Wednesday, January 7, 2009

O.J. Mayo- Really Just 35 Games In?

O.J. Mayo may be in his first NBA season, but he is no rookie.

Both his statistics, and the way he goes about compiling them strongly suggest that Mayo entered the NBA with a veteran’s mentality, his eyes fixed on becoming an NBA superstar. Most rookies enter the league with plenty of talent, but needing to develop an NBA-style game- this was not the case with O.J. From Day One, Mayo has exhibited a polished NBA game, with both instincts and moves seldom seen from a first-year player. Not only has he started all but one of his professional games, logging an average of 38 minutes per game, but every step of the way, he’s looked like he belongs.

Particularly on offense, Mayo hit the ground running in the Association, scoring in double figures in each of his first twenty-five games, and has failed to score 10+ points just twice this season, hitting for 20 or more eighteen times (and 30+ four times) in 35 games. Unlike a lot of rookies Mayo has shot the ball well (45.3% from the field, 39.4% on 3’s, 87.9% from the free throw line) on his way to averaging 20.7 ppg as the league’s leading rookie scorer. However, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Mayo’s offensive game is how “mature” it is- in an era that has seen the mid-range game suffer, O.J. Mayo ranks near the top of the league, shooting 45.9%, on “2-point jump shots” (outside the key, inside the arc-, leading all rookies and ranking above established stars like Kobe Bryant (45%), Deron Williams (44.8%), Joe Johnson (44.2%) and Brandon Roy (43.7%). But the beauty of O.J. Mayo’s game is about more than just numbers…

It’s the way that baits defenders into fouls, taking the ball down low and sweeping his arms through before going up for a jumper, a la Kobe and Dwyane Wade. It’s the way he’s never out of control when drives to the basket. It’s the way he recognizes when his shot is dropping and looks to take over a game. Late in close games (which the Grizzlies are playing more and more of these days), when Mayo doesn’t bring the ball up the floor, it’s the self-assured way that he demands the ball on the perimeter and thirsts to take every big shot, evidenced by his 5.5 ppg in the fourth quarter and excellent play in the “clutch” (defined by as situations with fewer than 5 minutes remaining and neither team leading by more than 5 points), where he’s averaging 28.9 points per 48 minutes (more than Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Ray Allen, Allen Iverson, Manu Ginobili and Amar’e Stoudemire) and hasn’t missed a single “clutch” free throw all season.

This was on full display on December 27 in San Antonio, as the Grizzlies battled the Spurs through four quarters and two overtime periods before ultimately falling 106-103. With just under nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and Memphis clinging to a two-point lead, Mayo reentered the game, having scored 14 points through three quarters, and proceeded to carry the Grizzlies to the doorstep of a big road win over the NBA’s most savvy veteran squad, hitting a big 3-pointer from the right wing and a pair of long jumpers down the stretch, before draining a huge 3-pointer from the left wing with one minute remaining to put Memphis up, 90-88. A pair of Tony Parker free throws sent the game into overtime, where each team scored nine points (two on a runner from Mayo), sending the game into double OT. In the second overtime period, Memphis fell behind by five points. While this was ultimately too large a deficit to overcome, Mayo did give the Grizz one last chance to steal the game with another big 3-pointer from the left wing with just 1:10 remaining. That final shot gave him 29 points in 52 minutes, 15 coming after the third quarter. Despite the gritty effort, Memphis did go down to the Spurs, but what truly stands out about that game was Mayo’s desire to take every big shot down the stretch, hitting several of them, in one of the NBA’s most hostile environments.

To be sure, O.J. Mayo’s not perfect. Like many young stars, he’s entered the NBA in the prime of his “Superman” phase- so talented and confident that he takes the task of trying to win each game solely onto his own shoulders, and has yet to reach the point where he implicitly trusts his teammates. In some ways, O.J. Mayo is reminiscent of a young Kobe Bryant- a sublimely talented prodigy, groomed to be an NBA superstar, with a singular focus on achieving greatness- but seemingly focusing the early years of his career on his own development. Between now and his seemingly inevitable leap to stardom, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Mayo critics echoing those of a young Kobe.

It’s important to note however, that the truly great athletes (not to say that Mayo is there, but he sure looks like a decent starter kit) do take these steps. O.J. Mayo’s greatest advantage over most young players is that he’s already playing the NBA game, just not as a complete NBA player. Right now, O.J. Mayo is a fantastic individual NBA player. Once Mayo learns to trust his teammates, especially in late-game situations, and learns where they like the ball, and the best way to create open shots for them, he will take “the leap”.

Note: Some stats in this article sourced from

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