By the end of the night on June 26, 2008, Don Nelson was busy puffing away on a victory cigar. The Warriors coach had reason to celebrate. That was the night he drafted a lanky but athletic 18-year-old with heaps of potential named Anthony Randolph, whom Nelson felt was a steal at the 14th overall pick. “That’s the guy I wanted,” Nelson said, delightfully sucking smoke from his stogie.
The “guy” he got was an extremely raw LSU freshman projected to have Lamar Odom-or-better talent. Here’s what Odom himself even said about Randolph in 2009: “It’s like looking in the mirror a little. He’s also 6-11, he’s left-handed and he can put the ball on the floor. He’s two times as athletic as I was at that age. … He has All-Star potential, Hall of Fame potential, with that size, his ability to put the ball on the floor, he can shoot the three, he can pass. If he stays focused, the sky is the limit for him.”
Evidently Nelson saw (or at least hoped for) the same things. But, boy, did opinions change quickly. Questions about Randolph’s attitude and maturity became unavoidable as he slid further and further into Nelson’s doghouse. Fast forward four years later to the present: Randolph’s now 23 and about to play for his fourth team in five seasons. Attractive enough of a talent that teams still want him, too much of a disappointment that teams can live without him. Randolph’s largely disappointing career to this point has been a traveling carnival of unpleasant behavior, coaches’ **** lists and missed opportunities. Now it’s the Nuggets turn to give Anthony Randolph a go, to attempt to get something – anything – useful out of his supremely untapped potential.
If you haven’t seen some of Randolph’s highlights on YouTube, you are simply missing out. A lot of them are viral, cliffnote versions of the occasional bits of awesomeness that Randolph was able to display during his time with the Warriors. These were the flashes of brilliance that instantly made him one of my favorite players on the team. This was coming from a first-, later second-year player. Surely, it could only go up from here. As a Warriors fan, I was sold. He was adept at making brilliant, exciting plays, but, yes, he was also prone to making the boneheaded ones, too. He was a knucklehead. But he was MY knucklehead.
After all, being a Warriors fan at this time, you didn’t have a whole lot else to be excited about. The franchise was coming off its highest win total (48) in 14 years but still missed the postseason thanks to the monopoly on talent the Western Conference bestowed that season. Not long after, the heart and soul of the franchise, Baron Davis, bolted for the Clippers (THE CLIPPERS!). And then Monta Ellis had to go and have the worst moped joyride in history. Clearly, the basketball gods had it out for then-owner Chris Cohan, or something. And who could blame them.
The Warriors were, yet again, in a stage of rebuilding. They never found their footing in Randolph’s rookie season. But what Randolph, in his scant playing time (he averaged only 18 minutes his first year), gave fans, if what was being said about him was true, was somebody who could be a star down the road, somebody who we can tie our hopes around in the meantime. I was willing to look past his immaturity, and the inescapable fact that he always looked like he was one Yo Mama joke away from bursting into tears, and just grab on for the ride and enjoy whatever fun came from it.
Don Nelson wasn’t so genial. The guy who was lighting cigars at Randolph’s arrival soon became his biggest critic. Nellie, already with the reputation of being a shyster when it came to playing young players, would often call out the rookie through the media or privately or in front of the whole arena. He also sometimes demoted him out of his rotation. Being a 19-year-old rookie, you’re vulnerable, fragile. But if Nelson’s mismanagement of him was having an adverse effect on his confidence, Randolph didn’t show it.
“Can’t do anything about what somebody thinks, I can’t control somebody’s thoughts,” Randolph said in January 2009 about being snubbed by Nelson. “I just go out there and do what I’m doing. If I get my minutes, I play hard, like I do every game.”
But Nelson’s growing impatience with Randolph made the potential future star expendable. And expended, he was. After two progressive yet ineffective seasons, Randolph was shipped to the Knicks as the primary piece they received in exchange for David Lee. With Randolph’s tantalizing potential in mind, the move wasn’t popular among the Warriors faithful, especially with the Walter White money the team was recklessly throwing at Lee. But the Warriors wanted to win sooner rather than later and weren’t willing to wait around for Randolph.
By the time the 2010-11 season tipped off, the Knicks had themselves a bright, budding 21 year old still with heaps of potential, still waiting (perhaps hoping by now) for things to click. Being skilled and versatile offensively, able to run the floor well and possessing a knack to be a playmaker, Randolph was expected to be a perfect fit for Mike D’Antoni’s trademark uptempo, frenetic offense (just as he was for Nelson’s similar system). But for Randolph it was the same story in the Big Apple as it was in Golden State. Before D’Antoni had issues with another guy named Anthony, there was Randolph, who quickly fell out of favor with the Knicks boss, eventually dropping to the end of the bench.
“You got to take your lumps and bruises and just wait your time,” Randolph told the New York Times in November 2010. “It’s a long season. Anything can happen.”
Nothing happened. He went on to average career lows across the board playing just over 7 minutes in 17 games for the Knicks. Whatever impatience Nelson had with Randolph, D’Antoni apparently had more. And less than a season after arriving in New York, Randolph was sent to Minnesota in the three-team Carmelo Anthony trade.
With the Timberwolves, Randolph saw his minutes and numbers spike back up initially, even though being in NBA Siberia meant nobody really saw it. But then — you guessed it! – his temperament got under the skin of Rick Adelman and his staff, leading to a dip in both playing time and productivity last season. Randolph became a restricted free agent this summer. The team declined to extend him a qualifying offer. With Kevin Love and Derrick Williams already in place, it’s not like Randolph was a major part of David Kahn’s future plans anyway.
After (amusingly) expressing interest last week in returning to the now decidedly Don Nelson-less Warriors, Randolph instead opted for a three-year, $6 million contract with the Nuggets on Friday. With a crowded front court in Denver – 6 players now at power forward and center – it’s not a question of how Randolph will play, it’s whether he’ll even get to play at all. With his rebounding and shotblocking, he should be able to fill some type of niche role off the bench. Should.
“I think everybody sees a great athlete,” Nuggets coach George Karl told the Denver Post. “I think he’s a frustrated player from the 3-4 years he’s been on losing teams, unsuccessful teams. We’re looking forward to working with him. Our roster is very young, but in the same sense, it’s very dangerous.”
Karl’s now tasked with doing what Nelson, D’Antoni and Adelman couldn’t do, or probably didn’t have the patience to do before him. It’s on the Nuggets to figure out how make this bratty 23-year-old kid who they still assume has something left in the tank work. And if they can’t do it, or if Karl gives up, no sweat. The team didn’t risk much bringing him in. It won’t cost much to get rid of him.
But, more importantly, it’s also on Randolph, too. The Nuggets are his fourth team in his first five professional seasons. And if that isn’t a wake-up call for him, then I guess he’ll never get it. Pretty soon, though, there won’t be another team anymore after burning bridges with the last one. It’s one of those now-or-never situations.
The Nuggets already have some experience in making things work with another player who has dealt with others’ perception of being an immature knucklehead: JaVale McGee. So, if any team can figure Randolph out, it’s the Nuggets.
[Photo by Keith Allison]
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