Draft night seems to bring Rodney Stuckey full circle every year.
Aside from the Portland Trail Blazers’ instantly regrettable druthers – Greg Oden over Kevin Durant – Stuckey was possibly the most compelling hook to the 2007 NBA draft. Not a lottery pick, but just outside it – a who-dat guy from a what’s-dat school in a where’s-dat conference, going to one of the league’s model franchises, which more or less stamped him as a steal.
And each June since then when the NBA assembles to divvy up the talent, there’s been time for a reassessment of the box-step dance both he and the team that took him – the Detroit Pistons – have been locked in.
His game grows, fitfully at times.
The Pistons flounder, with faint hope.
Now the hope is a little more substantial and there is evidence Stuckey – five years removed from Eastern Washington University – is ready to take on a new persona.
Maybe we’ll see a little of it Saturday night when he joins his pals at the Spokane Arena for the Jamal Crawford A Plus Classic, a benefit hoops run showcasing the best the Northwest has sent on to the NBA.
Or a little less of Stuckey, that is.
“I’m getting lean,” he reported from Detroit, which he’s opted to make his offseason training base for the first time, one signal of a new seriousness. “At least I’m getting there. I’ve been working on getting my body right, to try and take away all those little injuries I had last year.”
The aim is to be lighter, more explosive. Always able to get to the rim, he wants to be a better finisher. He’s worked on his post game and his shooting, the biggest knock on him since he entered the league.
But the elements of his game and the makeup of his body may be the least of Stuckey’s gains this offseason.
“I really feel,” he said, “it’s pretty much my team now. The torch has been passed to me.”
It’s hard to know what to make of that. Even as he’s developed into the most productive player on an unproductive team, Stuckey has not been without detractors who declare that his attitude has been something less than consistently all-in. Mixed in with the spectacular plays, they say, are telling bouts of indifference.
But there were some important developments during the 2012 season that suggest something else.
Yes, there were those injuries – due, Stuckey insists, to the protracted player lockout, shortened training camps and the compressed schedule. He concedes that he didn’t prepare as thoroughly as he could have – held back by not wanting to risk injury in 5-on-5 situations while he was a free agent who would have to negotiate a contract.
He got that contract – three years, $25 million – and when he was healthy, played to it. For a two-month stretch, he played as well as any guard in the league – one statistical metric ranked him the NBA’s No. 4 shooting guard behind Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and James Harden. His 3-point shooting nosed over 30 percent for the first time in his career. And the arrival of rookie Brandon Knight at the point allowed Stuckey to play almost full time at his more natural position.
“It really doesn’t matter to me what position I play,” he said, “but I love playing off the ball. There’s a freedom I enjoy, and Brandon is a phenomenal point guard.”
Perhaps as important, Stuckey worked on his head, too. He took some sessions with a psychologist “just to clear my mind,” he told USA Today. “I was going to get the feedback I needed to hear. It was just positive energy. There was too much negative energy.”
He also found common ground with new coach Lawrence Frank – a welcome change after Stuckey, and just about every Piston, had warred with John Kuester for two years.
“This is my fourth coach in five years and that’s tough,” Stuckey said. “Each has his own philosophy, his own approach and personality, and it’s hard to make progress when you’re always changing. But going through that sort of thing can make you a better person, and I think it’s going to make us a better team.”
They already are. After a horrific 4-20 start, the Pistons were 21-21 to close the season. But they also missed the playoffs for a third straight year.
“Yeah, it’s time we made the playoffs,” Stuckey said. “I know that’s what everyone on our team is working for, and we’re capable. But a lot of things go into that. What we get in the draft is important. Free agency. Trades. And when it all comes together, being accountable on the court. That’s the kind of leadership I have to provide.
“I really believe this is my time.”
His time to be the steal everyone thought he was on draft night.