PHOENIX — The NBA is a league of opportunity and situation.
Look no further than former Blazer and current Sun Channing Frye to see how changing systems and going from a deep front line to one lacking depth can turn a guy averaging four points and two boards a game into one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA.
The league is all about roles and rotation, and when you don’t have a role in a rotation it might be hard for the rest of the world to know how good a player you are.
“If you look at Jarrett Jack’s numbers, if you look at Zach Randolph’s numbers, if you look at a lot of guys that went away from Portland they’ve been successful in other systems,” Frye said. “It’s just an opportunity that I have here to play.”
Just like how Channing appeared to be regressing last season by looking at his stat sheet, I think the same is happening to another player who just happened to go to St. Mary’s High School and the University of Arizona like Frye did. Yes, I’m talking about Jerryd Bayless.
Bayless has played through an uneven pair of seasons that have involved inconsistent playing time and inconsistent play on the floor. He exploded for 31 and seven in a big win at San Antonio in December that Brandon Roy missed, but he also went 13 straight games without scoring in double figures before the season finale in which Portland was barely trying to win.
But the playoffs are a time when an up-and-down sophomore can cement himself as a player in this league, and with Roy missing the series the Blazers certainly could use the kind of scoring punch Bayless can provide off the bench.
“I think it’s definitely more opportunity,” Bayless said. “Brandon’s out. If it happens it happens, I’m just trying to get a win right now.”
Portland hasn’t always been a good fit for Bayless because he started the year as the third-string point guard behind Andre Miller and Steve Blake after playing behind Blake and Sergio Rodriguez last season. Then there’s Roy, who often handles the ball from the shooting guard spot, making the need for a scoring point guard not as great as it would be on other teams.
But now Blake has been traded and Roy is hurt, so Suns head coach Alvin Gentry named Bayless and starting shooting guard Rudy Fernandez as the two biggest X-factors in Roy’s absence.
The Suns know firsthand what Bayless can do because the UA product scored a then-career-high 29 points in a December win over Phoenix. Jerryd was especially clutch in the fourth, combining with Roy for 29 of Portland’s 35 in the quarter, dicing the Suns with a variety of jumpers and forays to the rim.
“I was able to play free,” Bayless said. “We only had so many guys so I knew I was going to play a certain amount. Being able to play free and knowing you’re going to play is definitely helpful, but that was the main thing that helped. It worked.”
In that answer I had visions of Year 1. It sounds as if Bayless is always looking over at the bench when he makes a mistake as Dragic did with Terry Porter, ready to come out if he’s not perfect. That game was the exception, but we can only wonder what Bayless might do on a team that isn’t so deep at guard that would allow him to just play.
This series will be a homecoming for Bayless, who lived in Phoenix since he was in pre-Kindergarten and dominated the prep hoops scene. Bayless is the all-time leader in career scoring average among Arizona preps (28.3 ppg), and he was a four-time all-state selection, a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year and a McDonald’s All-American.
In short, he’s in the conversation of greatest Arizona high school player ever with Mike Bibby, so although Bayless wasn’t a Suns fan as a kid you know that playing in his hometown against a team he often watched growing up has to be special.
Then Bayless went to Arizona and endured the season from Hell from a team perspective although he thrived individually. Bayless averaged a team-best 19.7 points per game for a squad that featured future pros Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill, but the team fizzled out in the first round in the 8-9 game against West Virginia during a year in which long-time head coach Lute Olson took a strange leave of absence, leaving the team to noted taskmaster Kevin O’Neill.
Instead of playing Olson’s free-flowing system the squad utilized pro-style sets and played strict man-to-man defense, and by the end of the year the players were just glad they didn’t have to deal with O’Neill anymore.
“As much as people try to say the things about KO (O’Neill) that they did say, everything we did run was pretty much the same stuff they run in the NBA,” said Bayless, who added that the Blazers run many of the sets that O’Neill used. “I have a good relationship with KO now. It was definitely a tough year because of all the drama that was going on with coach Olson and the whole situation.”
If Bayless had stayed in school, he would have just wrapped up his junior season and likely would have been the best player in the Pac-10 last year instead of sitting on the Blazers’ bench and receiving sporadic playing time.
Bayless said he thinks about that sometimes, but right now he’s just trying to make the best of his situation on a loaded (at full strength) Blazers team.
“It definitely hasn’t been easy,” Bayless said. “I do miss U of A, but I’m here, so I’m going to make the best of this whole situation. Right now my mind-set is to win this series.”
That’s all that the Phoenix native can do for now, but if things never click for Bayless in Portland all he has to do is look at his fellow Knight and Wildcat Frye to know that one day he will get an opportunity in an NBA system right for him.
Pendergraph returns to college town
In the name of equality to all the Sun Devils out there, ASU star Jeff Pendergraph will also be returning to Phoenix, and he had plans to visit campus and maybe even help out with a recruit on his visit on Saturday.
Pendergraph, however, likely won’t play as crucial of a role as Bayless might. The rookie has played sparingly since Portland acquired Marcus Camby aside from a 23-point performance in the season finale against Golden State when many vets rested. Pendergraph said he knows he likely won’t have another game like that until Summer League, but he’s excited for the playoffs nonetheless.
“Now it’s like NCAA March Madness times 1000, so that’s really cool,” Pendergraph said.