November 16, 2010

Steve Solloway: D-Leaguers scrapping for spots

By Steve Solloway ssolloway@pressherald.com
Columnist

AUGUSTA - He ran the court with little hesitation, hiding the sore hamstring that could get really angry and end his night too early. "I'm playing," said Lawrence Westbrook before the opening tap. "I'll be on the floor even if it kills me."

click image to enlarge

Maine's Paul Harris grabs at the ball in front of Springfield's Michael Williams during a preseason game Monday night in Augusta. Maine won 102-88.

Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

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He was so serious, you wanted to make sure dying was simply a figure of speech. "I'm a basketball player. I don't do anything else."

The Maine Red Claws travelled up the turnpike Monday to play the Springfield Armor at the Augusta Civic Center. It was Maine's first and only exhibition game, coming four days after preseason camp began.

Fifteen players started the camp. Armon Bassett and James Lewis were thanked for their efforts and let go Sunday. The team will carry 10 players when the NBA Development League season opens Friday.

Everyone can do the math, especially Westbrook, who was an honor student back at his high school in Chandler, Ariz. That was when he led the country in scoring, averaging 41.0 points a game. He knows how to play.

"I can't show what I can do if I'm on the bench. I just hope I showed them something before I got hurt."

Them is Austin Ainge, the Red Claws' head coach, and Jon Jennings, the team president and general manager. They invited many more guards than big men to camp, wanting to see who would succeed in this hot-house environment of two-a-day practices and never-ending scrutiny.

Bassett had pre-draft workouts with six NBA teams and was working for a chance to play in the Red Claws backcourt. Lewis also played guard, was a top 3-point shooter and may have been the longest of the longshots. Not a lot of hoop junkies are familiar with his former team, the Fresno Pacific Sunbirds of the Golden Coast Athletic Conference. That's NAIA, not NCAA.

Baseball players, including minor leaguers, spend what seems an eternity in spring training. Guys fighting for jobs in the NFL can get a month of exhibition games. NBA Development League hopefuls get about a week. Be good or be gone.

"This is what I prepared for" said Tujaun Porter, who is listed at 5-foot-6, but may actually be an inch taller. He was never big, not even in grade school. "I've had to work all my life. This isn't new.

"People always say, 'Oh, he's small.' I've got do everything a small guy does and try to do what a big guy does."

Porter was the Pac-10 Tournament MVP in 2007 playing for Oregon, the only Division I school that offered him a scholarship. He's hanging on to another chance. He got half the playing time of JaJuan Smith and Jamar Smith, Monday night's starting guards. Porter took four shots and didn't connect. He had an assist.

Westbrook played five minutes in the first half. His hamstring was tight but didn't pop. In the second half he ignored it and it loosened slightly, allowing him more movement.

Do or die is so melodramatic but in Westbrook's mind that's exactly what it was. He played 14 minutes and scored 13 points on 6 of 9 shooting from the floor. He hit one of two 3-pointers. He showed presence. Some of his shots were whispers going through the net.

He thought he made the most of his time. He thanked his teammates. "They worked for me. I was working for them."

He is a cousin to Brian Westbrook, the selfless running back who used to take handoffs from Donovan McNabb when both played for the Philadelphia Eagles. Another cousin is Byron McNabb, a Washington cornerback.

Lawrence Westbrook knows most of all: his pedigree means nothing. He has to earn his spot on the Red Claws' roster.

"He shot the ball well when he was in there," said Ainge after the 102-88 win. "(All the guard candidates) played well. It's going to break my heart to let any of them go."

Earlier, Westbrook had let a ghost of a grin escape. If he has to hobble when Ainge isn't looking, he'll play.

"This is my livelihood," said Porter. "We're all fighting for jobs.

 

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

 

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