Zabian Dowdell feels like he belongs in the NBA as he battles to finally live his basketball dream


PHOENIX — In advanced stats parlance, Zabian Dowdell is the definition of a replacement player, the type of guy always available in the D-League when a need arises.

But Dowdell did not play all throughout Europe, spend two stints with the Summer Suns and then turn down lucrative offers overseas to play in the D-League just to be available in the case of NBA emergencies.

He has stayed committed to his NBA dream because he genuinely feels he’s an NBA player.

“I was ready, man,” Dowdell said. “It’s been a long time, but I’ve been working, and I always felt like I belonged here, so that’s how I feel when I go out there.”

After years of toiling in Europe and in the D-League, Dowdell finally got his chance to prove he’s worthy of an NBA roster spot on Sunday against the New Orleans Hornets with Goran Dragic out with an injured left foot after stepping on glass Sunday morning, an injury that’s expected to sideline Dragic for at least two more games.

That will give the 26-year-old from Virginia Tech two more opportunities to impress the Suns’ brass as their backup point guard before they must make a decision on either signing him for the rest of the season or sending him back to basketball purgatory.

As Dowdell’s agent Karim Memarian recently said in a Sports Illustrated feature on Dowdell’s plot, “For Zabian, it’s NBA or bust.”

That means the next handful of days are the most important of his basketball life as Dowdell chases a dream that has driven him since he wrote to himself as a 16-year-old basketball player in Pahokee, Fla., “Nothing will stop me from making it to the NBA. I am on a mission.”

In the first step of this three-game tryout as Steve Nash’s caddy, Dowdell played some decent ball by scoring four points on 2-for-5 shooting to go with four assists and just one turnover in 13 minutes of work. The Suns lost six points in this time but such is usually life with Nash on the bench.

Dowdell capably ran the offense and made the right read with nifty passes on multiple occasions that either got the Suns a bucket or a good opportunity that they failed to convert.

Most importantly to head coach Alvin Gentry, Dowdell showed no fear.

“I thought he did great,” Gentry said. “He’s going to go out and play. He’s not going to be afraid; and he’ll play just like he would play in any other situation. I don’t know if he’ll play well or not, but I know he won’t play scared. As long as he plays hard and competes, and I thought the minutes he gave us tonight, I thought he did great. I thought he did great defensively, and I thought he came up with some great plays.”

That fearlessness was the most important aspect of Dowdell’s performance because the point guard was playing with everything to lose. After all he’s gone through to get to this point, being unable to attend training camp last season because of an injury and then being cut at the end of this year’s camp in favor of Matt Janning, this shot must mean everything to Dowdell.

In his very first game as an NBA rotation player, Dowdell faced off against Chris Paul, who’s only the starting point guard for the Western Conference All-Stars and arguably the greatest point guard in the league today (although that’s a debate for another day).

But Dowdell didn’t see this matchup as one between a fringe player trying to hang on to this shot at a roster spot against the game’s best, he just saw it as a battle against a guy he used to face in the ACC when Paul was a Deamon Deacon and Dowdell a Hokie.

“I played against him in college. I took it as a challenge, tried to get up in him a couple times,” Dowdell said. “He’s a good player, and as a player you always try to gauge yourself against players like that. It felt good going toe to toe with him.”

Instead of looking up to CP3 as a deity, Dowdell saw him just as a player to compare himself to, as if Paul is merely his contemporary.

That’s exactly the kind of attitude that can help Dowdell stick in the league, as he honest to goodness believes that he deserves to be playing against the Chris Pauls rather than the Curtis Stinsons of the basketball world.

Zabian Dowdell was brought in to be an emergency third point guard so the Suns don’t ever have to run Jared Dudley out there at the one again and to capably run the offense during practices that Steve Nash sits out. That means when Goran Dragic returns, Dowdell will once again be on the fringe of the rotation even if he makes it through this second 10-day contract.

For Dowdell, this second contract is the culmination of an incredibly long journey, yet it’s so fleeting that one bad week can send him back to the aforementioned basketball purgatory for eternity.

Dowdell has waited his entire life to live the dream he put to paper 10 years ago, and he’s not planning on packing his bags for Tulsa anytime soon.

“I felt right at home out there,” Dowdell said.