Tuesday, February 12, 2013

My Friend Michael Beasley

Michael Beasley has a fuzzy past, present and future. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

I have a strange connection with Michael Beasley. By no means is it unique because there are plenty of one-way relationships between spectators and athletes that have formed and progressed in the exact same manner. The Phoenix Suns forward gives a little effort and puts up a big performance, then he gets a bit of positive attention from the NBA community at large and quickly re-adapts the humdrum attitude that Beasley has held for most of his professional career.

My introduction to Beasley came in the summer of 2006, when he committed to Kansas State. "Fantastic," I thought, except with more expletives because I was fresh out of high school and had not yet undergone the significant refinements typical of attending junior college. My university of choice was going to be the last amateur stop for one of the best teenage basketball players on the U.S. basketball circuit.

Of course, Beasley didn't disappoint when he donned the purple in 2007-08. He didn't quite lead the Wildcats to a victory over the in-state rival Kansas Jayhawks in Africa, but he could have if the NCAA sanctioned Big 12 conference games to be played on that continent. The Wildcats split the season series with the Jayhawks as each team protected its home court and Beasley totaled 17 rebounds, four blocks, two steals, two assists and 64 points on nearly 50 percent, including hitting 8-11 three balls.

In a historically one-sided rivalry, Beasley remains a major figure. He was a harbinger of things to come, as most of the contests between K-State and KU have been decided by fewer than 10 points since Beasley's departure, making blowouts like Monday night's 83-62 bludgeoning by the Jayhawks sting more for the KSU faithful than when those were expected outcomes.

Beasley's last win in a K-State uniform was in the NCAA tournament over a Southern California team featuring O.J. Mayo. The Wildcats' brightest star dropped 23 points, the same number he recorded two days later when Wisconsin ejected Beasley and Co. from championship contention.

He was expected to spend just a single season in college, even before leading the country with 12.4 rebounds per game and producing 26 regular season double-doubles (plus two in the NCAA tourney), breaking the NCAA freshman record held by Drew Gooden, a former Jayhawk. Beasley was more than welcome to quench the thirst for a win in a lopsided rivalry, collect his Big 12 Player of the Year award and declare for the NBA draft, which is precisely what happened.

Memphis guard Derrick Rose was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft, taken by the Chicago Bulls and immediately becoming the starting point guard. Publicly, I decried the choice, making argument after argument for Beasley being the proper No. 1 pick, despite the Bulls' crowded front court. Secretly, though, I staged a minor celebration for Rose going to Chicago because this sated a portion of the college rivalry Beasley was leaving behind. Had the Bulls selected Beasley, he would have competed with Gooden for a starting spot as the double-double record lurked in both of their minds, but Rose's draft spot meant he would single-handedly be sending former Kansas guard Kirk Hinrich to the bench.

Beasley at KSU, post-dunk. (Charlie Riedel/AP)
Udonis Haslem was the incumbent power forward in Miami and there were six small forwards — including Shawn Marion — on the team during the course of the 2008-09 season, but Beasley stilled managed to start 19 games. He could be a reserve as a rookie, though, and learn the NBA game from veterans. Beasley still landed on a team with one of the Association's best players in shooting guard Dwyane Wade; the franchise may have traded Shaquille O'Neal the previous season and missed the playoffs, but it was only three years removed from a championship season, beating the Dallas Mavericks 4-2; and, to the surprise of no Kansas State fan, Beasley finished second on the team in scoring, netting 1,123 points (13.9 ppg). Even his WS/48 was respectable (0.081) given his role.

Beasley had issues, though, even that early in his career.

He may or may not have been involved in an incident involving marijuana that saw Mario Chalmers and Darrell Arthur dismissed from the 2008 NBA Rookie Transition Program. Seeing two recent Jayhawks hit a small speed bump before playing in a single NBA game was fair-weather fun for me, but only to the point that Beasley's name was mentioned. To me, there was almost no question about his presence in the room with Chalmers and Arthur. It was a lucky break and perhaps nothing else, until Beasley — possibly at the behest of Heat president Pat Riley — admitted to being party to the marijuana incident, eliciting a $50,000 fine from the NBA. In comparison to the $20,000 fines levied against the other rookies, Beasley's was much heavier. Then again, he had failed to cooperate with initial investigations and he not been ejected from the program.

One more year, one more episode. In August 2009, Beasley checked into a rehabilitation facility in Houston, all but confirming his involvement in the Chalmers/Arthur incident and drawing numerous "Who gets addicted to pot?" quips from my friends with opposing college allegiances. Beasley's stay in rehab came after several concerning tweets and his posting of a photo showing off a new tattoo, which also included multiple plastic baggies in the background.

Beasley's maturity had been in question throughout his rookie year and even dating back to the pre-Kansas State days when Beasley enrolled in six different high schools. At a mere 20 years old, though, Beasley's decision to seek treatment for possible substance and psychological issues was very wise. It was a move that was supposed to put him on the right track, one which would allow him to realize his full potential and flourish in the NBA.

Incidentally, Beasley started 78 games in the 2009-10 season, upping his scoring (14.9 ppg), rebounding, assisting and WS/48 (0.095), but his field goal percentage declined, falling from 47.2 as a rookie to 45 percent, largely because of a sharp decrease in his efficiency behind the three-point line (40.7 in 2008-09, 27.5 in 2009-10).

His play fell off further during the playoffs that season, garnering a negative WS/48. With free agency on the horizon and Wade about to bring LeBron James and Chris Bosh into the loop, there was no room for such an inconsistent and seemingly troubled player. The Heat began shopping Beasley and, shortly after the Heat's free agency coup, the Minnesota Timberwolves acquired the forward for next to nothing (cash and two future second-round picks).

A new start, they said. A chance to come into his own, they said. Playing small forward next to an All-Star like Kevin Love would afford Beasley plenty of room to operate, and he started 73 games, scoring more points than he had in his short career (1,401 at a 19.2 ppg clip) but using 28.3 percent of the Timberwolves' plays when he was on the floor. Beasley's scoring uptick clearly flew in the face of efficient play and earned him a spot on the bench in 2011-12.

Before the season started, Beasley was fined and ticketed by Minnesota police for speeding and possessing marijuana. No one was surprised. Not the Heat, not the Timberwolves and not even the Kansas State fans that were so loyal to Beasley in return for a sole season of excellence. The same sentiments apply for Beasley's altercation with a heckler at a streetball game in late 2011, and the reactions were even less of shock and more of groaning and head shaking.

Before this mess. (MassLive.com)
The highlight of Beasley's season was a 34-point performance at Houston, commanding the court on 10-14 shooting (2-3 from three) and going 12-12 from the free throw line in a 120-108 T-Wolves win. It happened in late January 2012, just over a month after the lockout-shortened season began, and Beasley's name began appearing in trade rumors — some pundits were proposing the Los Angeles Lakers make a play for him — but that Beasley showed up only once more that season, in a road victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.

Two out of 66 games didn't do it for the Timberwolves, as GM David Kahn's plan of making the franchise into a contender became more actualized with the pairing of Love and Spanish point-savant Ricky Rubio. Beasley was allowed to walk in free agency and found a home with the Phoenix Suns, getting an $18 million, three-year deal in spite of his past.

This brings us more or less up to current day. The occasional big game, the sporadic off-court detriment and the all-too-familiar aloofness that accompanies Beasley to every stop he has made in the NBA. On Jan. 25, Beasley was handcuffed by police in Arizona after being pulled over for going 71 in a 45 mph zone, among other infractions. This time, however, he was given leeway and released for cooperating with authorities. Blatant speeding? Not mature. Possessing a loaded handgun and replying with "slow speech and slow responses," as the police report states? Not mature. But cooperating? Mature, and smart.

There has been less hoopla over this incident than anything in Beasley's career. The novelty is gone. Long gone. But five days later, his talent crept back into the frame and reignited the idea that Beasley could one day be a star. He ruined Steve Nash's first return to Phoenix as a Laker by recording 27 points (12-20 FG%), six rebounds and five steals, all of which catapulted the lowly Suns to a 92-86 win over the reeling Los Angeles crew. Since that night in the desert, Beasley has yet to explode again, coming close in a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder and his friend Kevin Durant but without the same fanfare.

These big games are the exceptions to the rule. Beasley is scoring at the lowest per-36 minutes and per-game rates of his career and was made a reserve when the idea of playing him as a starter flamed out after 20 games. His WS/48 is currently -0.047 for the season, meaning he is usually worth more to the Suns on the bench than on the hardwood.

This is the story: the exemplary (his year as a Wildcat, a few NBA games in each season since), the incorrect (mistake after mistake away from basketball) and the inconsistent (every other NBA game in which he plays). The talent is there but the commitment is questionable. His self-given nicknames B-Easy, Super Cool Beas — are tattooed on his skin, but maybe if he lets them fade, if he doesn't give them any audience, and just focuses on being Michael Beasley, he can be the superstar everyone knows he can be.

Not everyone knows that, I guess. But I do, even if the odds are against such a transformation. Even if, on my hard drive, this file is titled "Super Cool Beas."

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