Playing For Keeps

by December 11, 2012


Originally published in SLAM 164

by Marcus Thompson / @gswscribe

When he first says it, Michael Beasley sounds like he’s just talking nonsense. Like he’s just another athlete with a distorted, inflated view of himself.

“I feel like talent wise, I’m top 10.”

Then you see his expressionless face, not so much as a blink. It strikes you how coolly he just popped his own collar while putting on his Beats after a pre-season game against Golden State. His follow-up line makes it clear he wasn’t bragging, just being frank—and not from a place of ego, but of self-indictment.

“People get mad when I say that because I haven’t proved it yet.”

It is high time he proved it. In his fifth season, he’s overdue for his production to match his abilities. Beasley knows this more than anyone since he’s had a front-row seat to his slide down the pole of NBA relevancy. His potential was cashed in by Miami two years after drafting him No. 2 overall. Two years later, he couldn’t even start for Minnesota, who shopped him openly at the trade deadline before showing him to the door of free agency this past summer.

The free market then cruelly drove home the point, much the way expletives punctuate a Samuel L. Jackson line.

Beasley was forced to settle for a three-year, $18 million deal with Phoenix. Since ’00, the only No. 2 picks to command as low a salary after their first contract expired are Hasheem Thabeet and Stromile Swift.

“He knows he’s worth a lot more. Plain and simple,” says Sebastian Telfair, Beasley’s new teammate and confidant. “I don’t know any other way to say that. He’s worth a lot more.”

Beasley’s claim is supported by no shortage of experts. He is indeed among the best natural talents in the L. He’s a built 6-10, which shows this night through his medium t-shirt, and he’s got the skills of players three inches shorter. With his athleticism and feel for the game, sometimes he makes it look effortless.

Maximizing those talents, though, has been far from easy. But he’s got a plan. Beasley says he’s simplified his off-the-court life, eliminating drama. And, as important, he’s shifted his focus. Beasley’s committed himself to the maturation process, which for him means emphasizing the intangibles that elevate the talented to the elite.

“Honestly, I’m not really into individual accolades this year,” he says. “Last year was literally the worst year of my life. So I’m just trying to get back adjusted to the game of basketball, get adjusted to playing the way I play and work hard. Whatever comes out of it comes out of it.” Instead, Beasley says his focus is on doing what it takes to win, with hopes that everything else will fall into place.

“He’s trying to find himself and find his niche in this League,” says Alvin Gentry, Beasley’s fourth NBA coach. “He’ll get there, but it’s not going to be a sprint. It’s going to be a marathon. For him, he’s just got to play hard and compete. The other part will come. The way to live up to it is to continue to work and continue to improve your game.”

Beasley is 23 years young. But the more he talks, the more he sounds like he’s been around several more blocks than that. It’s as if the veil of youth has been pulled off his eyes. Better yet, yanked off by forgettable decisions and unforgettable repercussions.

He talks about shifting to life’s slow lane, how he’s evolved and “stopped doing stupid shit.” The one time he smiles is when he’s talking about playing with his kids.

“I’ve done some not-so-smart things in the past. It was time to slow it down. I lived that life. I got drafted in Miami, the best party city in the world. But I’m not doing those things anymore that get me in trouble. This is the first time since I’ve been in the NBA so far that I didn’t have any off-court problems. I’m a family man now.”

He doesn’t sound like the same guy fined $50,000 in September ’08 for his presence at a smoke session at the NBA Rookie Transition Program. He doesn’t give off the vibe of the person who posted incriminating pictures of himself on Twitter, had an ensuing breakdown on the social media site, then checked into rehab for “stress-related” counseling. He doesn’t even seem like someone who, in June of ’11, got pulled over in Minneapolis for speeding and had somebody else’s weed in the car, or who two months later got into a small skirmish with a fan at a streetball game and gave him a face mush. This Beasley, who now starts at the 3 for the Suns, welcomes Gentry to coach him. This Beasley has so endeared himself to former Los Angeles Laker Norm Nixon, the two-time Champion told Yahoo! Sports that Beasley was like his son.

If it’s more than just talk, he may be on his way, since many contend the only thing holding Beasley back has been beneath his cornrows.

“The only thing stopping him has been his mentality, his focus,” says one current Western Conference vet, who wants his name withheld out of respect for Beasley. “I think he has to answer the question a lot of us in this League have had to answer: Does he want to be great or is it good enough just to know he is talented? Sometimes it just takes time to answer that honestly. Sometimes, you can want to be great but you have to learn how to get there. It takes a certain level of focus. And that doesn’t come naturally as playing the game comes to guys like Beasley. But he’s so young and talented, he can definitely still reach that level.”

With Phoenix, Beasley is certainly going to get the opportunity. Unlike in Minnesota, the Suns are making the former Kansas State star a building block in their renovation project. Beasley says he’s never felt this way before, so supported, so trusted.

He says for the first time in his career, his hard work is being noticed, his entire repertoire exploited. Telfair, who knows first-hand about pressure and expectations, says Beasley has a lot of demands on him in Phoenix, so much he “doesn’t have a choice but to grow up.”

Veteran guard Jarrett Jack—like Beasley, he’s a product of the DC-area hoop machine—has known Beasley since he was a 14-year-old prodigy. He said a persistent thumb on his neck is exactly what Beas needs.

“I know if I was on his team, I wouldn’t let him off the hook,” says Jack. “I’d be on him every day, which means we’d probably end up fighting a couple times. But he would know it was from the bottom of my heart. I’d stay on him because I think he’s the type of player that can definitely be an All-Star in this League, a 20-point scorer. It takes a couple years to really grow up and find yourself, as a man and as a person. He’s going through that maturation process.”

Beasley is quick to point out he’s not a bust. He entered this season averaging 15.1 points and 5.6 rebounds in 27.9 minutes for his career—and that’s after posting career lows in all three categories last season with Minnesota. Most players would love to enter free agency with those numbers. But the standard for Beasley is different. To those who have seen his effortless handles, the smoothness with which he flings that lefty pull-up jumper, nice numbers aren’t enough.

He should be dominant.

“He’s one of them guys that a lot of people in the League say, ‘Man, if I was him, I’d be this and I’d do that,’” Telfair says. “He’s big. He can shoot. He can dribble. He’s athletic. He’s a healthy guy. The sky is the limit. He can be as good as he wants to be. With that being said, he has to go work for that. And that’s what he’s doing.”

Beasley readily admits what success he has enjoyed on the court has been overshadowed by his juvenile behavior. The problem is, reputations are like the tattoos that decorate his arms—everlasting. The best you can do is cover them, hide them behind fresh markings.

That is likely Beasely’s best hope. To play so well, people scarcely remember he spent his first four years just scratching the surface. To keep his nose so clean, critics write off the past as mere youthful indiscretion.

“The last four years, I’ve been trying to please everybody. And still, I haven’t pleased anyone,” Beasley says. “As far as my image goes, you look at me how you look at me. I know what people think of me. They can write me off. That’s fine. As long as my team wins, as long as we play great, I’m good. If I spend all my time worried about what the public thinks, what anybody else thinks, I’m taking away from my kids. I’m going to continue being the father I am, the son, the brother. Continue to be me. If you don’t like it, you just don’t like it.”

Certainly, if Phoenix wins, it will largely be because of Beasley. After losing the heart and soul of their team when Steve Nash was traded to the Lakers, the Suns are in search of a new core. They’ve got a young point guard in Goran Dragic (who was drafted 43 picks after Beasley) and a promising forward in Markieff Morris. But the rest of the roster is comprised of journeymen, complementary players and veterans winding down their careers.

The opening is there for Beasley to be the star it seems he was meant to be. The Valley of the Suns could be a happy home if he somehow manages to start looking like the player who joined Derrick Rose as can’t-miss in 2008.

The question is whether the intangibles Beasley needs can be learned. Can he acquire the extras it takes to reach that elite level, like his childhood friend Kevin Durant? Is it already in his DNA? And he just needs to dig deeper?

Becoming elite is perhaps too much to ask, especially in the immediate future. It takes years, experience, a consistent body of work. But Phoenix will no doubt settle for Beasley simply getting to a point where he’s the best small forward in his Draft class, leapfrogging Danilo  Gallinari (No. 6) and Nicolas Batum (No. 25).

“Talent has never been enough,” Gentry says. “Michael Jordan is the most talented guy that’s been in this League, [but] that’s not the reason he was great. He was great because of the drive and the competitiveness. Then if you mix that with the talent, that’s what makes greatness. You can look at LeBron. You can look at Kobe. You can even look at Steve Nash. The fact that they have talent and they’re unbelievably competitive, that’s what made them great. [Beasley] has to keep striving to get to that point. I think he wants to be great. But saying you want to be great and becoming great, that’s a big difference.”

That difference is what separates a top-10 talent from a top-10 player.