Who is OJ Mayo?
A closer look at the Grizzlies’ third-year leader.
by Tracy Weissenberg / @basketballista
For someone who received so much hype out of Huntington High School–praised as the second coming of this star and that star–OJ Mayo entered the NBA prepared for a marathon, not a sprint, even though so many had already placed him at the finish line.
Mayo answers questions like he releases his jumpers, deliberate and with a quiet confidence. For someone who concedes he would have jumped straight from high school to the NBA if permitted, Mayo’s modesty belies his talent. It is hard to imagine the transition involved in the label one carries—the best high school prospect and lottery pick—to becoming a player on a roster, where the name on the front of the jersey supersedes that on the back. But transition is inevitable, on and off the court, and Mayo makes both look smooth.
Drafted third overall in 2008 by the Timberwolves and traded to the Grizzlies, Mayo said he did not feel pressure from being selected so high. “I think, as a little boy, your dream is to become an NBA player. As long as you’re wearing an NBA jersey, it’s a blessing and I just want to come out and play hard,” he said.
Mayo believes the year at USC under former NBA head coach Tim Floyd helped his game, specifically in “knowing what I’m going to bring to the table every night.” And consistency has been one of the strongest aspects of Mayo’s game in his first two seasons. His rookie season saw averages of 18.5 points (38.4 percent from three), 3.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.1 steals.
Far less consistent was the performance of the Grizzlies, who went 24-58 in Mayo’s first season. “In my first year, I think it was like one of the worst years to be a ball player in my career starting from elementary. You know, I was just like, this is terrible, going a whole month without winning a game,” he said.
“At the end of the first year it actually turned around when Coach Hollins came,” he added, “We ended the year with a positive, positive attitude.” 13 of the Grizzlies’ 24 wins came under Hollins, who replaced Marc Iavaroni and interim coach Johnny Davis.
“My second year, it started off rough, but it was kind of a good page in my personal career book because we got to play with Allen Iverson and see how that was, but then at the same time we turned around to winning,” said Mayo. The Grizzlies recovered from a 1-8 start to finish the season 40-42. While they did not make the Playoffs, the shift in mentality was noticeable and it seemed like the Grizzlies finally found some confidence in their identity and ability as a group. Mayo did his part, putting up 17.5 points (38.3 percent from three), 3.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.2 steals.
On his game, Mayo said, “I just try to be solid, try to be a good teammate, a teammate that you can depend on, night in and night out. I just want to come and just do my job.” While this summer’s free agency spectacle saw players take their talents to marquee cities, Mayo took his to one as well—Las Vegas, Nevada for NBA Summer League. Asked what motivated him to play point in Summer League, Mayo said, “I just want to become a better all around player. I like to ball, so sometimes you get so tired of just working out all summer that you just want to hoop a little bit with some officials and get some other players and people that you work out with in the gym.”
Previously, Mayo had been working out with basketball trainer Rob McClanaghan in California. “It was like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, D Rose, Tyreke Evans, JR Smith,” said Mayo, “We had a lot of fun but at the same time we weren’t playing against each other, we were just doing a lot of drills. After a while, you just want to go see how it goes and transfers into the game.”
Mayo doesn’t talk much about his own personal game, or at least the x’s and o’s of it, but you get a glimpse into his identity as a player from the adjustments he has made during his time in the League. “Really just coming, I guess playing basketball your whole life, always getting to take all the shots, or take 30, 20 attempts,” he said, “Now you’re on a team where you got a lot of good players, you just kind of play a role and play to your hardest and to the best of your ability to give your team the best chance at winning.” Playing a role is probably downplaying his importance—at least in NBA lingo—despite the fact that every player in the NBA has one and the better ones embrace it. Asked what his role on the Grizzlies is, Mayo said, “Score, play hard, stay positive and just try to keep a winning attitude amongst the team.” His personal goals this year are to “stay consistent and just help lead the team to playoffs.”
While the Grizzlies have a lot to prove in the NBA, their third year shooting guard has an agenda as well. Mayo tried out for USA Basketball but was cut from the eventual gold medal winning team this summer. “I guess like any other players, you expect all players,” said Mayo, “but I guess you feel like some players aren’t better than you. And they were chosen, so that alone just makes you want to prove yourself that much more. There’s not a night that you can take off now.”
Asked how he wants people to view his game after his career, Mayo uses former players to describe his hopes for his legacy. “If I could choose any player,” said Mayo, “I think it would be probably like a player like Magic [Johnson] because he had a whole lot of fun and if Magic weren’t winning a lot of games, you could say, man he had a lot of fun while he was playing, always smiling—but at the same time like a Joe Dumars because every night you knew what he was going to bring to the table. He was going to play hard, be consistent; he was going to be there to compete.”
As Mayo has navigated the highs and lows of his first two NBA seasons, he has done it with poise despite losing and grace under expectations. Secure enough to play in summer league and confident in his role, Mayo will play an integral part in the Grizzlies’ outcome this season. While it is great to stand out, it is important—and often harder—to be able to fit in. Mayo has shown he is capable, and comfortable, with both.