How Many Angles in a Vortex?
Note: I've got a new Sporting News column on the draft and gender, or something. This is longer.
When we were batting around draft ideas, Ty Keenan suggested that Mayo (and to some degree, Walker) were in the unique position of having their value peak, crash, and then rise up from the ashes in redemption—all before the draft prognostication even really got under way. We all decided that this was a function of undue hype, a circumstantial shutdown of the wild and woolly HS days. They had to come crashing down before, in this new climate, either could be viewed fairly. And then, the positives stood out again, the very ones that had set them on a pedestal in the first place. This is rational, folks, if a little awkward.
But the Michael Beasley's ride through the pre-draft rapids has been a lot less transparent. Even heading into the NCAAs, most people had Beasley penciled in at number one. Sure, there was the shady recruiting stuff, that WaPo piece, and rumors of a bad attitude and poor work ethic. Yet his one-and-done campaign had been such a freight-train of talent, his game so insistent, and so much of the negativity quelled by his on-court progress and words from the behind the scenes, that Beasleys PR problems seemed a thing of the past.
THEN: Rose's tournament ascendency, the "character issues" revisited as the draft became more real, and the lukewarmness of Paxson and Riley. Suddenly, Beasley was again a bad seed, this draft's problem child, Derrick Coleman redux just waiting to happen.
Or was he? In a blink, Beasley made his now-famous "I'm just a kid" comments. Was he dead serious all the time? No, but he'd probably grow out of that, and anyway, wasn't it his right to have a personality? This site and others rushed to brand him the new Gilbert Arenas. A vote for Beasley was a vote against staid hypocrisy, against buttondown orthodoxy in the way the NBA treats and represents its players. He became a martyr, fighting valiantly—if somewhat obliviously—to let players be themselves, to allow them to grow up in public instead of damaging them by expecting too much, too soon. Where Kwame Brown lay in a lifeless heap, Beasley planted a tree and saw it flower.
Stay with me here: The backlash was that, fine, Beasley's a kid, and a light-hearted one at that. And yet the truly elite teens—like, for instance, his best friend Kevin Durant—have that inner fire evident from the get-go. There are growing pains, even moments of weakness when the weight of expectations causes buckle. However, this line of work means working past these episodes, not glorifying them. Riley's disdain for Beasley's goofiness may have been an overreaction, and perhaps too moralistic. However, Riles does know basketball, and whether or not Bealey was defiling the game, it's safe to say that a failure to keep a straight face in the workout told us something about Beasley's disposition. Not a bad guy, but a space cadet, which sometimes seems like a liability in, say, Arenas.
At this point, there was talk of Beasley dropping to #3, or at least being dismissively traded by Miami (way to keep that chip shiny!). And thus, another trope of Arenas reared its head: The feisty underdog. Damn it, Michael Beasley would prove the likes of Riley wrong. He would tear up the league, and show the establishment how wrong it had been to ever doubt him. That's why you have ESPN picking him to blog his pre-draft experience, as well as make short videos brimming with both vitality and slightly unsettling unpredictability. The cult of Beasley was in full swing, and somehow, was as much about sympathy, a feeling for the warm and fuzzy victim who just wanted to have fun, as the bad-ass he portrayed on the court.
There was an imbalance there, and it's being corrected now. As of today, Michael Beasley isn't the king of the freaks any more, he's a misunderstood People's Champ who, when you get down to it, is all about wreaking havoc on the court. All the silly stuff, that's a most elevated version of swagger, pitched so high and relentless that resolves into a reckless calm. He's Amare, and maybe even The Wire's Snoop. Beasley will be on a vendatta from the second he hits the court, one without any of the eccentricity or elegance of Gil's. There will be dunks, and blocks, and threes over unsuspecting PFs. In terms of demonstrativeness, Garnett had better watch his back. He'll be a sneaker magnet, in part because he's a laugh riot (PREDICTION: If he went Nike, the ying/yang ads with him and Durant would be instant classics), but also because of the dynamism of his game.
Here's where we hit the inevitable question: Who is the real Michael Beasley? Of course I don't really know, and with someone who hasn't even hit the league yet, there's that much less to go on. But I suspect he's a combination of all these things, a series of contradictions—some imposed upon him, some stubborn and internal. It's a testament to his charisma, or maybe just the laziness of a media that has covered him like a political candidate, that he's been subject to this parade of monolithic characterizations. He's an icon waiting to happen, but paradoxically, we might have to settle for one with murky edges. In the two months since the lottery, Beasley's already gone through a Bowie-like parade of makeovers. That has to be reason to stop and reasses our mode of judgment.
What's more, there obviously a connection between these conflicting perception of him and his game. No one's labeling him a tweener, but Beasley's hardly getting the kind of "change the game" love that fell Durant's way. And yet, is he any less confounding, or versatile, a player? Sure, he can't play guard, but he's already more physical than KD will ever be. I don't want to say that the uncertainty his style causes has created a persona in flux, but it's pretty safe to say that the inverse is true. And that, if there is some chicken/egg at play here, it might be a long time before these questions get settled.