by Farmer Jones / @thefarmerjones
OJ Mayo sees a vaguely familiar face approaching, and he can’t help but laugh. He’s sitting courtside in Philly, icing a knee at the end of a late-morning shootaround, when a dude he hasn’t seen for a year or three comes up, digital recorder in hand. OJ is one of the unexpected stories of the young NBA season, and this guy wants to talk to him about it. A lot of people want to talk to OJ right now.
The reasons are obvious enough. Already white-hot from the arc when his Dallas Mavericks rolled through Philly on that rainy November Tuesday, Mayo is averaging 18.3 points per and hitting a solid 43.2 percent of his three-pointers—of which he’s shooting nearly six per game. His output carried the Mavs through the beginning of the season, who were lingering in the middle of the Western Conference despite the absence of Dirk Nowitzki when we spoke with him.
So yeah, OJ is that guy, a compelling cat whose story hints at second chances and a reserve of talent that, despite popular assumptions, might not be fully tapped. A ripe target for hoops journalists looking for tales of redemption, in other words, particularly for those familiar with OJ’s long and complicated history. All of which explains why Mayo chuckles when I roll up, saying, in essence, “Oh, you want to talk to me now?”
“I’ve just been working, man,” the fifth-year guard says when asked about his don’t-call-it-a-comeback season. “It’s a good group of guys, a great organization, and I’m just putting in work.”
There’s never been any doubt that the former No. 3 pick—traded for Kevin Love on Draft night in 2008, don’t forget—can play. He averaged 18.5 ppg as a rookie starter with the Grizzlies back in ’08-09, though he wasn’t nearly as efficient as he’s been so far this season. But dwindling minutes and production in his last two seasons in Memphis, combined with a spotty reputation in the eyes of some around the League, led many to believe OJ’s best had come and gone.
Part of it has to do with the fact the OJ Mayo is the oldest 25-year-old in NBA history. “I’ve been dealing with this, seems like a long time,” he acknowledges in that deep, laid-back West Virginia drawl of his. “But I’m just five years in the League, you know?” We do. We go back far enough to remember when the League was still five years beyond OJ’s reach. Catching up with him in Philly was a little bit of nostalgia for me, since it was in Philly that I first heard OJ Mayo’s name on national television.
He was 15 years old.
Nobody was more impacted by the LeBron-inspired, post-millennium search for the next prep basketball phenom than OJ Mayo. An eighth grader putting up huge numbers playing with his high school varsity at the same time LeBron was dominating the national conversation as senior in ’02-03, Mayo was the easy news hook to latch onto. We at SLAM knew all about him before December of ’02, but it was then, in Philly, where I was covering LeBron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary HS team in a showcase game against local public school power Strawberry Mansion, that I heard a broadcaster utter OJ’s name in a story about “the next LeBron.”
In some ways, he seemed like an old man by the time he finished high school. Some recruiting experts grew cynical about a kid they’d seen dominating comp since he was a freshman—as if dominating as a senior wasn’t as sufficient. There was off-court drama, too: an out-of-state transfer, a back-to-his-original state transfer, knucklehead behavior that was rumored and occasionally confirmed. Product-of-his-environment stuff, mostly, but in the eyes of many, it added up to a young man not worth rooting for.
Mayo decided to drastically alter that environment for college, heading to L.A. in one of the stranger recruiting tales in a game full of them. The fallout led to an NCAA investigation at USC (and a SLAM profile being cited in an NCAA investigation, a first for us), and OJ leaving after a season to play at the level he’d been working for all along.
He averaged 18 per over his first two seasons in Memphis, starting every game on Grizz squads that missed the postseason. Fortunes changed for both player and team over the next two years, with OJ seeing limited burn as the Grizzlies made the Playoffs behind Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. By last summer, with a couple of off-court blemishes on his résumé as well, Memphis was happy to let Mayo hit the market as an unrestricted free agent, and he was all too happy to explore his options.
“Memphis was great, but the dynamics of our team had changed a lot,” he says now. “We were winning, so I wasn’t going to bring my feelings into the locker room when we were having success. But it’s like an up-and-down relationship that, you know, it wears on you eventually. That’s pretty much where I was with Memphis. I thought it was time for both of us to move on, try to get better, try to re-identify myself.”
He jumped at the chance to be part of the rebuilding in Dallas, drawn by a coach, Rick Carlisle, with a good rep and the chance to run with a crew of proven vets. “Vince, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, you see how focused they are,” OJ says. “When I was a young player, I looked up to those guys. When you’re on the team with them, you see the example they set, you have no choice but to try to keep it going.”
He’s saying all the right things, of course, but he’s also backing them up. Carlisle is blunt about the need for Mayo to improve on D, but the coach is otherwise full of praise. “He listens, he learns, he studies, he watches film,” Carlisle says. “And I really like his toughness—when he gets challenged, he responds. That’s the two-month history, at least. We’re still early in our relationship with him, but we really like him.”
Pregame in Philly, I catch up with the Mavs broadcast team of Mark Followill and his partner, a former long-time Maverick, Derek Harper. Followill confirms Mayo’s attraction to Carlisle: “Talking to OJ at training camp, he said he watched Rick as an opposing player, and that when a player made a mistake, it was always a lot of encouragement. He just really liked what he saw.” Harper echoes his partner’s sentiments.
“Based on what we’ve seen, the guy is totally focused, constantly trying to improve, dying for information,” Harper says. “He’s a relentless worker, comes in early and stays late. He’s basically a coach’s dream. I think Rick sees the potential in OJ, and he hasn’t disappointed.”
And then Harper pauses, considering what else he wants to add. “It takes some guys longer, is what I’ll say.” The point is implied, but it’s nonetheless clear: A dude as talented as OJ, as good as he was in his very first NBA season, should be playing this well now, and the player himself shouldn’t be willing to settle for anything less.
Mayo insists he’s doing nothing of the sort. “I’ve always worked hard, but I just had to reconstruct the work ethic—the stuff I was doing back when I was 15, 16,” he says. “Sometimes, you get to this point and you get a little comfortable. I’m just back at it, man. Back on my grind.”
Understand, this is a dude who has spoken intently since his teens about being not just an NBA player, but a star, and one whose natural ability always made that seem a realistic goal. The key now is proving that what he’s shown this season is the norm, and that those last two years in Memphis were the exception. He talks about how much better he understands the demands of the League, having seen it from multiple angles. “I understand starting, I understand coming off the bench, I understand how important the sixth, seventh, eighth man is, not just the starting five,” he says. “It’s a whole different perspective.”
He talks, too, about maturity. He laughs when asked if he thinks people hold his past missteps against him. “I don’t know, man,” he smiles. “I don’t really care.” But he acknowledges that growth was necessary, and he believes he’s become a smarter, better man. “I’m 25 now,” he says, and laughs again, acknowledging the double meaning of being still so young, even as he’s lived 10 often tumultuous years in the public eye. “But I have matured a lot. I got my girl living with me, I got my family situated.” He beams when talking about his German Shepherds, Ace and Boss—the closest he’s ready to get to being a parent just yet. His mom is settled in Memphis, where she volunteers at a hospital instead of breaking her back in long hours as a nurse’s assistant, as she did when OJ was growing up. She’s taken care of now.
Leave it to a writer to dwell on aspects of his past—Mayo is focused on the present and future. He sees Dallas as a well-coached squad with a healthy mix of veterans and hungry younger guys. “I’m just trying to help us win games until Dirty gets back,” he said, dismissing thoughts that there wouldn’t be enough shots to go around when the future HOFer returned on the court. “He’s going to make it easier for all of us.”
Just as Mayo has been doing for the Mavs thus far. Reborn or remade, Mayo is back to making the game look as easy as he used to. And reminding us why we paid so much attention to him in the first place.