Jimmer Fredette Has A Choice to Make

It was the perfect ending to an imperfect professional career. After all the ups and downs, the back and forths, the starts and stops, after all the shade about his defense and his quickness, Jimmer Fredette was here, in Madison Square Garden, in a Knicks uniform. The kid from upstate finally bequeathed redemption and a spot in the NBA in his home state where his friends and family could watch him play which meant watching Jimmer score. More importantly, the Knicks needed a shooter; they needed offense badly.

Fredette had been wearing the jersey of the Westchester Knicks. He was the MVP of the D-League All-Star game. For the  Westchester Knicks he scored 22.3 points and dished 4.8 dimes. Things were looking up and now the Knicks had called him for a 10-day contract. It was promising. After two 10-days, a NBA team has to sign you for the rest of the season.

The Knicks were a mess in 2015-16. Derek Fisher was fired. Now Kurt Rambis was the coach. “He’s obviously a very good shooter and somebody who can open the floor for us, so we’ll see how he fits in.” But Rambis was also skeptical about Jimmer Fredette.

We’ve got to see if he can actually handle the basketball and be able to create shots for himself and create shots for others within the team concept, so it will be an adjustment for him. It’s not going to be an easy transition and guys who are in the D-league…they’re not NBA ballplayers. So it’s a different level up here to make the step up.”

It sounded as if Rambis had already decided Fredette wasn’t what many thought he was, a knock down shooter who can drain shots when defenses collapse. Rambis was pretty negative about Fredette before he even started practice which didn’t bode well for Jimmer and it was all the more curious because Kurt Rambis, out of Santa Clara, was a third round pick when the NBA had more than two round drafts. He was no one’s sure thing and it seemed odd that he wouldn’t have some empathy for the Jimmer Fredette dream. Didn’t he have a dream of his own? In many ways Rambis sounded as if Fredette wasn’t his idea and he was forced to take him on.

Fredette barely played for the Knicks. In two games he played 5 minutes. He didn’t get the opportunity for a second 10-day contract and was rushed back to the D-league.

Such was the Jimmer Fredette dream, one step forward, two steps back.

One year later, the same player that Kurt Rambis barely tolerated, didn’t play and wouldn’t re-sign, scored 73 points in a game in China.

Two steps forward. One step back.

2.

Not that long ago, the 2011 lottery pick who had bounced around the league, was given a San Antonio audition mid-summer and it was a moment of truth, or redemption. More than likely, it was a last chance. So far, the evidence had been sobering. 233 NBA games. 1,409 underwhelming points. 3,143 minutes. Sacramento. Chicago. New Orleans. Now, San Antonio.

Regardless of the measurement, San Antonio was different. Organizational stability and structure often salvaged careers, making useful players out of projects by fitting the player into the system, renewing confidence. But it wasn’t charity the Spurs were offering. They are not in the Red Cross business, a shelter from disaster. They offered Fredette a partially guaranteed contract in July 2015.

It was hard work. You had to want to change. Simply, if Jimmer Fredette couldn’t stick with the Spurs and their egoless formula then it probably couldn’t be done. The Spurs don’t build around athletic ball work but rely on team play, unselfishness, efficiency and defense. Three of the four were possible for Jimmer Fredette. But that last one? Defense? That was the deal breaker.

The institutionalized skepticism about white shooting guards making an impact as rotational players has little to do with their whiteness and everything to do with their speed. The game is too athletic on the perimeter, too quick. You have to keep up. Long gone are the days in which slow white (or black) players could hide on the wing for two to four minutes. Everyone in the NBA, save the aged Hall of Famers playing their last days out, have foot speed. No one can hide anymore.

There is quick. James Harden. There is defensive. Jimmy Butler. There is streaky. Bradley Beal. There is crazy. J.R. Smith. There is athletic. Eric Bledsoe. There is long. Klay Thompson. There is experienced. J.J. Redick. There is brazen. Matthew Dellavedova. There is off the dribble. DeMar DeRozan. There is gifted. Andrew Wiggins. There is slow. Jimmer Fredette.

The Spurs were looking for an extra shooting guard. That was the interest. But there were layers to that description. They were looking for a shooting guard that could defend shooters and rotate. The Spurs believe in defense as the soul of the game. If they couldn’t get Fredette to adapt to this very basic principle as he was fighting with former teammate Ray McCollum for a roster spot, then it would be a beginning with no middle and another abrupt end.

After three months, the Spurs waived Jimmer Fredette. It was October 21st. It was a week before the regular season was expected to start. It made the Spurs one more Jimmer Fredette trivia question. Who was the fourth team/organization to reach the same conclusion that there wasn’t a place on a NBA roster for Jimmer Fredette?

I think I’ve progressed and learned how to be a pro. I think I have continually gotten better as a basketball player. You’ve just got to keep your confidence high. You can’t let anything bad that happens get you down. You’ve just got to stay strong, stay mentally tough and know that when you do get an opportunity, you have to be prepared for it.” Jimmer Fredette to ESPN.

The first week of the season, the injury ravaged Pelicans brought Fredette back to stop the leak until they could get healthy. They used an injury exception to bring him in. Fredette played four games. He played 13 minutes. He scored two points.

He was waived.

3.

Nothing about this failure is different. It isn’t worse because it is Jimmer Fredette. It doesn’t have any more significance because an award winner couldn’t find a place in the NBA. It says nothing important about being this close to a dream and this far away and how wide apart those two stations are. This wasn’t ever going to be a feel good fable. Jimmer Fredette wasn’t Mark Price. He wasn’t Steve Kerr. He wasn’t John Paxson. He wasn’t J.J. Redick. His foot speed was below average. His shooting came and went. His attitude was his best friend and his worst enemy. He wanted the past to be the present. But the past is best left where crumbs are left, in the distance.

The truth: Jimmer Fredette was never going to be different than what the scouts mostly predicted. He was not quick enough. He was not explosive enough. He was not gifted enough. He was not lucky enough. His NBA biography was not any worse than Johnny Flynn who never made it in the NBA either. But Flynn was a black player, a small guard with a bad attitude that flamed out early on. His blackness was never romanticized in a league where he was one of the crowd. Johnny Flynn wasn’t different.

There is a certain aesthetic in which to view performance. Basketball can be art. But, often the background details don’t matter. It was irrelevant that Jimmer Fredette was the Naismith Award winner, the best college player, that he was the Wooden Award winner, the best college student-athlete, that he led the nation in scoring so he was prolific. It didn’t matter that Fredette had a college career that propelled him into the draft lottery, selected before Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard, as ridiculous as that is to even acknowledge today.

What everyone knew was that Jimmer Fredette was a white player trying to distinguish himself in a black league, surrounded by gifted athletes at his position and a very rabid fan base anticipating his success. It was this very specific calculus that was his burden. He represented hope to an entire collective. They wanted him to thrive. For that, they are still waiting and hoping, while Fredette is trying to get back to where he has always dreamed of playing: the NBA.

The NBA is a lot of things. Nostalgic about college success is not one of them. They demand of you amnesia. Yesterday doesn’t matter. It is today that counts. The  NBA is a foreign country in many aspects. You are required to cross a border. You go through customs; the NBA calls it rookie hazing. You start out as an immigrant. You have to learn to  speak their language. You are required to assimilate to their culture. You are required to do things the way they do things, not the way you have been doing them all of your basketball life. You are required to not complain.

Fredette’s BYU success was not singular. Damian Lillard came into the NBA after four years at Weber State. Steph Curry came into the NBA after three years at Davidson. Their fanfare was less is more. They were big time scoring guards too. But they were quick and explosive. They weren’t liabilities. And still they were doubted by a skeptical media.

When the San Antonio Spurs waived Fredette it was not much of a surprise because the problem Fredette has had for much of his NBA career was where to put him. Where does he go? Who does he guard? How long can he stay on the floor? How much scoring does he have to do to make up for his liabilities? A coach who worked with Fredette was dismayed at how he wanted everything to be like it was at BYU. It was like being with the homecoming King, ten years after high school was over.

4.

Fredette was drafted by the Westchester Knicks of the D-League. It is not how he envisioned it after his superlative senior year at BYU seemed to indicate stardom. But if ever there was a blueprint of what was to come for Fredette in the NBA it was his final college game. It was against the University of Florida, in the NCAA tournament. He was smothered and hounded and beaten up and ultimately drained. The athletes of Florida made it their mission to stop Fredette and they used their quickness to make sure he had a horrible night.

NBA defenders didn’t have to work that hard. They were grown men. They were used to dealing with much quicker players than Jimmer Fredette. And they knew too that with Fredette guarding them, they could do anything they wanted. He was never respected. That was a huge problem.

  *     *    *    *    *

In this place, the mornings have an icy bite to them. The air tastes frozen. The sky is hazel. Branches of narrow brown trees buckle in the twenty degree weather. Things have been mild lately but they have been cold for a long time.

James Taft Fredette was born 27 plus years ago, the younger brother. Born competitive, he had basketball training like most kids do out on the court with the older brother (T.J) and his friends. Jimmer, they say, was making rainbow threes before he could write sentences. He was a scorer at the age of ten. In high school, he had a myriad of 40 point games, each one more spectacular than the last one. But he was mostly overlooked by recruiters.

There are times when you’re like, ‘Dang man this is not the way I pictured it as a kid growing up’. It’s not necessarily that you’re not good enough to be out there, you know what I mean? Sometimes, there are other circumstances. “

Fredette’s circumstance is he is a bad defender. Stopping scorers is the job. Making shots is the jobs. Fredette is not good enough to be out there for extended minutes. Or, else he would be. The NBA is a mercenary league. The NBA is not emotional. The NBA is not kind. The NBA is not a social service organization. If they are benevolent to the Kobe Bryants and Kevin Garnetts of the world who gave up their late adolescence and bled for the league, changed the league, reaped the benefits, made the league money, it is karma. It doesn’t stop the critics but Bryant and Garnett were embraced for everything they have done for so long, a courtesy not reaped upon journeyman players. For the average, there isn’t a compromise or bargain or negotiation. It is a quick goodbye.

5.

Two types of players enter the D-League.

There are those that are with a NBA team and are sent down to work on their game. And there are the rest, those that are not with a NBA team. They are drafted. It’s not the kind of draft the NBA celebrates, idolizing a host of players on national television alongside their teary eyed parents.  And for good reason. In this country, we revere the best, the unique, the genius. We want to know them, we want to be them.

But, there is something organically desperate about players drafted in the D-League. Perhaps they know this nation of C students is their ceiling. Not good enough to be part of the 400+ NBA fraternity, not bad enough to give the dream up altogether, something they just cannot bear to do. So they land here and try to get called up.

Of the 14 players who were drafted in the lottery in 2011 only two players, Jimmer Fredette and Jan Vesely, are no longer in the NBA. Jimmer Fredette was drafted 11th by the Milwaukee Bucks and then traded to the Sacramento Kings. Klay Thompson was drafted 12th. It is this comparison that has always dogged Fredette, that he was drafted ahead of the son of a NBA champion who then became a champion himself.

Fredette could never live up to the lottery billing of exceptionalism. He would have been better off slipping in the draft, even going in the second round, absent of pressure and notoriety. But in a peculiar way, Fredette wanted to be a lottery pick. He wanted to be acknowledged as one of the best. He wanted to prove everyone wrong. What he forgot to account for is that lottery picks are sent to bad teams. Bad teams lose because of personnel, poor management, and cluelessness. In 15 words or less, that describes the Sacramento Kings. Of course, Fredette was going to fail.

Take your pick, a multitude of excuses: the owners of the Kings were trying to move the team. The owners of the Kings wanted to make tons of cash and held their franchise hostage. The coach of the Kings, Paul Westphal, lasted on the job 7 games and then was fired. DeMarcus Cousins was at the height of entitlement and immaturity.

His first year with Sacramento, Fredette shot 38% although his three point average was decent at 36%. His second year, he played less minutes but his shooting increasaed to 42% and 41% from three. Fredette’s third year was his best as far as raw numbers were concerned but he only played 11 minutes despite making 44% of his shots and Sacramento bought out his contract, saying it was a very “tough decision”.  He signed with the Chicago Bulls as a free agent and at the time the new scenery was thought to revitalize Fredette. But first and foremost Tom Thibodeau is about defense.

The Bulls didn’t re-sign Fredette.

In New Orleans, nothing went right for Jimmer. Monty Williams was Thibodeau 2.0, a defensive clone, trained in the Spurs system. Fredette’s shooting wasn’t there, the worst of his career, 25%.

6.

There are basketball lifers. There are men who love basketball. They will play anywhere for pay. Their sacrifice is pathologically beautiful. Their sacrifice is fundamentally flawed. At some point, you have to answer the question: what are you chasing? What do you want to prove? The NBA isn’t a reward for preparation and drive and intensity. It isn’t a reward for having played really well once upon a time. The NBA is in the talent delivery business. You have to be special. You have to be lucky. You have to be in the right place at the right time. You have to be versatile. The NBA wanted Jimmer Fredette a long time ago. And then they saw Jimmer Fredette play defense. And miss open shots.

The NBA was cold, then, calculating, cruel but fair. They let him and his dream go back home to New York. The place where the Knicks needed him but the Knicks turned its back on one of their own and it wasn’t like the Knicks were going anywhere. They could have kept Fredette and developed him but they did what the Kings, Bulls, Pelicans and Spurs did. They cut him loose.

It looked bleak.

And then he signed with the Shanghai Sharks. A team that was the bottom feeder of the Chinese Basketball Association.  The Sharks have been pathetic for a long time, rarely in the playoffs. They needed a savior other than Yao Ming who invested capital to keep them afloat. Jimmer needed a cause his basketball gift could rescue. The intersection was perfect, nearly divine.

Jimmer has made the Shanghai Sharks his team. He is the star. The Sharks are in first place. China did for Jimmer what the NBA never would: they designed an offense around his scoring. They enabled Jimmer’s talent. They didn’t try to crush his dream. He was accepted and then he was revered. Jimmer has the green light to score the way Steph Curry has the green light to score.  And encouraged by Yao, at 27 Jimmer was the leader, coming to practice early, encouraging teammates, pulling players along with him on this ride as he scores 37 points a game, more points a game than any one player in the NBA.

He scored 51 points in a game in November. The crush of fandom began partly because of Jimmer and partly because of the optics. Jimmer embraced and was respectful of the culture; he wasn’t the ugly American. He was curious about being in China, not just making money in China. He just didn’t look like a NBA guy, someone who could drop 37 or 50 or 73 points.

He scored 73 points in double overtime. He played 54 minutes. He was 25-49 and made 10 threes.  It was the fourth highest total in league history. Three of the four highest scoring games in this league have been by former Sacramento Kings: Fredette, Bobby Brown and Quincy Douby, a peculiar coincidence.

But it brings Fredette to a huge decision, that fork in the road that will change everything. The NBA is still his dream. He believes he has something to offer, that he can contribute. But China is where he is a star and where he can make millions. He is famous now. It is highly unlikely his impact in the NBA will give him the notoriety, fame and financial capital that China can. He will be mentioned as an afterthought after the brilliant guards the NBA has raised take all the oxygen out the room.

As a league, the NBA glamorizes offense but it is defense that coaches care about. Look at the players at his positon: Steph Curry, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Kyle Lowry, Kyrie Irving. It will be an uphill struggle for Jimmer to make the same kind of impact he is making in China.

In China, he can re-sign next year for a lot of money. Or he can decide to hit the NBA free agent summer circuit, try out for teams and have another go round. He is 27, still in his basketball prime. But he has been out the NBA two years- two years is an eternity. It is a question about philosophy, money and fame or redemption?

It’s important to note that Bobby Brown, who also scored 70+ in China, has barely had a NBA career. He is a marginal player for the Rockets.

As he weighs his choices about his future, one thing is clear, NBA aside. China was the best thing to happen to Jimmer Fredette. It restored confidence, reminding him of who he knew he was all along, even when the NBA pushed him aside: Jimmer Fredette was born to be a shooter. He is a team player. A leader.

What is next? It’s the Jimmer Fredette condundrum. One step foward, two steps back. Or, two steps forward, one step back. Or, three steps forward, no looking back.

photo via llananba