O.J. Mayo Wants a New Handle: PG

07.19.10 7 years ago 32 Comments

O.J. Mayo (photo. John Sturdy)

2010, the age of insecurity.

All this posturing going on can’t kick the fact that for everyone out there dropping how much “swag” they have, in reality, they probably don’t have much at all. In the NBA, it’s more apparent than ever. People don’t want to be coached and aren’t willing to have their faults uncovered in front of the world.

Too much ass-kissing.

Circumstances aside, the last person who should be clamoring for some offseason coaching is O.J. Mayo. He was the most hyped high school player since LeBron James. He was Mr. Basketball of Ohio as a sophomore. He was the No. 1-ranked player in his class since potty-training, shitting out hoop records. If anyone should be a product of this environment we’ve helped to fester, it should be Mayo. Arrogant. Self-promoting. Egotistical and angry.


Over the past week, O.J. Mayo spent time with the Memphis Grizzlies’ “jayvee” team in Las Vegas. He’s trying to play point guard. Why would a proven scorer, perhaps a future All-Star at the NBA level, a kid who has had everything thrown his way since before he could drive, be playing in summer league with guys so anonymous that NBA.com didn’t bother to give them player bios?

One of the best shooters in the League, Mayo has twice averaged over 17 points a game. He combines a smooth style — feathery mid-range floaters and buttery set shots — with the hunger of someone yearning to be recognized as one of the best.

Kobe once said, “I think the world of (Mayo).” The two-time reigning Finals MVP clamored over the then-rookie’s overall skill level, his triple threat of passing, dribbling and shooting.

Yet, over two games in Vegas last week, Mayo piled up 15 turnovers next to just six assists. He did drop 20 points in his first outing against Atlanta while shooting 8-for-13 from the field. But that was expected. I bet Juice could get 20 in Timbs.

He mishandled the ball in the half-court and struggled finding angles to get it into the post. He often broke sets down by pushing the ball up the wing, regularly ceding control to a teammate without any structure in the offense. Mayo also continued the rather alarming habit of forcing impossible passes in congestion. Basically, the only thing lead-guard worthy out of his performance was the letters scribbled next to his name in the box score: PG.

Last week, I met up with newly-minted $82 million man Rudy Gay at a Nike event in New York City. When we got to talking about his plans for the summer and the progress he hopes to see in his Memphis team, Gay volunteered his own praise of Mayo’s decision.

While there were rumors over the past year or so of the two butting heads on offense, Gay was obviously impressed with what his teammate was doing.

“I commend him for going out there and trying to show people that he can do different things out there on the court,” Gay told me.

Gay understood exactly the point of this whole summer retreat: to get better. At 6-4 with just a 6-6 wingspan (very average for NBA standards), Mayo will always be undersized at the two. He realized that last season.

A Feb. 26 game against Charlotte started like any other. Mayo scored his team’s first nine points and had that velvety jumper flowing, looking every bit like the mini-Kobe people have been labeling him since his senior year of high school. But he cashed in just five the rest of the way and was bullied down the stretch by the Bobcats 6-8 two-guard Stephen Jackson in Memphis’ 93-89 loss.

Clearly humbled, Mayo told the Memphis Commercial Appeal, “Stephen Jackson was backing me down and hitting jump shots. For the first time in my entire life I had to sit down at the end of a game because I couldn’t guard my man. From that day on, I was like, ‘I have to get better at ball handling and being a lead guard.’ There may be a ceiling for me at shooting guard. Every night I’m battling guys 6-6, 6-7 and it’s kind of tough for me.”

In high school, Mayo was tabbed as a future lead guard, a guy who had everything you wanted out of that position, except with a few added inches of height, some extra muscle and one of the wettest jumpers on the planet. People saw many of the same ball skills as Chauncey Billups.

But in two years at the professional level, Mayo has averaged a paltry 3.1 assists per game (and that’s after he had a negative assist/turnover ratio in college). Despite relying on middling guards like Mike Conley and Kyle Lowry the last two years, no one in Memphis trusted Mayo enough to give him the ball. For the most part — especially last year when he became the team’s third option on offense — the former USC Trojan sat in the corner, receiver of kick-outs and bailouts. It was a far cry from what experts envisioned from him when he was a teenager. Back then he was a supernova. Now? I don’t even want to say.

The team’s lack of a creator showed. In both of Mayo’s years with the Grizzlies, they finished last in the entire NBA in assist ratio (the percentage of possessions that end with an assist). They also haven’t cracked the top 20 in team true shooting percentage either. What that means is that despite having Mayo, Gay, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph as their foundation, Memphis is a terrible offensive team.

And in Las Vegas this year, Mayo supplied enough turnovers to make sure nobody was forgetting that. Still, Gay didn’t mind the mishandles.

“Everybody knows that (O.J.) is a scorer,” Gay pointed out. “He’s been a scorer for his whole life. For him to go out there and show that he can do different things — he can dish, he can set people up — that will only help him.”

Grizzlies’ assistant Damon Stoudamire, who played point guard for 13 seasons in the NBA, thought Mayo was moving too fast. He wanted him to see things before they transpired and dictate to his teammates what must happen. Stoudamire saw none of that in Las Vegas.

A tweak doesn’t always create immediate benefits and Memphis is hoping Mayo will eventually learn the spot that can be the most beneficial to him and to the team. Mayo as a two is nice. Juice as a one is …

“It’s just like any other player,” Gay confirmed. “When somebody different is on the court, you have to adjust. When OJ is playing the point, we are going to have to find ways to free him up. And he will have to figure out when it is time for him to score.”

Perhaps we should have all seen this approach coming. At the beginning of last season, Mayo told the media he was willing to scale back his scoring if it meant more wins. The Grizzlies had Gay, who was in a contract year, determined to prove his worth as a close-to-max-deal player. They had brought in the perennial high-scoring big man, Randolph, during the offseason. Someone had to take a step back and Mayo conceded, hardly the work of a selfish, shot-seeking ball hog.

“I’m about doing what it takes to help this team win,” Mayo assured the Memphis Commercial Appeal in April.

So the verdict is clear: Mayo isn’t what his rep painted him to be.

Still, the question remains. The best big point guard prospect since Jason Kidd hasn’t proven to be much of a playmaker at all, hasn’t been much of a PG.

But, he’s trying.

“I know my every move was dissected,” Mayo said. “But I’m not going to stop until I get it. I’m going to get it.”

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