The NBA Happened to Jonny Flynn

(Part I of a three part series on failed lottery picks)

In a game that tested the theory of endurance and fatigue, Jonny Flynn hardly seemed human. He played 67 minutes, the equivalent of 5 NBA quarters plus 7 minutes. He lasted through six overtimes and almost four hours of basketball. He didn’t miss a free throw and recorded 11 assists. In the fourth overtime of the quarterfinal Big East tournament game against UConn he told Huskies guard A.J.Price, “we need this game more than you do.” UConn was ranked 3rd in the country, Syracuse 20th. Flynn survived it all, 34 points of pick and roll, plus the notorious ‘Cuse zone defense. All these years later, it is still one of the greatest games in Big East Tournament history. Six overtimes. 244 points. 211 shots taken. 93 free throws. 8 players fouled out. Flynn was exhilarated, albeit exhausted, at the final buzzer and by the win. Because there were more games to play he tried to temper his emotions.

Flynn would play 45 minutes the next game against West Virginia and drop a cool 15 points, dishing out 9 assists. Despite losing in the championship game, Jonny Flynn was the Big East Tournamnet MVP, only the fourth player from the losing team granted such an honor.

In the NCAA tournament, Flynn engineered a Sweet Sixteen berth and when his tournament run ended, he declared for the NBA, evaluated as a lottery pick, his stock rising from his game against UConn.

Draft Express said this about him:

Flynn is one of the most explosive point guards in this draft, right in the same class as Brandon Jennings and Ty Lawson. His shiftiness in the open floor and pure speed getting up and down the court was very impressive, as were his ball-handling skills. It was great to see what a natural leader Flynn is among his cohorts. He looked incredibly focused and professional at all times and really appears to have the ideal personality you look for at his position, as he is extremely engaging and charismatic. From a skill standpoint, Flynn shot the ball just OK. His mechanics are fine and there doesn’t seem to be anything broke about his shot but he didn’t seem to be all that consistent with the jumper.

Jonny Flynn did everything right in the months leading up to the draft. He established himself in the conference and NCAA tournament, reversing a narrative about small guards. Against top tier talent, he demonstrated his ability to run pick and roll, get to the rim, drive his team, and even dunk on bigger guards. His leadership appeared in line with others at his position.

It was good being Johnny Flynn in April 2009. He hired an agent and anxiously waited for his dream to come true, that magical night in the Garden, the same place, he put his name on the map. However, his age and inexperience required him to be unaware of the details, ignorant even. Success in the NBA is as much about luck, what franchise selects you, then it is about what you can do while you are there. Organizations create culture, sustain winning, or legitimize losing. But Jonny Flynn knew nothing of that, of how the NBA really works, of who thrives and who fails, of how fragile the draft would be in April 2009 when he declared.

The draft doesn’t tell the entire story. It doesn’t predict the future. Often it throws young men into a lions den. The lions are heartless. Sometimes they eat their own.

Two years before Jonny Flynn was a lottery pick, the Minnesota Timberwolves traded their franchise player Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics for Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes and draft picks. Kevin Garnett, drafted in 1995, was the inaugural high school to the pros player and paved the way for Kobe Bryant in 1996 and Tracy McGrady in 1997. Garnett had potential, was a freakish athlete, came out the gates rebounding, was passionate with a coal miners work ethic and loved the game. His love translated into development and wins for the young Wolves. His rookie year the Wolves won 26 games; the next year 40 games. Five seasons later they were a 50 win team. Garnett was league MVP and played in a conference final but he was in the same orbit as Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. The Timberwolves struggled to beat them and the Spurs. In 2007, when Kevin Garnett was 31 years old, the Wolves decided to turn the page. Garnett wanted out and the team was going south, 65 wins in two years. The Wolves had to rebuild.

Without Garnett, the Wolves were pretty miserable. They won 22 games in 2007-08. In 2008, they drafted Kevin Love. Coached by Randy Wittman, they won 24 games in Love’s rookie year. Al Jefferson was the leading scorer, followed by Randy Foye and Ryan Gomes. The Wolves were desperate for a point guard and scoring help. They were 29th in field goal percentage, 24th in three point percentage, 28th in steals, 28th in blocks, they couldn’t score, they couldn’t stop scoring. They were miserable all around.

In the 2009 draft, David Khan, the mediocre President of Basketball Operations for the Timberwolves, was confused at what need he wanted to address first. He drafted Ricky Rubio at 5. He drafted Jonny Flynn at 6. Two point guards back to back when he needed scoring help and rim help. Eight years later, it still makes no sense. Rubio was an overseas player with question marks and Flynn was undersized. And the Timberwolves had no coach.

If Khan indeed had a plan, this would have been a wise one: stockpile now, profit later. Stash Rubio in Europe and play Flynn immediately. When Rubio was ready, Flynn would be trade bait. But Khan, wasn’t that deep of a thinker. He thought Flynn as a short point and Rubio as an elite passer could play in the same backcourt. When he compared the two to Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe- well that said everything you needed to know about David Khan’s lunacy.

Jonny Flynn wasn’t a Rubio placeholder who developed his game so the Wolves could flip him for talent. There was no flipping Jonny Flynn.

“Once in the NBA, you get marked as damaged goods, it’s like a big X is on your forehead and nobody wants to deal with you.” (Johnny Flynn).

The lucky coaches are the ones who inherit young players who want to be coached, who don’t just take direction but can absorb criticism and who have a desire to learn. They know that they don’t know.

But the unlucky coaches inherit the Jonny Flynns. Headstrong. Stubborn. Desperate. A life of being passed over and second guessed create a certain liturgy: they have something to prove within their tough core and damn whoever gets in their way.

In his first head coaching job, Kurt Rambis, a Phil Jackson disciple, installed pieces of the triangle offense but history proves the triangle offense with younger players is not worth the trouble. It goes against everything they have been taught so far. Young players are learning the game; even Picasso had to start with pencil. The triangle’s structure trended difficult or easy depending on the player and what they had been exposed to.

Syracuse’s heavy pick and role offense was the triangle’s antithesis. Jonny Flynn was a ball dominant guard. The triangle demanded the guard give up the ball. Flynn struggled, but in a twist of fate, he won the job as starter. And that’s when the trouble really began.

Flynn was ambitious and single minded. He wanted to make the game his, take it all on himself, be iso guy. He tried to break down double teams, he ignored wings who were open. He forgot this wasn’t college. He was full speed ahead, 95 miles an hour. He scored 28 points against Utah , a buzzer beater game.  He dropped 29.points vs. Philly. But all was not well.

A hallmark of rookie lottery picks is they lack patience. They want it all now. Success now. Wins now. Excellence now. Even the greatest players, save LeBron James and Magic Johnson, had to learn to let the game come to them, to think it into existence.

While Flynn was trying too hard to prove a point, Steph Curry, Brandon Jennings and Ty Lawson were playing the right way. Less is more. Include your teammates. Flynn had nice numbers for a rookie: 13.5 points, 4.4 assists. But critics talked about his defense, even as it is rare the rookie who can defend. The problem with Flynn at 6-0 is that he reinforced what the skeptics thought about Flynn: who can he stop? Who will he listen to?

Still, his rookie year wasn’t one of second guessing- we made a mistake-until bad luck hit. It changed just about everything.

His hip gave out. Torn labrum.Sugery in the offseason. When the season started, it got worse, the pain, the insecurity, the regression. David Khan, under pressure because he was the brain surgeon who  drafted two guards, put the screws to Rambis for more Flynn playing time. Rambis could tell Flynn just wasn’t the same. The injury and operation changed him. He was different. Khan was under the impression that playing more meant getting better when playing more meant getting worse. Flynn’s numbers plummeted, not even six points a game. And Rubio was coming over. Now Flynn was in no-mans land. He had to look over his shoulder.

“You know that you’re on a two year lease, or whenever [Rubio] says he’s ready to come over. You know your time is limited.”

In the spring of 2011, during the second round of the playoffs, of which the Wolves would not appear having won 15 games, Jonny Flynn was traded to Houston. The Wolves gave up on him and they would list his stubbornness with the ball, and wanting things his way, and not being coachable, and having a bad attitude and his missing in action defense as the reason why. But the truth? Jonny Flynn couldn’t be Jonny Flynn. Every player has an identity; when that is gone the career trickles down. Flynn lost his ability to get past defenders to the rim. His quickness made him special. Now he was ordinary.

The NBA throws away the ordinary.

No one prepares you for the hard part, no one says you may fail. No one outside of haters and critics are willing to be the pin in the balloon that squeezes all the air out of a dream. It was not in Jonny Flynn’s oribt to pull all of the moving pieces that encompass a NBA career together as one abstract thing. Losing. Injury. Criticism. Missed Games. After awhile the money comes in a distant second to the performance and Jonny Flynn’s second year in the NBA was a hellacious tour that nearly broke him. The game, the love, was now the business, the profession. Flynn was traded by Houston to Portland. He was waived in Detroit in training camp. He did the journeyman tour, a heartbreaking ride, the needle in a haystack because you are not really good anymore, you are not elite, and maybe Jonny Flynn never was, maybe he just had that one perfect tournament game- his best game happened at 20 when basketball was about having fun and not making money.

Once a NBA team was off the table, Flynn said he wanted to play somewhere in which English was spoken. “I want to hear what is going on around me.” He played in Australia and the hip was fine but he wasn’t the same. The adversity mingled with career chaos and having to prove over and over he was not what they said he was, that took away his desire.

There are NBA lifers, those that love the game so much they will player wherever, whenever, just beause it is in their blood. That isn’t Jonny Flynn.

Jonny Flynn left the NBA. But the NBA left him first.

In the 2009 draft, in the first round, six point guards were taken and are still playing: Ricky Rubio (#5), Steph Curry (#7), Brandon Jennings (#10), Jrue Holiday (#17), Jeff Teague (#18), Darren Collison (#21).

There is a thin line between nine year veteran and couldn’t make it a career. It’s a line Jonny Flynn crossed six years ago.

(Next:.Rashard McCants )