In anticipation of the 2007-08 Minnesota Timberwolves season, TWolvesBlog is counting down the days ’til tip-off by featuring some of our team’s players. These player articles were written by several of our forum members, as well as the site’s regular contributors. The first piece in this series was written by a Wolves fan all the way over in Germany, forum poster, Sanyarin. In it, he gives us a very detailed and thought-provoking look at one of the more enigmatic players on the Wolves roster, Sebastian Telfair.
A Personal Game Seven – Sebastian Telfair
Introduction: Only a Few Extremes
Only few players create such a controversy as Sebastian Telfair. Just mentioning his name can cause a storm of outrage. Only few players have risen so high to fall so deep in the appreciation of the average basketball fan. Only few players have created a similar hype without having played a single minute of professional or even college ball. Only few players have been showered with privileges, money and fame so early in their young lives. Only few players are considered a complete bust so early in their careers.
Love and hate – Opinions and Feelings on Telfair
A few years ago, there wasn’t even standing room on the Telfair bandwagon and both celebrities and commoners were collectively enamored with him. But love is one of the strongest feelings a human being is capable of and is quick to turn into hate and despair at even the slightest sign of betrayal. That could be why the first associations that usually come to mind when thinking of the name Sebastian Telfair usually include words like "disappointment", "broken promises" and "failure". And under normal circumstances, the human soul does not appreciate being disappointed. Our conscience despises the breaker of promises and nothing lashes back at you as painfully as frustrated love. This might be only one theory about why Sebastian Telfair might be considered one of the most disrespected and disdained persons with an NBA contract these days. Another theory emanates from the assumption that the human soul is generous and patronizing, begrudging no celebrity for their fame or any kind of luxury, as long as the celebs distinguish themselves from the usual commoner by even the weirdest talent. The second a celebrity, especially an athlete, stops to entertain, fails to deliver, stumbles, loses his nimbus and becomes one of us, the human soul is quick to unleash envy, hatred, and spitefulness on the fallen idol.
Of course, there is always the other kind of love, so deep and unconditional that it is blind to every objective criterion and ignores how unbearable and obnoxious the loved one becomes. And the more the object of love gets criticized by everybody else only strengthens the bond. That could by why there are still a lot of people who are so high on Telfair that they still consider him the second coming of Steve Nash and come down hard on everybody who says different; albeit he has done little to warrant their loyalty so far.
The author is far from suggesting that everybody who thinks of Sebastian Telfair as a bust is a disappointed, envious hater or that everyone who’s still a fan is a blind, gooey fool. He just wants to give an explanation on why it can be difficult to be objective on Telfair.
High Hopes – Telfair’s High School Career
Having hinted on feelings of disappointment and betrayal that burst from many souls once the name Sebastian Telfair is mentioned, it might serve us well to look on the hopes and promises that supposedly have been broken in a more detailed way.
Being born in Brooklyn, NY might not qualify as promising or guarantee someone a successful career in professional basketball, but being born the cousin of one of the NBA’s most prolific players in the person of the well known Stephon Marbury just might. Thoughts of another duo of cousins in the NBA, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, quickly come to mind. Nonetheless, many NBA followers, in and outside of Minnesota, would argue that the legacy of Stephon Marbury isn’t a thoroughly great one (although he was considered to be arguably NBA’s finest back then) and both Carter and McGrady have been known for spectacular actions and filled stat sheets, but not for being highly successful so far in their careers. So it is agreed that cousinship alone does not create any promise or bode for potential. But what bloodlines can not do in getting proven and wannabe NBA scouts salivating about some teenager’s supposed talent, a great High School career usually can do. Back in the day when Telfair was in High School and the fear of missing out on the next big thing was so big among the league’s GMs that they were quicker to pull the trigger on a supposed High School phenom than John Wayne on a tribe of Apaches, a good or even mediocre performance at the High School level could do that for him. Telfair had an incredible career, widely being considered the best point guard that ever played at Abraham Lincoln High, a school that saw players like Jamaal Tinsley, former Tarheel star Ed Cota, and the aforementioned Marbury come and go before him. Telfair did not only lead his team in points and assists, as well as to consecutive NY PSAL championships while showcasing incredible speed and great vision on and a tremendous work ethic off the court, his finest hour can arguably be considered the Federation Championship game in March 2003. Being forced out of the Game by a questionable fifth foul, he witnessed the game being won in overtime thanks to his teammate Antonio Pena, and when Telfair was supposed to receive MVP honors for that game, he declined and passed the award over to Pena in a great gesture and an early sign of maturity. No matter if someone believes that increasing the speed of the Titanic when iceberg warnings were coming in like three point shots by Antoine Walker was a better idea than to draft high schoolers to the NBA, with a résumé like this to show, it is easy to understand why scouts and GMs fell into ecstasy when they thought about adding a prospect like that to their roster today rather than tomorrow. And not only employees of NBA franchises were quick to buy a first class ticket for the Telfair bandwagon. Appearances on the front covers of SLAM and Sports Illustrated, lead and feature articles in ESPN The Magazine and others, a twelve million dollar endorsement deal with a German manufacturer of sporting goods, celebrities like Jay-Z crowding his High School games, being a focus of a full scale professional documentary movie…the list of early honors and privileges is longer than a weekend with your mother-in-law. And as the ultimate High School phenom, LeBron James, had silenced all doubters of the "preps to pros" movement by living up to the hype with an impressive rookie campaign a year prior, it came as no big surprise to the most spectators that his close buddy, Telfair, who reportedly had an oral agreement to join Rick Pitino at the University of Louisville, declared for the 2004 draft instead where he was drafted in the first round with the 13th pick by the Portland Trailblazers.
Rough ride to reality – Telfair’s first years in the NBA
Considering the reasonable hype that both the media and the so called experts have created around Telfair before he had played a single minute in professional basketball and the undisputed promise of immense potential Telfair has offered himself, it is tempting to call his NBA career a disappointment. And while many NBA observers believe that Telfair was a draft bust and a sure bet favorite to win the 2004 Ed O’Bannon Memorial Award, the author would like to ask you – the valued reader of this article – to take a minute to build or rethink his own opinion while pondering the following facts:
It is widely known throughout the NBA that a young point guard, even if he has one or two years of college play under his belt, usually needs a few years to reach his full potential playing in the fast-paced NBA. Some need more, some less time. But there should be consensus that drafting a point guard is always considered to be a "project" that needs time to develop. But (playing) time is not the only thing a young PG needs. A healthy environment and a team that suits his strengths can also do wonders in accelerating a point guard’s progress. Telfair was handed the keys (starting 26 and 30 games in his first two years) to a Trailblazers team that has no resemblance to the youth laden, talented, and most of all, well-mannered squad that – assuming Greg Oden’s return to full health – is poised to take over the Western Conference, if not the NBA, in a few years. Being on a dysfunctional squad full of overrated or declining me-first players in a low tempo half court offense run by a former point guard that used to put ball control above everything, an amateur soccer team in the back province of east Germany might have seemed a better fit for this quick PG, who was used to a slashing up-tempo game. Therefore it can be questioned what really could be expected from a nineteen year old playmaker without a single minute of college experience on a bad team running a system as unfit for his skill set as possible.
Nonetheless, the statistics Telfair produced in his first two seasons with Portland surely did nothing to justify the harsh criticism he usually receives: Playing 19.6 and 24.2 minutes per contest, Telfair averaged 6.8 and 9.5 points to go along with 3.3 and 3.6 assists, 0.5 and 1.0 steals while producing 1.8 and 1.7 turnovers per game. Projected on 40 minutes, his statistics not only look quite solid for an inexperienced youngster on a bad team, but also show a definite improvement. His points per game rose from 13.8 to 15.6 and steals from 1.1 to 1.6. His rebounds dropped from 2.8 to 2.5, his assists from 6.7 to 6.0, his field goal percentage stagnated at an upgradeable 39%, his three point percentage jumped from measly 24.6% to respectable 35.2% and most important, and his turnovers dropped from 3.8 to 2.8 per game. Although these numbers are not overwhelming and are far from indicating a hall of fame career for Telfair, they aren’t that much different from the stats All-Stars like Steve Nash and Chauncey Billups have produced in their first years in the league and they are definitely at least of equal quality compared to fellow ’04 rookie point guards Jameer Nelson and Shaun Livingston, who do not get half the heat Telfair does. Although the first one (the 2004 winner of the Oscar Robertson Trophy, the Wooden Award and the Naismith Award) is probably a role player in a starter’s role and the second one (praised albeit not hyped even more than Telfair prior to the draft) is still more known for gruesome videos of his knee injury than for his production on the court. Admitted, it has to be recognized that Telfair’s time in Boston has to be considered to be step backwards or at least a year of stagnancy that saw his statistics drop slightly in most categories (except a raise in free throw percentage) compared to his time in Portland. But he once again reduced his turnovers and increased his assist-to-turnnover-ratio (Year 1, POR ~ 1:0.57; Year 2, POR ~ 1:0.47; Year 3, BOS ~ 1:0.45). Telfair was still learning the game without the benefits of experience from the collegiate level, and was traded for the first time in his young career. He was put in a different system and played under a different coach. Not every young player’s learning curve is equally steep in every year. It is up to everybody’s own decision if this year of stagnation makes Telfair a bust.
When it comes to personal issues and life off the court, Telfair’s NBA career unfortunately does not leave that much room for interpretation: Albeit sporting a steady family situation, being married to his longtime girlfriend, and having two children with her, Telfair was involved in three incidents that somehow seem to contradict the promise of maturity Telfair displayed during his High School days. In February 2006, a loaded handgun that was found to be registered to his girlfriend was found in Telfair’s pillowcase on the Blazer’s private jet. In October 2006 Telfair was involved in an incident at Sean Combs’ restaurant Justin’s, where a chain belonging to his sibling, reportedly worth $ 50.000, was snatched from Telfair by an unidentified person. Rumors circulated that Telfair was seen making a call from his mobile phone moments before the rapper Fabulous was shot outside the same location. In April 2007, again, a loaded gun was found in Telfair’s possession, after which he was ordered to clean out his locker by the Celtics. And although Telfair’s explanation and cooperation with the authorities in all incidents left nothing to be desired by an objective standard, they still leave a bad taste in your mouth. Nonetheless, many players that have carved out solid, if not spectacular, careers have been involved in similar incidents at an older age. So this does neither qualify Telfair necessarily as a bust nor a crook, but only as a kid with poor decision making. But again, this is up to everyone’s own decision.
A broken crystal ball – An outlook to Telfair’s future
It is difficult to predict Telfair’s future with the Timberwolves and in the NBA. Given the widely-held perception that Telfair is far from living up to his potential (if he ever really had enough talent to make it in the NBA), it is a sure bet that the Wolves are his last chance to establish himself in the league. When his contract runs out at the end of the year, he better have made a serious impact in Minnesota, or he will find himself playing for a team in the European boonies quicker than he can say "Montepulciano d’Abruzzo". Playing in Europe, especially with one of the powerhouses, may not necessary be a bad thing, but the chances of getting back in the NBA depend on which team is actually managed by Bryan Colangelo. As unsurprisingly insensitive, maladroit, inept, and just plain stupid as Glen Taylor’s comments on Telfair were, openly admitting that Telfair was the toad the Wolves had to swallow to get the KG trade with Boston done and that he personally did not want him to become a part of his team, they are a clear indication of how repellent Telfair appears to most GMs nowadays. Whoever has him on the roster wants to get rid of him as if he had the black plague and whoever needs to trade with the team that employs Telfair wouldn’t take him even if his contract expired at the end of next year.
Once an owner makes such comments about a player his team has just acquired, the logical conclusion would be that this "unwanted stepchild" would receive equal to zero playing time and be chased from the farm come next summer. But in the case of Sebastian Telfair, there could be the chance that things will turn out differently. First of all, everything he has said and done since his trade to the Timberwolves has been nothing but perfect. This is something which can and should be expected from a young player on a new team, especially from one in Telfair’s situation. But more importantly, this is a real chance for Telfair to secure his career on the NBA as the T-Wolves are a team in limbo. Having traded away their franchise player for what must feel like a gazillion young players, with next to no established hierarchy and without a compulsory rotation, nearly every position on the team seems up for grabs. The only players who are a sure bet to be starting are Al Jefferson and Randy Foye, with the first one probably to be starting as PF and the second one as PG. However, the decisive word there is "probably".
If you look at the point guard situation in Minnesota, it can arguably be said that the biggest question mark of the roster is who will hold the position of the playmaker. It might surprise the casual NBA follower to find out that while the last few seasons the T-Wolves roster usually was assembled out of KG plus 923754 point guards and the roster still appears to be quite overcrowded with guards, the only true playmaker the T-Wolves are left with is… Exactly, Sebastian Telfair. Sure there is Randy Foye, who is listed as the starting PG for this team for now and, if we believe what everybody on the Wolves’ organization has to say, for eternity. But an increasing number of experts keep claiming that Foye just doesn’t have what it takes to become a full-time floor general and that the Wolves are doing themselves and Foye a huge disservice by forcing him into a role that he is not suited for, instead of developing his slashing abilities and allowing him to grow into a valuable, scoring combo guard of the Gilbert Arenas mold. And it might be purely wishful thinking by the author, who admittedly shares the aforementioned opinion about Foye, but the official statement that "Foye will play more off the ball" in the coming season allows for the interpretation that the Wolves’ brass is getting used to this idea as well. In the end, Foye may (be allowed or forced to) develop in one or the other direction, but every second he plays "more off the ball" in the upcoming season will create the need for some other player to man the point over those stretches next season. So Coach Wittman will be forced to work with what he has on the roster, no matter if Glen Taylor’s opinion of those players is as high as of a skin rash. Barring a trade (which would do this team well, but is not likely to happen) the only players on the roster who have experience at running the point are Sebastian Telfair and Marco Jaric. And as reliable as Jaric is in piloting the Serbian national team in international contests, he is as equally inept in translating his size and talent into mentionable NBA performances. Although showing flashes of solid defense from time to time, he has yet to bring the same leadership and shooting touch to a NBA court that made him a basketball icon in his home country. Unless this surprisingly changes (and Jaric’s preseason performances do everything but indicate such), it is difficult to assume that all the remaining minutes at the point guard spot will go to Jaric. Sadly, the preseason does not offer much indication on how those minutes will be divided between Jaric and Telfair because Telfair is out with an ankle sprain after playing 23.5 minutes in the first two games (while starting one), but it at least aids the assumption that Telfair won’t be buried on the end of the bench regardless of the team’s roster situation.
Thus, it is held by the author that the playing time will be there for Sebastian Telfair. The question that remains is if he will be able to help the Wolves and his career during those stretches. This will be the most difficult answer to give and any answer given will be most likely disputed as it has to cover two controversial issues: How much talent does Sebastian Telfair really have and will he be able to bring to the court whatever talent he has?
Talent and potential might be the most difficult things to judge in a player and many people are paid handsomely to do so. Albeit often, they happen to look as clueless as John Q. Public in the next sports bar. As the author has laid out in the last chapter, the numbers Telfair has produced over his first three seasons leave the door open for any kind of career; roleplayer as well as all-star. He probably will never live up to the hype that was created around him, but unless his play keeps stagnating like this last year in Boston, he probably won’t become the bust so many believe him to be either. Most players, often forwards or centers, who dominate at the High School level, are able to do so because they are so athletically gifted that they overwhelm all opposition. Many of those players that never needed to develop any kind of game are often shipwrecked once they face players of the same physical abilities. That does not apply to Sebastian Telfair, who, although being faster than a weasel with diarrhea, is only 6’0’’ and does not lead his team in assists because of his upper body strength. Those facts indicate that Telfair has a skill set that could translate to the NBA. And in the author’s opinion, he will keep developing if he’s given the chance to, because the author still believes that he’s got talent enough to become a valuable role player. He is extremely fast, even by NBA standards, and since he mastered the three point shot, he can keep his defender close enough to blow by him with his explosive first step. His lack of size for a modern point guard is still an issue on the defensive end, where he has to make more use of his superior quickness. His overall shooting percentage still needs work and he needs to keep cutting down on his turnovers. But if he shows the same work ethic he displayed in High School, he might be able to get those issues under control. Most of those difficulties can be interpreted as the problems of a very young high school point guard still adjusting to the NBA, and there is hope that he will improve on them, especially on his assist-to-turnover-ratio which has been at a horrific 1:1 in the preseason.
The biggest downside with Telfair at this stage and maybe throughout his career will be that he is solely a run-and-gun point guard that flourishes in the open court where he can utilize his quickness to kick start the fast break and his slashing abilities to find an open shooter in the shake-and-bake, but struggles to create in the half court offense. The answer on how much he will be able to utilize his talents and help the Timberwolves therefore depends on what kind of game the Wolves play. Many teams, especially those without established All Stars but with lots of youth usually, talk plenty about utilizing an open court game to run their opponents into the ground…until they find out that they just don’t have the right personnel for such a strategy and that if they want to win a single game, they are better off limiting the number of possessions for both teams as much as possible. Having acquired one of the few players with a legit post-up game in Al Jefferson, the Wolves are likely to apply a more conservative approach to maximize his skills come the first regular season game. But with plenty of young legs with lots of hops on the team, there will also be times when the team will go small and athletic to throw a different look on the opponent, and that could become the hour of Sebastian Telfair – once and if he gets accustomed to this team.
Secure Insecurity – Conclusion
It is extremely difficult to issue a statement on such a controversial player as Sebastian Telfair, but considering the statistics he produced and the teams he played for, the author holds that it is yet too early to give up on Sebastian Telfair. He still promises the potential to become at least a spark plug point guard from the bench if you want to go small and speed up the game. If he learns to prefer the sure pass over the spectacular one and improves his shot selection, he might even become a valuable addition to any team’s roster. Given the situation the Timberwolves are in and how their roster stands right now, it can be assumed that he will get the opportunity to make use of his skill set to the benefit of his team. Clearly, his NBA career is on the line this season and he seems to be aware of it. Getting buried in the crowded roster of the T-Wolves’ roster after a few bad games might deliver the lethal blow to his hopes of getting a new contract somewhere that he will play his personal game night in and night out. And here’s hoping that he might win it.