The Waiting Game of Kendall Marshall


Jan 8, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Los Angeles Lakers point guard Kendall Marshall (12) reacts to a play during the first quarter against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Sports

The wait your turn thing is as old as a penny. The meaning of it is lost in translation- what does it really prove. You will get better by not playing? It doesn’t change reality by waiting. Perhaps it reveals character, it sharpens resilience. Perhaps it means something greater is going to happen, just give it time. But fail enough times, be questioned enough times and what you think you are is suddenly walked back into a totally different definition. This is the Kendall Marshall story, an old school point guard who is a skilled passer but is not athletic, has a terrible jump shot, cannot beat his man off the dribble and has spotty defense. He waited in the NBA Draft to be selected. Then he waited on the Phoenix bench. He was traded and then he was waived, unwanted. He waited again. He signed with the Delaware 87ers and then the waiting turned into something unexpected. The waiting turned into his great chance.

What is destiny, what is it really? Were the tiny steps forward, the large steps back, meant to lead Kendall here? Was he destined to watch as Larry Drew II started at point guard at North Carolina. From the bench Kendall watched the junior point guard score 2 points and dish out 3 assists against Minnesota. Kendall had twice the amount of assists. This repeated itself over and over. He watched as Larry Drew had 1 assist against College of Charleston and Kendall had 4. It wasn’t until the TarHeels lost at Georgia Tech by 20 points that Coach Williams had seen enough. In that game Larry Drew had 2 assists and Kendall again had twice as many. The next game Kendall was the starting point guard and led the team in assists. Larry Drew would transfer. Kendall would end his career at North Carolina breaking the all time assists record in a single season. In 2012 he was the Bob Cousy Award winner, the best point guard in the country. He entered the NBA Draft with the expectation of success. And then he waited again.

The misconception about the NBA is that it is the land of opportunity. It is not- even if you yearn for it to be. It is a different kind of dirt and rock, one in which the talented thrive, the versatile have choices and the specialists wander from team to team. You can make something of yourself if you indeed have something in which to make. And even then careers change routes, organizations miss on talent. Phoenix has done it before. They drafted Rajon Rondo in 2006. And they traded him to Boston. They drafted Luol Deng. They traded him to Chicago. They drafted Nate Robinson and traded him to the Knicks. In Kendall Marshall the Suns thought they had a good sense of who he was, as much as they could about any drafted player which is to say they had an educated guess; they had an educated guess about Luol Deng and Rondo and Nate Robinson too. Phoenix watched Kendall play in college. They knew he would have trouble going up against explosive point guards and finishing around the rim. They knew there was something broken about how he shot the ball, that he would have to spend hours upon hours adapting it. They knew defenses would ignore him and double up on someone else, creating mismatches and ruining offensive schemes. But what they loved about Kendall was how smart he was. He did not play the game as much as he thought the game, his mind was going a million miles an hour. He had what could not be taught: vision. He had an innate ability and a consistent desire to get players shots, to move the ball, he was a throwback really, a player out of the fifties or sixties. And that therein was the Phoenix Suns problem with Kendall Marshall. They wanted something they could never, ever have, a scoring, passing, defensive point guard. They wanted Chris Paul.

The basic question for all rookies is what are you going to make out of your chance, if anything, and secondarily, how fragile are you? Kendall showed glimpses his first season. The bounce pass in traffic, the dribble and cross court dish, the control of tempo. He had back to back games against Utah and Sacramento and had 13 assists and 10 assists. The last game of the season he had 14 assists. But he shot the ball as if he was blind. His form was horrible, he did not get enough lift on his shot, usually his jumpers were short and clanked off the front of the rim. In 48 games Kendall shot less than 40% thirty two times. The more minutes he played the more miserable his scoring was. He played 41 minutes and had 2 points. He played 20 minutes and had 0 points. He played 23 minutes and had 2 points. In 2013 the Phoenix Suns hired former guard Jeff Hornacek to coach their team. Hornacek wanted a fast scoring backcourt and the Suns traded for Eric Bledsoe to pair with Goran Dragic. Bledsoe would not have the assists Kendall was capable of, his court vision was not as strongly developed, but Bledsoe was a 18 point a game scorer, defenses had to pay attention to him, he had the athleticism to impact multiple facets of the game, he was a two way player. Bledsoe’s back up, Ish Smith, was good enough, a quick penetrating guard who could get to the rim repeatedly. No longer was Kendall asked to wait. For the Suns and Kendall, it was over.

Don’t believe what you hear. The silver lining sometimes is not that silver. When Kendall found out he was traded to the Wizards in the Marcin Gortat deal he was ecstatic instead of cautious, happy to be playing in front of his family. Three days later Kendall was waived. From lottery pick to starting over. He signed with the Delware 87ers, a D-league team and he was oblivious to what was going on across the country, that the Lakers point guards were vanishing one at a time, one injury after another injury, a hurt back, a cracked knee, a ligament in the elbow. His first game with the Delaware 87ers Kendall scored 31 points, had 10 assists, 9 rebounds, 2, steals. Then the Lakers called.

Mike D’Antoni was asked why Kendall did not get a lot of playing time his first few games with the Lakers. D’Antoni replied, “Because Xavier is better.” The Lakers were using Xavier Henry as their back up point guard even though he was a combo guard-forward. And then Jordan Farmar tore his hamstring again. And Xavier had a knee issue. Kendall was the only point guard left.

Be careful what you ask for. Kendall asked to be in the NBA, to be a point guard. He got his chance. His first game as a starter he had an incredible performance, 20 points and 15 assists. Two games later he had 18 points and 6 assists. He has recorded 16 assists and 10 assists in consecutive games. In his six games as a starter he has shot over 50% three times. He has shot under 40% twice. And against Houston he was 2-13. In the six games that he has started the Lakers are 1-5. It has only been six games with Kendall as the Lakers starting point guard so it is premature to make much sense out of what he has done other than to realize he belongs in the NBA, he has a definite skill set. Of course with young players the question is always about development. Do they have the desire? Do they want to sacrifice? Are they hungry enough to make the commitment?

To a certain degree you are defined by the last visible thing, the last game, the last year, the last dunk. A career can go up and memories fade. Or a career can go way, way down and no one forgets. As a country the NBA is small. Once teams get a sense of what Kendall can do they will stop it. Or maybe not, maybe he truly is what the last few games have shown, a NBA point guard who can start for a team and deliver the ball and control the pace and be consistent over a long and grueling season. He is 6’5” a big guard, he is selfless and cares about winning. And yet none of these small little matters amount to anything, not with the Lakers desperation. They need Kendall and he needs them and they were brought together for a reason and not so he could sit on the bench and wait- that was the other career, the first part. This is the part of the story where Kendall proves Phoenix was wrong and the Wizards were wrong and the Lakers were right. This is the part of the story where the first experience is nothing like the second experience and it all makes sense, the waiting his turn, the intervals and breaks so he could do this now.