A couple years ago, I covered a Knicks/Celtics game at MSG, back when the Celtics still stank and the Knicks were bad and boring. One of the story lines that night was the return of Boston PG Sebastian Telfair to New York, and his head-to-head matchup with big cousin Stephon Marbury.
In just his third pro season and having just turned drinking age a few months prior, Bassy was an intriguing player at the time, still seen as a kid with a lot of time to develop into a star if he found the right situation. Throw in the NYC factor, and there were a lot more reporters and cameras at Telfair’s locker than you’d expect for a 21-year-old on a miserable team who was putting up pedestrian numbers. In short, he was still relevant.
So, what is Sebastian Telfair today? At 23, he is again the starting point guard on a miserable team and he’s putting up pedestrian numbers (8.8 ppg, 4.5 apg); only now it’s in Minnesota, far from big-market Boston. In his fifth season out of high school, it’s now safe to give Telfair’s game and his career a grown-up analysis. He’s been in the League long enough and has enough games under his belt to no longer warrant the kid gloves.
While Telfair doesn’t generate much mainstream discussion anymore — if ESPN ran another of their contests, he’d be less “Now” than Mehmet Okur — when you do bring Bassy’s name up in basketball circles, he is still a polarizing figure among those who followed him since high school.
In the Dime office yesterday, it was split into two factions:
On one side was me, saying Bassy is only a considered a “bust” because of the (too lofty) expectations put on him by the media and, as a result, the public. His jumper is still broke (35% FG, 32% 3PA this year), and he’s far from a lock-down defender, but overall, he’s really not that bad, and along the way has turned in some good games against top competition: Telfair dropped 30 points (six threes) and eight assists on Miami a couple weeks ago in a Wolves win, then a couple games later gave the Lakers 20 and five assists in a loss; he went for 20 points and eight dimes in a win over the Knicks; had 15 and six against Derrick Rose in a win; and in January put together back-to-back games against Deron Williams and Chris Paul where he averaged 13.5 points and 8.5 assists as Minnesota split a pair.
On the other side of the Bassy argument was basically everybody else in the office, who modified that “bust” status to “Horrific Bust,” pointing out that Telfair is already on his third team in five years, and collectively questioned whether he’d even make the roster on most NBA teams.
Truth is, even when you take away the Lottery selection and the “Next great NYC point guard” hype, Telfair is still behind in his development. Given his physical talent and court instincts, at 23 he was at least supposed to be what Derrick Rose is right now, or at least be better than Mario Chalmers.
It has been known to take some PG’s longer to “get it” than players at other positions (see: Billups, Chauncey), but even then, there’s really nothing to indicate that Bassy will ever reach an All-Star level. But I think it’s going too far to say he stinks or that he’s barely an NBA player. While it’s true that he could probably only start for 3-4 NBA teams max right now (Minnesota, Sacramento, Memphis, maybe Washington), Telfair is at least a solid #2 for a lot of teams.
I do admit I have a bias here. Because I read Ian O’Connor’s book The Jump (and its natural predecessor, Darcy Frey’s The Last Shot), because I saw Through the Fire, because I personally became familiar with the Coney Island community that raised Telfair via my work with Lincoln H.S. heir Lance Stephenson, I want Telfair to make it and become the star Brooklyn wants him to be.
I still think the best move that never happened for Telfair was back when the Blazers traded him and he didn’t end up in New Jersey. That would have been the ideal situation for the younger Telfair: learning under Jason Kidd, staying close to his NYC comfort zone, no pressure to challenge for a starting job. Kidd would be on his way out soon enough, and Bassy would have basically been in the same shoes Devin Harris was in his first half-season with the Nets; taking over the starting job in a system he’d learned from a Hall of Fame tutor, with Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson and a coach who likes to run (Lawrence Frank) all on his side.
Had that happened, Sebastian Telfair would have had a chance to live up to the hype. Because it didn’t, it’s going to take a lot for him to claw his way out of his current place, one that rests between average and irrelevant.