During Phoenix Suns media day last season, one NBA hopeful made his presence felt, not with imposing size or skill, but rather with words.
In a room that featured a two-time MVP, a seven-time All-Star, and a two-time dunk champion, it was a 26-year-old rookie with zero NBA experience and no contract to his name who carried a confidence head and shoulders above his resume.
“When I’m on the court, I feel like I’m the best player,” Zabian Dowdell said with pure passion. “I feel that strongly about my game. I have all the confidence in the world. I just feel like I’m the best player when I’m out there.”
At the time, Zabian Dowdell hadn’t accomplished his basketball dream – breaking into the NBA. The Virginia Tech product went undrafted in 2007 after a solid career with the Hokies, and never got past training camp and the D-League, leading to stints all over the globe.
Even last season Dowdell didn’t get the nod right after training camp, as the Suns opted for the younger Matt Janning instead of the basketball journeyman.
But Dowdell kept that confidence overflowing and after Janning was released and Goran Dragic eventually went down with an injury, Dowdell got his chance on Jan. 9. He signed back-to-back 10-day contracts and finally came aboard for the remainder of the season after proving to Alvin Gentry that he’d never play scared.
After years and years of working tirelessly toward his goal, Dowdell finally accomplished what he set out to do ever since he wrote a letter to himself at age 16 that promised he would make it to the NBA.
“To be able to confirm what I believed all along that I could get out there and play with those guys, that was the biggest thing for me,” Dowdell said in a recent phone interview with ValleyoftheSuns. “It was everything I expected and even more.”
Dowdell had his ups and downs and made it clear he needed to improve upon his consistency and outside shooting, but for a player who didn’t even make it out of training camp and only started out on a 10-day contract, the combo guard clearly exceeded expectations.
He held up his end of the bargain when he was summoned backup duty, and even brought the Suns back down from 22 against the Rockets when he posted 11 points, five assists and four steals in his “best personal memory as a Sun.”
Now that he’s finally tasted success and reached the level of play he knew he was capable of when he made that profound statement at media day, Dowdell is more motivated than ever.
“It just made me hungrier to see that I could have success against guys you see on TV,” Dowdell said. “It just makes you hungrier to want to be a better player.”
Dowdell is out to prove himself in Phoenix yet again next season (if there is one). He’s signed to a non-guaranteed contract next season that takes him at least through training camp, but pending the lockout, Dowdell expects to be back in Phoenix after showing Gentry and his staff what he can do in limited time.
“I think I’ve shown them that I can play. I think they feel good about me,” Dowdell said. “If they put me out there I think they feel confident that I can get the job done. It’s one of those things where as a player I can’t afford to relax and become complacent.”
Dowdell is anything but complacent, staying “active and sharp” in Florida. He was working out in US Airways Center before the lockout hit and hoped to continue those workouts with Garret Siler and Grant Hill after the lockout but the sessions never worked out.
As Schwartz wrote after the season, the lockout negatively affects players like Dowdell arguably more than anyone in the league. He finally broke into the league but doesn’t have a long-term deal and still needs to prove what he can do to maintain a consistent NBA gig.
“It’s definitely an unfortunate time for the lockout to occur,” Dowdell said. “I’m just going to try my best to stay as sharp as possible and whatever happens with the lockout, if it ends in time for us to have a training camp and all of that good stuff, then I’ll be ready. If not I’ll be ready to do something else. I know I’ll be playing basketball this season whether it be in the NBA, in Europe, somewhere.”
Dowdell is no stranger to European basketball having played everywhere from Italy to Spain. Although it wouldn’t take him long to find suitors with his overseas connections, the confident lefty said he’s holding off because “I still think there will be a season and we won’t miss a game.”
For Dowdell’s sake, hopefully he’s right. Phoenix was a good fit for him last season and with an aging Steve Nash at the helm and an unclear Aaron Brooks situation soon to unfold, Dowdell has a chance to carve out a niche as an energetic, scrappy backup.
If there is a season and everything goes as planned, Phoenix is where Dowdell wants to continue that NBA journey that he all-but guaranteed last year at media day.
“I love it (in Phoenix),” he said. “I could definitely see myself playing in that system for years. But this is a business and you already know how that goes, but I would love to stay there as long as possible.”
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