In a season of unhappy endings and last chances, Jodie Meeks wore a halo. His was an enduring light in the bitter darkness- 15 points, 46% shooting, 40% on threes- a career best. Rarely did he complain and let the weight of…everything show. He had a job to do and he quietly went about it, like a miner who digs for coal. Jodie adhered to the normalcy of his rituals. And then it was a Friday night in March- the Lakers were long out of it. What happened then to Jodie Meeks was what happens when reality hits you in the head like a brick. Because you can spend a lot of time pretending things aren’t as bad as they are. It was too late for that, the pretense was gone. So Jodie’s head was slightly bent as if the creased shadows on one side of his face would hide what he was thinking.
He had witnessed a 48 point loss, a destruction, his name was attached to it since he was on the floor. As if he couldn’t even take it all in, Jodie stood in the locker room seemingly all alone, separate from his body. He mumbled something about not remembering getting beaten that bad. Not even in high school. The expression on his face was dazed, his eyes seeking asylum from the rest of him.
That was a terrible night, it was. But Jodie Meeks wasn’t a victim. He was making $1.5 million dollars a year on a one year deal. The math was simple enough. Perform well and the sky is the limit. Underperform and welcome to the rest of your life.
Jodie knew once the roster was complete there were going to be days like this, God help him, but he knew. In training camp he said the truth: we are going to be underdogs in every game we play. Jodie was smart enough to know no one can play a perfect game, there were always going to be mistakes. But this, this game in March, this devastation on national television, on the Staples Center floor was almost too much for the reliability and optimism of Jodie Meeks.
Except for this one thing. Jodie was angry, angrier than any of his teammates. He just lost by 48 points to the Clippers and he felt every one of those points in which the Lakers could not score and the Clippers did. He stood there as if run over by a train. But it wasn’t a train. Just a terrible season.
He came into the 2013-14 season improved. He worked in the summer on driving the ball to the rim, on finishing through contact and dribbling past his defender. The Lakers were going to need versatility without Kobe Bryant in the rotation. If Jodie knew anything about getting better it was from the one player he tried to mold his game after.
Everything Ray Allen did Jodie copied. Ray came to the arena two hours before the game. So did Jodie. Ray played as hard as he could on defense. So did Jodie. Ray drilled catch and shoot threes. So did Jodie. Ray’s on court demeanor was one of respect and sportsmanship; he wasn’t there to show anyone up. Jodie was the same way too. Character is what character does and simply put, Jodie is one of the nicest guys in the NBA. It was his good luck to be given an opportunity to show the Lakers and the rest of the NBA how versatile he was. And so he went about it, every quarter, every game, every road trip. He played the same. He was open on offense. He was dedicated on defense. Often it seemed that Jodie Meeks was the only one who cared.
Of course if Jodie had his choice he would have stayed a Laker. He loved playing in front of a full house every night. He had done the opposite, half filled arenas. It just wasn’t fun. But the market for someone like Jodie who is a role player, a perimeter shooter not gifted enough athletically to be a star, is hit and run, it is packing up and moving until you prove you are worthy of a long deal. Opportunities don’t come around just because you want them to. You have to earn them.
Jodie’s year was spectacular in 2013-14 but the Lakers only won 27 games. Still, he was their best player, their most consistent competitor. From game 1 to game 82 he never wavered. More importantly he never quit. He played hard and he played with passion and he showed that all the summer work he put in paid off.
The Detroit Pistons offered Jodie Meeks more than three times what he was making last year. He’ll bring in 6 million dollars a year. It was an incredible sign of faith and trust in Jodie Meeks from Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy. The Pistons are in desperate need of offense. Jodie is a natural born shooter.
His teammate on the wing, Nick Young, is hoping for a similar payday. Nick, after a miserable season in Philadelphia in 2012-13, was looking to regain his reputation as a dynamic shooter, not as someone who didn’t pass the ball, got lost on defense, only wanted to score, and, frankly, could do some stupid things on the court. A local kid who had been idealized since he was at USC, Nick brought South Central onto the Lakers and he did it with his usual style of entertainment, pleasure and infectious happiness. He was the Lakers leading scorer. Not much changed about his game though. He force fed opponents a steady diet of fade-aways. He rarely passed the ball. He rebounded every now and then. It was hard to remember when he inserted himself into the passing lane to deflect offensive rhythm.
He regained the Nick Young reputation so the season was a win. But the losing…? It got to him once it was January.
It is no secret that Nick wants a long term deal, he has been shouting it from the rooftops. But to get a long term deal you have to do other things besides score because scoring is not unique. NIck wants what Jodie was given by the Pistons, 3 years, perhaps 4. He says he may give the Lakers a discount but it is hard to imagine Nick giving away money if someone offers him $18 million for 4 years.
The fans love Nick but what Nick does on the court a lot of players do on the court so his demand is in proportion to his price. He is a specialist. He is a unique player but his game is not overtly sublime. For everything that Nick brings to a team in the locker room and on the team plane there are so many things that keep him from being thought of as anything more than a guy off the bench who gets buckets. He has a great vertical, his record at the Draft Combine still stands. He is athletic. Yet he doesn’t like contact. He doesn’t drive the ball to the rim. He is a mediocre ball handler and passer. Often he doesn’t play hard on defense. He doesn’t rebound the ball. He doesn’t set screens. He doesn’t guard his man nor does he rotate. His basketball I.Q. fluctuates from moment to moment. He hangs his head a lot when things are not going his way. His career average of 1 assist is, frankly, funny.
Nick doesn’t come back each year having added something to his game. He spends his summer like kids do. He plays basketball and has fun which is a Nick Young thing to do. What Nick Young is selling is Nick Young. It is not basketball. It is Swaggy P. It is joy multiplied by bravado multiplied by a thousand rays of light. Still, he was the Lakers leading scorer last year at 17 points a game and he did it coming off the bench. That is worth something.
The first day of free agency is nearly done and Jodie was the first official free agent acquisition even if it was just a verbal agreement. (Contracts can’t be signed until July 11th).
A couple of months before this day there he was. He stood in line with dozens of other graduates while his family looked on with anticipation. This was the happiest of days for Jodie Meeks and made the terrible season of 2013-14 seem irrelevant. It no longer mattered anymore and why should it. He gave all he could. Now, Jodie was bouncy and grinning as he walked on the stage and waited his turn. And then, finally, the moment came. He heard his name, “Jodie Meeks.” It felt like a blur but he smiled wider and proud and crossed the stage with his University of Kentucky diploma tightly gripped in his hand.
Jodie Meeks. His name will be said again. And again. But, sadly, not in Los Angeles. Detroit Basketball they love to scream at the Palace of Auburn Hills. He is in the Eastern Conference so life will be a lot easier. He has a seasoned, tough but fair coach guiding him. And if things go his way, he may find himself wide open. Not hesitating he will take a three point shot to tie the game. The Pistons fans will scream too. They’ll clap and then they’ll cheer for the good guy that is Jodie Meeks.