The Risk and Reward of Kendall Marshall


Jan 3, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kendall Marshall (12) celebrates after a 3-point basket in the final minute against the Utah Jazz at Staples Center. The Lakers defeated the Jazz 110-99. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

He was exiled to Delaware. Then he had a reprieve in Los Angeles. Last night he proved he was not what they thought he was. Or he proved it was a mistake, discarding him. Or he proved he deserved to be a lottery pick because of the way he passes the ball. But Kendall Marshall did not prove that fairy tales are the truth. He did not prove he can make a losing team a winner because in the end none of Kendall Marshall’s effort, his seventeen assists and 7 rebounds- the most rebounds he has had as a Laker- was rewarded. Remarkable performances often have a life and a death, a here and then gone quality. There was applause and then there was oh-wow and then there was a predictable silence. That was normal too. When the night was over, when Kendall Marshall’s job was done, when the crowd filed out the arena, the harsh reality was the same. A loss, another one, the seventh in a row at home. It did not matter that it was Oklahoma City who finally prevailed in the closing minutes just as it did not matter that it was Utah on Tuesday in a lethargic game just as it did not matter that it was the Bulls on Sunday. Losing is losing. There are no morality tales attached to playing hard or dishing out 17 dimes. The best thing that Kendall Marshall can say is that in the past seven weeks he has rejuvenated his career.

Some people are blessed to have things come to them easily. Kendall is not one of those people and sometimes people like him have to grit through everything. Kendall’s desperate hunger to prove everyone wrong is disproportionate to his critics consistent derision of him. There is a line between what he knows and what they think they know. Add to that, this: since being back in the NBA, Kendall has dished out 238 assists in seven weeks, in games all over the country, in eleven states, from Phoenix to Boston. But as is his continuing fate Kendall was shuttled aside for an aging, still hurting Steve Nash. Now Kendall has returned to where he was before the Steve Nash revolving door, he is starting again. Not much has changed between his demotion and his re-entry. There has been court vision and ball distributions and lobs and back door layups. But, as John Wooden once noted, there is a difference between activity and achievement. Yes, Kendall Marshall has been active with the ball. But he has not achieved much of anything.

By definition, the point guard is the most intellectually demanding position on the court. He has to coach. He has to deliver. He has to read. He has to react. He has to make players better which is the cruel irony of all of this. Kendall fled the D-League only to be punished on a wider stage. Players on this Lakers team cannot get better no matter what he does. They are mediocre or as Chris Kaman said, they do not know how to win. The system does not extract individual excellence, but rather, it feeds into their weaknesses and fragility. Kendall is a perfect example of this. There are those things he does not do well that cannot be camouflaged. He is not explosive and cannot get into the lane. He does not finish at the rim. He cannot blow by his defender. He will never require a double team because his mid range shot is not a threat to go in, in fact teams want him to take a mid range shot; Utah did and he missed nearly all of them. His hands aren’t particularly quick and he doesn’t get steals. He is not big enough to be an imposing defensive threat and he cannot stay with explosive perimeter guards. All of this is true. But Kendall does one particular thing better than most. He passes the ball, he gets assists.

He is, for lack of a better description, a one dimensional point guard. He was born thirty years too late. The point guards of this era are asked to do just about everything. Offenses are designed to move the ball and create off the dribble and score and get into the lane and then feed shooters and finish at the rim and ball hawk the other point guard. The beautiful thing about Kendall is that he is fully aware of his deficiencies and he does not try to force things. He does not try to be something he is not. He makes threes. He makes passes. And that is that.

In a way he is a conundrum. Where does he fit? He is not a starter on a playoff team. But he is a better passer than the back-up. Clearly he is a NBA player but finding the right fit for him is the challenge. He is not Steve Nash, a dribbler extraordinaire. He is not Magic Johnson, a court visionary with size and velocity. He is not Mark Jackson, a tough defender, shooter and ball distributor. He is not Goran Dragic, beating his man off the dribble and finishing at the rim. He is not Russell Westbrook, an open court player. Kendall has a way of creeping up on you or rather his proficiency does. You blink and he has seven assists. Then nine. Then twelve. He is his most efficient when his teammates are moving without the ball creating mismatches and defensive breakdowns, then he finds an opening. Or using his bounce pass in the paint for mid range shots. Or tossing it into a big guy and letting him maneuver in the post.

In this analytics era statistics are overvalued. What is the point of numbers if they do not lead to anything? Where is the reward in the seventeen assists if Lakers miss rebounds or they don’t block out or they brick free throws or they turn they ball over seven times in five minutes, some of which was Kendall Marshall’s fault? Perhaps Kendall needs to be on a team with better shooters who can capitalize on his passes but then you are still left with Kendall himself, the non defender, the non finisher, the non scorer. That is the risk of him but in an odd way it is also his reward.

He can find guys who are open and deliver them the ball. He is a teammate who wants to see the team thrive. He doesn’t play for individual glory but for all the rest of it, for why Steve Nash has to come back and why Kobe will come back. It is being part of something that has a common goal, the we not the me. Kendall is a we guy, unselfish in how he approaches basketball perhaps because he is dependent upon the accomplishment of someone else even as he can be particularly proficient himself. He has influence on this Lakers team. He is necessary but moving forward, what then? What if the Lakers make a run at Kyle Lowry or Eric Bledsoe? What happens to Kendall Marshall?

The most clichéd  adjective to describe a young player is “upside.” Kendall does not have one. Possibly he can improve as a two point shooter. Possibly he can refine his bounce pass and do a better job throwing the ball into the post so it is not at the knees of big men. But already he is a quality passer, a point guard who can run an offense and get his teammates the ball. He has learned how to nurture his career, not give in. But he can’t learn athleticism or quickness. He turns the ball over more than Kyle Lowry but less than Steph Curry, Michael Carter-Williams, Ty Lawson and John Wall. But those point guards are all more explosive than Kendall, are better scorers and adapt to this point guard era as if they designed it in their dreams. The basketball world belongs to them now, this furious, fast paced open court player who can get to the rim whenever he wants. This is Kendall Marshall’s largest obstacle, this huge boulder in the road. And yet, it is hard to believe this is his second year; two years ago he was in the lottery. But that is true. It is true he has been to Phoenix, Washington, Delaware. It makes it all the more remarkable even as it has changed absolutely nothing for the Lakers which is the curious thing of all. The Lakers are pretty much the same as they were when Kendall Marshall arrived from Delaware. It is Kendall Marshall who has changed though, who is the best he has ever been.