by Abe Schwadron | @abe_squad
It’s an hour before tip-off in the visitor’s locker room at Madison Square Garden, and as resident DJ Ben Wallace bumps a mix of hip-hop produced during the days of his first, more afrolicious stint with the Pistons, fellow Detroit Pistons big men Jason Maxiell and Greg Monroe are arguing. About peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Specifically, which player is the rightful owner of one said pre-game meal.
Finally, after some back and forth, Monroe begrudgingly reveals a Ziplocked PB&J and flips it to the veteran, lamenting the chore of lobbying the training staff for another. It feels like a scene from summer sleepaway camp or the halls of a junior high. But the lesson is one opposing bigs around the NBA have learned in recent months: Don’t pay attention, and Greg Monroe will steal your lunch.
The second-year man from New Orleans via Georgetown has emerged as one of the breakout players of the ’11-12 season, turning heads in nearly every city he visits with his poise and playmaking ability, and earning serious All-Star consideration less than 82 starts into his pro career.
On this night, the last in January, the Knicks dispatch of the Pistons, 113-86, dropping Detroit to 4-19 on the year. And yet, in another forgettable game for his team, Monroe muscles his way to 13 points and 12 rebounds. It’s that kind of line, a double-double on an otherwise unremarkable night from the rest of the Pistons’ roster, that shows just how dominant he’s become in such a short time.
While some of his peers treated the prolonged lockout like a vacation, Monroe used the extended summer to get on his grind. Having watched him log long hours perfecting the finer points of his game, that he’s now taking the L by storm is no shock to teammates like Maxiell.
“I’m not surprised at all,” says the seven-year vet. “He put in a large amount of work this summer, he worked hard in the gym.”
And the hard work has paid dividends early. After finishing a respectable but pedestrian sixth in Rookie of the Year voting last season with averages of 9.4 ppg (on 55 percent shooting) and 7.5 rpg in 80 games and 48 starts, Monroe has bumped his numbers across the board to open his sophomore campaign. Through the first 26 games of his second season (all of which he’s started), Monroe upped his digits to 16 points and 10 boards per game—both team highs for the Pistons—and he ranks second in the NBA in offensive rebounds.
Monroe has notched a double double in half the games he’s played in this year, while racking up upwards of 33 minutes a night. On January 12, going head-to-head with Milwaukee’s Andrew Bogut (considered by most to be among the game’s best defensive centers when healthy), he posted career highs with 32 points and 16 rebounds. That game alone rid Monroe of the “soft” tag so many of his detractors wanted to saddle him with forever. The numbers don’t lie; the 21-year-old’s extra off-season training has put him in an elite class of coveted young big men.
“I made sure that I stayed in shape, so that whenever this thing got settled, if it got settled, then at that point I was ready,” says Monroe. “And I think that’s what you’re seeing now. I was in the gym every day, lifting, running, working out. I didn’t take the time for granted, I tried to make sure I used the time as much as I could.”
Wallace, who (along with Maxiell) performs the thankless duty of checking Monroe during every team practice, calls him a “true professional,” and praises his progression from inconsistent flashes a year ago to the well-rounded player developing before our eyes.
“Greg started showing signs at the end of last season of exactly what type of player he can be in this League. I think coming back this year, we all had high expectations, and so far, he’s met all those expectations,” Wallace says. “I think he’s on the right path to being one of the premiere big men in this League.”
If Ben is to be believed, it’s not a bad trajectory for a kid once criticized by scouts for lacking the physical tools or emotional drive to make an impact in the NBA. Prior to the Pistons taking him with the No. 7 pick in the ’10 Draft, DraftExpress questioned his “assertiveness” and NBADraft.net listed “rarely looks to dominate” under his weaknesses.
Now, he’s a young star with veteran savvy, a willing passer with a mid-range game and the ability to finish at the rim, a confidence-toting punisher who’s as dangerous as any player his size, whether facing up or with his back to the basket. What the scouting services couldn’t cope with was that what Monroe lacks in jump-out-the-gym athleticism, he makes up for in decision-making.
Wallace and Maxiell both mention the word “pass” repeatedly while describing GM’s game. Heck, half the time, Monroe scores to open up passing lanes so he can more freely hit cutters and open shooters. He’s so team-focused in fact, that he refuses to call himself the club’s primary offensive option in new head man Lawrence Frank’s offense.
“I wouldn’t say I’m the No. 1 option yet, but I feel comfortable in the post and having the ball in my hands,” Monroe suggests. “With a new coaching staff and everything, you don’t know exactly what your role is going to be. When I got here, [Coach Frank] kind of asked me to step up and become more of a leader, so that’s what I’ve been trying to do this year.”
While once compared to Lamar Odom in his younger years, the comparison is basically moot nowadays, beyond the shared novelty of a left-handed big man with decent handle. Monroe is LO with a mean streak, trading Lamar’s jumper for devastating post moves, plus 20 pounds of muscle and 11 years of youth. And while Odom groomed his game in one of the most famous basketball cities on the planet (New York), Monroe made a name for himself on the prep basketball scene despite growing up in a region not lauded for rich basketball talent.
When he wasn’t living in Arkansas after Hurricane Katrina ripped apart the Bayou, he earned McDonald’s All-American honors playing at Harvey (LA) Helen Cox, just across the river from New Orleans. To this day, Monroe is motivated by the lack of attention given to N’awlins’ hoops scene.
“When you’re growing up and you go on the circuit in the summertime, and you keep up with high school basketball, you know how good you are,” Monroe says. “And not getting the publicity you deserve just because of the city you’re from, it kind of drove me. It’s not known as a ‘basketball city,’ so I think that’s one reason why I always played with a chip on my shoulder. Because I felt like, just because somebody is from a certain place, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get the publicity or the exposure that other dudes are getting just because they’re from other cities.”
And Monroe won’t soon forget where he comes from. He lights up talking about the next generation of Big Easy ballers, set to join other N’awlins-area products like himself and Pacers swingman Danny Granger. Monroe notes the smooth, laid-back, skillful type of player who often develops from local comp. “Right now, they have a lot of great young players down there in high school. I think you’re going to see a few more faces, high-level names, coming out the city of New Orleans in the next couple years as far as basketball,” he says.
Until then, we can enjoy Monroe, who has found a new home in the Midwest that suits his personality just as swimmingly. Because as you know by now, his game is not showy, not Hollywood, not SportsCenter-friendly. It’s blue-collar, hard-working and humble—just like Detroit. Admittedly, the Pistons’ arena has on occasion been near-empty this season, despite the franchise’s history of success, from the Bad Boys of the ’80s to the ’04 Championship team (from which only remnants remain). But in Monroe, the city can see a bit of itself.
He’s not concerned with accolades, public praise or statistics, which is why you probably haven’t heard about how he returns to Georgetown each summer to work toward his college degree, and why you definitely won’t hear him complain after inevitably being left off the Eastern Conference All-Star team. In his own words, “I’m out here to play, I’m out here to help my team win games, that’s my job.”
Back in the locker room, it’s that attitude that prompts Wallace to dub Monroe “the future of this League” before DJ Big Ben cues up the next pre-game song: Lil’ Wayne’s “Hustler Musik.” Whether deliberate or unintentional, the selection is an apt one, since Wayne, like Monroe, is a NOLA native. Here, much like on the court, vets like Wallace respect that the man they call “Moose” is indeed the future in Detroit. As the lanky lefty laces up his sneakers and the track thumps through the speakers, it’s clear that he’s ready to take his game—and eventually, his team—to new heights.
And that now more than ever he’s, well, hungry.
Photos courtesy of NBAE/Getty