The Curious Career Of Shavlik Randolph

If you knew me personally, you’d know that I’m not really a black and white kind of guy. I always see shades of gray. Maybe it’s my scientific background, but if a future event has even a slight possibility, I consider that a real possibility and I won’t declare any other outcome as absolute. That’s why I could never be one of those shouting heads on TV who proclaims that Team A HAS NO WAY to win on Sunday or that IT’S 110% CERTAIN THAT TEAM B will win the championship. I know better than that. Human nature, sports in particular, is not predictable. Stuff happens, and often it’s stuff that no one expected.
Another thing you’d know about me is that I like to be funny. And gray areas are rarely funny. So, in order to make a joke, sometimes I have to skip all of the rationalization about why something might happen or not, and just take a stance.
Why am I writing this? It’s because of Shavlik Randolph. Or rather it’s because of what I wrote about Shav way back when he announced that he would be testing the NBA draft and the reactions to that article. In that article, I was going for a laugh or two. I took the (obvious) stance that Randolph was crazy and that there was no way he would make the NBA. I mean, the guy had a 6 points per game career scoring average! It was an easy mark and I went for it. I’m not Richard Pryor; I have to go for the chippies.

But even as I wrote it, I knew that he had a chance. It was a slight chance, but it existed. The reason? One, he’s 6’11”. Being nearly seven-feet tall always gives you a chance in the League. Second, he’s pretty agile for a big man. Third, Randolph is very skilled, particularly for a guy his height. All those hours working out in a gym alone gave him a very nice offensive game, and one talent the NBA always rewards is big men who can hit jumpers. Even if you can’t move (see Arvydas Sabonis), if you can step away from the basket and hit jumpers, you can help your team because that means you can pull the Shaqs, Duncans and Garnetts away from the hoop to defend you.
Shavlik has those tools, so he had a shot.
Another factor that I knew about but forgot to factor in at the time was the change in NBA rules that allow three more players on the bench. That’s a huge change, especially for young talents and big white stiffs who often gather dust at the end of NBA benches. Three more players per team is a 25% increase in the number of NBA players! For some reason, you never heard anyone bring that up when discussing why the minimum age limit was racist, but that’s a discussion for another time.
So anyway, my point is that I always knew that Randolph had an outside shot, but I didn’t really make that clear. Instead I wrote “short of a miracle, he’s never going to play a minute in the NBA.”
By now, we all now that “a miracle” happened. Shavlik not only made an NBA team, but he’s starting to get significant minutes. He’s gotten at least fourteen minutes of run in three straight games and in five of seven games. If you read through the long and interesting comments left about my original article, you’ll find someone claiming to be 76ers GM Billy King saying that Randolph will be getting more playing time soon.
So what happened? How could this guy go from high school superstar to college bust to quality NBA reserve?
First, let’s take a look at his Duke career. I think his failure (OK, relative failure) came about from three separate but related issues: injuries, pressure and loss of confidence. In Shav’s freshman year, he played fairly well, but had several foot and ankle problems that limited his minutes late in the year. In his sophomore year, the problems continued and culminated in his having surgery on his hip after the season. It turned out that he’d been playing with the hip injury since high school, and it was that problem and Randolph’s attempts to compensate that had caused his foot problems. Finally healthy, his junior year should have been his breakout season, but that didn’t happen. He developed mono early on and never really recovered. So Shavlik was never really at 100% for his entire Duke career, and in fact, hadn’t been fully healthy since his junior year of high school when he was considered the #1 prospect in the country (he fell into the 30s after his senior season).
As for pressure, consider what Randolph brought with him to Duke: he was the best local player in years, decades maybe. He was the grandson and namesake of NC State great Ronnie Shavlik, one of the ACC’s early titans. Everyone expected Shavlik to become the next Christian Laettner and lead Duke to multiple titles. Being so close to home meant that his every move (even his mother cutting up his steak) was chronicled on a nearly daily basis. That’s a lot of burden for a young kid. He might have been better off going away to a school in a different conference where the past and his potential wouldn’t have weighed on him quite so heavily.
Now consider the combination of those first two points. Randolph was supposed to be the best player in the country, a guy who would honor his family’s tradition and lead Duke to greatness. When he shows up at Duke though, he’s not at 100%. He’s pretty agile for a big man, but not so much that he could afford to lose some quickness. Along with Randolph, Duke welcomes in J.J. Redick, who becomes an immediate hit and Shelden Williams, who outplays Randolph from day one. So he went from being the top guy in the country to not even being the best freshman big man on his college team. That had to hurt. At the same time, Coach K tried to teach Randolph a post game that never really seemed to take. Add it all up and you get what I saw on the court – a player who just wasn’t very confident. He was thinking instead of reacting and therefore never got to the right spot at the right time. I don’t care how good you are, at the highest level of college ball, you have to be either quick or very strong and Randolph was neither.
When he left Duke and ended up at the Sixers, all of those problems went away. Expectations? Poof. Gone. Folks like me were laughing and saying that he’d never make the league. Instead he could just focus on doing the basic things he knew that he could do, like rebounding and shooting. He didn’t need to be a star and no one expected him to be. Most Philly fans probably had no idea who he was. They figured he was another European big man stiff with a funny name.
But this time, Shav was healthy (well, after that broken foot healed). All those years of working on his skills could finally pay off. He got a few minutes here and there, late in games where results really didn’t matter much. He was productive in those minutes, which again boosted his confidence and now he’s emerging as a legitimate player for the Sixers.
It’s been an amazing turn of events. I can’t think of another player who’s had quite a ride. There have been other guys (not many) who didn’t shine in college who made the NBA. Like Shavlik, most of those guys were big men who just couldn’t adjust to the college game, but because of their size, got another shot at the highest level and for some reason, things finally clicked. What makes his story so unique though is that he wasn’t just a guy who didn’t perform in college, he was a guy who bombed in college. He was a high school stud who was supposed to be a star and failed. He’s the first riches to rags to riches story I can remember.
I hope he keeps it up.
An interesting side note to the Shavlik story is the popularity of that article I wrote about him, or rather the popularity of the comments. Several different Randolph supporters, some friends from high school, have posted intermittently there as his saga has gone on. You can read the whole thread to see the changes in attitudes over time as he made more and more progress. That my article, one of hundreds on Shavlik, became such a central point for discussion is kind of bizarre. Google has consistently sent traffic there from folks searching on his name. Right now, if you Google on “Shavlik Randolph,” it’s the #2 result!
The combination of Shav’s recent success and that inexplicable Google-love, my article has started to be linked to by several different Sixers message boards and even Business Week. In fact, one poster in the thread identified himself as Sixers GM Billy King. I can’t say for certain if it really is him, but the IP address he came from and the way he posted certainly made it appear to be legit. In fact, “B. King” even predicted that Randolph would be getting more minutes from Coach Cheeks and sure enough, that night Shav played a career-high 19 minutes, grabbing 10 boards and scoring 8 points. He earned 22 minutes a few nights later.

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