s getting there but still over-anxious at times).
Livingston’s feel, understanding and vision were always exemplary, even as a recent high school grad matching up with the best in the world back in 2004. Observing him in person, those skills are truly striking because they are found in such a unique physical package. Livingston is tall and wirey, 6-7 with a nearly 7-foot wing-span. Despite his height, he has an incredible handle, keeping the ball very low at all times, his dexterity with the ball further amplified by the length of his arms: his crosses are wide, his behind-the-backs completely shook defenders all night, and his spin powerful and protected. He was able to penetrate at will, and upon reaching the lane he finished off plays with a collection of floaters, bank shots, perfectly timed lay-offs for the Bigs, and even a few dunks of his own.
The quick shovel passes he spoon-fed JaVale McGee, Blatche, and others is an instinctual thing you either have or you don’t; the recognition of that millisecond when a defensive big steps up the lane to stop the ball and you can freeze him before sliding the pass to your waiting teammate for an easy finish…shit, that’s poetry. James Singleton missed what was probably Livingston’s nicest pass of the evening, a behind the back layoff as he dragged the defense with him in the opposite direction. He was never in a rush, but always still a step ahead of the defense. Despite seeing limited playing time since the injury, Livingston still has the rare rhythm of a true PG, only witnessed in a handful of guys in the League. He ain’t no hybrid, no Point Forward, no playmaking wing. The guy is a PG, through and through.
Flip Saunders is clearly thrilled to have Shaun on the team during what has certainly been a turbulent year. As he said, “Everyone’s always known that he is a Point Guard. The only reason the guy probably right now is not an All-Star in this league is because of the injury. And so, when we brought him in, we knew that he had the mental capacity to play the position. We knew that at one time he had the physical skills, and even though he might not be as physically explosive as he used to be, he seems to be getting better and better with that, and he’s got unbelievable size, so you can do a lot with him, put a lot of pressure on the guys guarding him. So, like I said, he’s progressed, and he’s getting more confidence, and he knows that we have a lot of confidence in him so it’s nice to see him continue to produce.”
His game has also evolved a good deal since I last closely studied him. Last night, Coach Saunders often had Livingston reverse the ball, following with an inside cut into the nearside post. He easily used his size, power, and a bit of a mean streak I didn’t know he had to establish position in the post, where the Warrior guards were entirely at his mercy. Livingston was very decisive down there, made great passes, and displayed excellent, efficient footwork on a number of drop-steps and quick sweeps into the lane. That savvy down in the low block bore the indelible stamp of Sam Cassell, who I’m sure has been working with Shaun on the great equalizer that is the postgame (especially until Livingston can reclaim more of his burst. Shit, Sam could barely run and he still busted guys down there). His jumper looks cleaner, and the rotation on the ball better from the mid-range. Livingston is a genuine terror of a match-up, combining a still quick first-step with that increasing veteran swag down low, using his body to move defenders around, conserve energy, and still get a good look at the basket.
Defensively, he had the unenviable task of tracking the elusive and shifty Stephen Curry, but I still saw a lot of the tools that can make him a quality defender at this level. Firstly, those long arms allow him to challenge shooters and alter a lot of jump shooters timing. He’s got quick feet, plays angles well and embraces physical exchanges. Shaun had a bit of a tough time with Steph’s incessant changes of speed, direction, step-backs, and use of the ball screen, but all in all did fairly well. There was one exchange in the 2nd quarter when Livingston’s left foot seemed to slide on him a bit as Steph jabbed that way before knocking down a deep jumper, but it seems only natural that Shaun would not have full confidence in committing himself to planting and digging on that paw after so long without logging big minutes.
With a 20-point lead in the 4th and a victory secured, it was good to see Shaun flash that smile as he talked with Sam and fellow prep-to-pro Andray Blatche. He finished 9-11 for 21 points, 8 dimes, 5 boards, and 0 TOs, a plus/minus of +28, unavoidably a major boost as he continues to reassert himself as one of the games best (still) young PGs. After signing his first ten-day with the Wizards back in March, Livingston has found the consistent court time and opportunity to prove how much he still has to give. This kind of validation has been a long time coming, and if he ever had any doubts, his play the last five games should end any doubts about his ability to be a big time player in the League. Going into the summer, he could be a huge steal for a team willing to roll the dice on that reconstructed knee, a genuine game-changer at the position who certainly won’t be breaking the bank in these days so dominated by salary-cap considerations. It’s been a long road back, but it looks like Shaun has turned the corner.