It seems like most folks these days who head to a professional basketball game go to watch the players. And by that, I mean a specific player or maybe two. It's a star driven league. I get that. But I've never been that way. I don't go basketball games or watch on TV to see players. Nor do I do it for the love of the game or to see a classic matchup or a back and forth competition. I watch basketball for one reason: to see my team, the Washington Wizards, win. That's it. Nothing more. Go ahead and scoff and tell me that I picked the wrong team if that's my goal or whatever else you want to say. I am fully aware. The Wizards are my team and that's it.
Given that attitude, I generally dislike any player that plays for an opposing team and I have no interest in seeing them succeed here or anywhere else for that matter. Watching LeBron James or Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant or whomever else in Verizon Center is not for me an opportunity to be amazed and marvel at one of the greatest athletes on the planet. I'm booing those guys and everyone else that plays for every other team in the NBA. In the case of LeBron, I'm booing him every time he touches the ball no matter where I'm sitting in the building. That's just the way I roll.
Having said all that, there are a handful of guys around the league who don't play for the Wizards who I actually look forward to seeing in person. Last night the Phoenix Suns made their annual visit to Washington. On their roster this year is Brandon Knight, whom they acquired in a trade deadline deal from Milwaukee last season. As odd as it may sound, Brandon Knight is hands down without a doubt my favorite non-Wizards player in the league. Not KD. Not Kobe. Not Blake Griffin. Certainly not LeBron. Brandon Knight. I'll explain why soon.
I thought it might be worth a blog post to highlight those players that grab my attention outside of the guys work over at 601 F Street. I'll admit, there aren't many of these guys around the league. In fact, I could only come up with five. Here's who makes my ultimate non-Wizards team. When these guys are in town, I'm paying special attention to their game. I'm listing them in the order they are going to hit town this season.
Brandon Knight, Phoenix Suns (last night)
I've seen Brandon Knight play for the Detroit Pistons (the team who drafted him eighth overall in 2011), the Milwaukee Bucks (the team that traded for him) and the Phoenix Suns (who took him off the hands of the Bucks and then handed him a contract extension starting at $13.5 million this season). Either the Suns see something the Pistons and Bucks didn't see or those two teams made bad decisions in trading Knight. I'm going with the latter.
Brandon Knight has never made an All-Star team and it's possible he never will; the point guard position is stacked across the league right now and the Suns are going to have to have a ton of success for him to play in the mid-season exhibition game. But Knight always seems to kill the Wizards somehow and it may be partially John Wall's doing. Knight came out of Kentucky a year after John did after his freshman year just like John did. And it seems to me with these Kentucky guys that John feels he has something to prove because he goes at them hard. And it rarely works in my opinion. And it really hasn't worked with Knight.
During his second year, Knight lit the Wizards up for 32 at Verizon Center, outscoring Wall by a significant 26 points. When I took a road trip to Milwaukee the next season to see the Wizards take on the Bucks, he did it again, going for a team high 25 and making a game out of something that was a 22 point laugher at halftime. It seemed like last night's Phoenix game was going to be a repeat performance: Knight had 14 at the half but the Wizards managed to cool him off after that.
I love Knight's game because it's not flashy and he's not cocky about it but this guy can ball. He's a really really good scoring point guard who handles himself with just a blue collar go out and earn it mentality. And I love that about him. It's not like the Suns don't know this. They handed him a contract which will pay him $70 million over the next five years. But the casual fan likely doesn't know how good he can be. Based on watching him with his first three teams, I do. I'd take Brandon Knight on my team any day.
Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers (January 6 and February 28)
I hate that I put someone who plays for the Cavaliers on this list but I couldn't have a complete list on this topic without adding him. Quite simply, I am astonished the way Thompson manufactures possession after possession for his team by going and getting the ball on the offense end of the court. Some of the sequences I watched during the Cavaliers playoff run last year were incomprehensible to me as to how the other team didn't put enough of a body on Thompson to keep him off the glass.
For a whole season, Thompson has never averaged more than 10 rebounds per game but last year's postseason, where he managed to grab an average of 10.8 boards per contest, got some attention, not only from me but also it seems from the Cavs who handed him a rich contract this year for $80 million plus over the next five years. To come OFF THE BENCH!!! Right now at least. He's making almost as much as John Wall as a sixth man. I obviously think this contract is too rich even though I do love his game. This season, he's averaging a career high 10.3 rebounds per game. I guess he's starting to earn his money.
Besides his rebounding, I love that Thompson plays every day. He has not missed a single game over the three seasons prior to this one. There's a lot to be said for durability. Some people have it and others just don't. I don't like his free throw shooting, however. Thompson's a career 62.8 percent shooter from the charity stripe. This year he's dipped down to a paltry 53.2 percent. Ouch!
Thompson's a guy I'd love to see on the Wizards. If the Cavs were ever looking to acquire Bradley Beal, I'd consider swapping him straight up for Thompson. After Brad signs his extension this coming offseason of course.
Shaun Livingston, Golden State Warriors (February 3)
So this one's a bit of a cheat because Livingston is a former Wizard and I generally have a soft spot for guys who did good things in their time in D.C. like Shaun did. But since he never spent an entire season suited up for the Wiz, I'm allowing him to be on this list. Plus it's my list and I can really do whatever I want. Shaun's on this list because he came back and made a solid career out of playing basketball when he had no business ever doing it.
Livingston was drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers as the fourth overall pick in the 2004 NBA Draft. This was before the Clippers were today's Clippers. This was when the Clips routinely drafted high in the selection meeting and wasted pick after pick to do silly things like save money long term. They were a franchise that bungled pretty much everything, sort of like the New York Knicks over the last decade or so and what the Philadelphia 76ers are becoming today. More on that soon.
Livingston came to the NBA straight out of high school and in his first couple of seasons as a point guard in L.A. put up the kinds of numbers you would expect a kid coming into a man's league: less than 10 points per game and about 5 assists per contest in a bit less than 30 minutes a night. In his third season, Livingston suffered one of the more horrific knee injuries an NBA player has ever endured (watch it here, if you dare, and don't say I didn't warn you). His career was over for sure. There is no way most people would even consider playing the game of basketball again after the kind of complete knee destructions Livingston went through. Let alone, be good enough to play in the NBA ever again.
Livingston was drafted by the Clippers as a player who most teams saw had an incredible ability to distribute the rock from the point guard position while also being tall (6'-7") for the one guard. So Shaun tried and tried to get back into the league, signing with the Miami Heat on a promise of potential alone before being traded to the Memphis Grizzlies and being bounced out of the league. That didn't stop him. He moved to the D-League in the winter of 2009 and was picked up by the Oklahoma City Thunder based on a strong showing with the nearby Tulsa 66ers. But he wouldn't survive the calendar year with the Thunder, bouncing back to the NBDL.
That's when the Wizards, who at that time were trying out guys from the D-League on sort of a revolving door basis, took a chance on Shaun and brought him up to the NBA on a 10 day contract. And all of a sudden he fit. He showed the kind of court vision and skills that made him the number four overall pick. He'd spend the rest of the season in Washington before signing a multi year deal with the Charlotte Bobcats.
It was amazing seeing his comeback unfold in Washington. Although it was only a couple of months, it was a complete redemption story and it was on display every night at Verizon Center. I remember the first time Livingston dunked for the Wizards. It was a baseline move and it looked a little awkward but when he landed and his knee was OK, it was wonderful to see. Shaun returned to the Wizards a couple of years later and things didn't work out like they did in 2009. That was probably good for him because he now has a championship ring and hasn't lost a game in 20 tries this year. Shaun Livingston is always going to be one of my favorites.
Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers (February 5 and February 29)
Jahlil Okafor is not on this list because he's a player I've admired over years and years of watching him play. He's on this list because of the situation he's in with the Philadelphia 76ers. Over the past few years, Sixers General Manager Sam Hinkie has been engaged in a sort of science experiment with NBA rosters he is calling a "process" that I guess one day will result in a sort of magical convergence of everything and Philly will all of a sudden find themselves with an NBA Championship.
Theoretically It started two years ago when he drafted point guard Michael Carter-Williams and (injured) center Nerlens Noel in the 2013 NBA Draft. Carter-Williams won Rookie of the Year (looking good) and Noel didn't play at all his first year (not looking so good but he could be the steal of the draft). He followed that first year up by drafting Joel Embiid (also injured; also a center) last year. Embiid didn't play his rookie year either. In the meantime, Noel made a strong statement in his first year of actual play and Hinkie decided success was too much for him with Carter-Williams whom he traded away for a first round pick. Go figure.
To date Hinkie's idea has produced zero results. It is a textbook example of "don't confuse activity with achievement." Philly's win total two years ago: 19. Last year: 18. This year: 1 (of 20). They actually appear to be getting worse.
Enter Jahlil Okafor. For the third year in a row, Hinkie decided to draft a center with a first round pick. Noel, Embiid (still no action here, remember) and Okafor. Okafor, unlike his two predecessors played opening night of his rookie year and by some accounts he might be ready to play the center position in the NBA now. He spent a year at Duke under legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski; won a title at Duke; was a first team All-America selection; has offensive skills; and seems to have a body that might be ready to withstand the pounding he might take at the center position from some of the centers in this league.
The problem? Hinkie's system ain't working. He's 19 years old on a team with no veterans (nobody on the Sixers' roster is older than 25) and it seems like half the guys on the team have no business being on an NBA roster, let alone playing or starting. The only reason some of these guys are in the NBA is because Hinkie offered them a job. I can only imagine the conversation between Okafor and Hinkie before his introductory press conference.
Hinkie: Welcome to Philadelphia, Jahlil. We're proud and excited to have you as a member of our franchise. Here are your teammates. Trust the process!
Okafor: You have to be effing kidding me, right?
Of course, his press conference went about that way. Okafor looked as about as miserable as he could and actually dropped his jersey on the table at the end of the thing (see above photo). He then (along with his new teammates) proceeded to lose his first 18 games in a row as a Sixer. In the meantime, he's been pulled over for speeding (like 63 miles over the speed limit) and was involved in two early morning fights with hecklers after a recent loss in Boston.
Okafor's in a situation which without doubt sucks. He's a kid playing in a man's league with a bunch of guys who shouldn't be on any roster and they are going to lose. A lot. In the meantime, he has nobody to guide him through the mysterious "process". I think it's going to be interesting to see how and if he survives. This guy from what I can see at summer league and watching him in the preseason has a ton of talent now plus a ton of upside. I hope someone can save him from Philly. In the meantime, please don't respond to hecklers outside clubs at 2 a.m.
Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls (March 16)
Before there was Brandon Knight, there was Joakim Noah. If I were a Bulls fan, I'd have a Noah jersey and I'd wear it to every single game. Heck, I might even continue to wear it after he retired or is traded. I love his game that much.
I know a lot of people who don't like Noah. He's an irritant. He talks on the court. He runs his mouth in press conferences, including insulting cities like Cleveland. His shot looks awkward, either from the field or the free throw line. He doesn't look like he's got any talent whatsoever, relying instead on scrapping and making hustle plays that guys without much ability can survive on in the NBA.
But here's the thing: despite all that noise that I hear from other people, Joakim Noah is really good. Yes, he fights and does the little things that make a difference but he could be in the league without doing all that stuff. He defends. He rebounds. He gets on the floor for loose balls. He passes. Better than most point guards in the league. I love Joakim Noah's game. All of it.
Plus he called LeBron James a bitch once when James was dancing on the sideline during a Cavaliers blowout of the Bulls. Anyone who can do that and not back down when James fakes going after him is a winner in this league in my book.
So that's my list. This group probably strikes most people as a strange list. And you know what? I just don't care. I despise most players who oppose the Wizards. Hating the opposition is part of what it means to me to be a fan. Don't like it? Too bad. And don't sit next to me and root for the other team. It will not go well for you. Well, unless your team wins. I'd love for the guys on this list succeed personally as I exhort the Wizards to crush their team. Dallas up tomorrow. Let's go Wizards! Looking forward to January 6 already.