Tuesday, June 24, 2008

You Heard Me Correctly: Michael Beasley Is the Only Pick

With the 2008 NBA Draft on Thursday, I need to cover basketball for a second. While I’m tempted to write a 15,000-word mock draft (featuring a detailed description of my forthcoming murder spree should the Knicks trade David Lee in order to draft Eric Gordon), I honestly don’t have the energy – I’ve been running on fumes ever since the season finale of “Battlestar Galactica” a few weeks ago. But I do feel compelled to take a moment to mention in writing of my unseemly adoration for Michael Beasley. Simply put, I think Beasley is the most talented big man to come into the league since Tim Duncan in ’97, and barring injury, I think he’ll finish his career as a bona fide superstar. Super. Fucking. Star.

I am, as usual, defying (or I guess attempting to defy) conventional wisdom. Last year, American basketball audiences were transfixed by two freshman phenoms: Ohio State center Greg Oden and Texas forward Kevin Durant. Most fans tended to prefer the flashier Durant; naturally, I was in the Oden camp. Oden wound up being the #1 pick because the Blazers couldn’t pass up a dominant big man who had people jabbering comparisons to Bill Russell. Of course, Oden wound up having microfracture surgery before even playing a game, whereas Durant went on to win Rookie of the Year. Current score: Public 1, Manifesto 0.

(For the record, I’d still take Oden. I think Durant is enormously talented, but he lives on the perimeter too much for my liking; as Kobe proved in the Finals, you can’t consistently win games by jacking up jumpers. The 20 points per game was solid for a rookie, but you can’t ignore the 2.9 turnovers and 43% shooting, including a ghastly 29% from three-point range. He also only averaged 4.4 rebounds, possibly the product of playing small-forward on a crappy Sonics team, but weird for a guy who averaged 11 boards per game in college. He’ll get better, but the turnovers and shot selection worry me. Frankly, he should have finished third in Rookie of the Year voting behind Al Horford and Luis Scola. Meanwhile, if Oden comes back from surgery healthy (granted, that’s a big if) and develops a consistent jump hook (shouldn’t be a problem), he’ll be a monster on both ends of the floor. Anyway.)

This year once again featured two extraordinary freshmen who rose above the pack and prompted an early series of “Who’s going #1?” debates: Kansas State power forward Michael Beasley and Memphis point guard Derrick Rose. Early in the season, Beasley’s astonishing numbers appeared to make him the clear-cut top pick. However, Rose’s impressive play late in the season, including a terrific NCAA Tournament (minus, you know, that free throw), swayed public opinion in his favor.

It’s been a gradual but inexorable (and, to me, inexplicable) process. Going into the Draft Lottery in May, fans were desperate for their favorite team to jump into the Top Two so they could take either Beasley or Rose (a replay of the 2007 lottery with Oden and Durant). First or second, it didn’t matter – you just needed to be in the Top Two. But shortly after the lottery, most authorities began to insist (with the exception of the ever-controversial John Hollinger) that Rose was the consensus #1 pick. Now Chicago is almost certainly selecting Rose first, and the second pick, formerly one of those coveted Top Two, seems insignificant to the point that Miami is actually looking to trade it. Somehow over the last few months, without losing any games or participating in any poor workouts, Michael Beasley has gone from “toss-up for the #1 pick” to the Guy Teams Are Afraid to Draft.

And I don’t fucking get it. I don’t get it at all.

Look, Beasley is a monster. He may not look like a monster – he certainly doesn’t scream his head off or go visibly bonkers as some players do – but he is un-fucking-stoppable. He can shoot from distance. He can score inside. He can handle the ball. He can run the floor. He can finish with either hand. He can block shots. His hands are unbelievable. He understands the game. He has great body control when he’s in the air. And he’s one of the best rebounders I’ve ever seen. He can do everything.

So why don’t people like him? There have been mutterings about his height (listed at 6’10”, he’s more like 6’8”), which would be a valid concern if he hadn’t just led the freaking country in rebounding. His defense is an unknown commodity, although people seem to neglect that he blocked 1.6 shots per game and has excellent lateral quickness. More interestingly, naysayers keep throwing out poison words like “attitude” and “character”. After Beasley was the subject of some unspecified issues in high school, everyone was convinced he would melt down playing for Kansas State, surrounded by a bunch of nobodies (his only good teammate was the wildly inconsistent Bill Walker), playing in a power conference (the Big 12), and instructed by a woefully overmatched first-year head coach (Frank Martin). Remember what happened to Don Cheadle’s character in Rebound, when he left Rucker Park and finally joined a collegiate program, only to crack under the pressure of playing organized ball and blow up at his coach? That was what everyone was expecting with Beasley.

So what happened? Nothing. His teammates liked him, he didn’t so much as sniff a police blotter or an unsavory headline, and he just happened to put in a ridiculous season, capped off by a unanimous selection to the All-America team.

Which makes it all the more amusing that the Heat are supposedly scared by Beasley’s character and are instead rumored to be coveting none other than USC guard O.J. Mayo, a self-promoting guard who just happens to currently be embroiled in a scandal involving under-the-table payments. Go figure.

So the question remains: Why are people down on Beasley? I honestly couldn’t figure it out and was bitching to my Dad about it when he gave me the answer: “People don’t understand – the game comes too easily to him. They think he doesn’t care.”

Bingo. He looks like he doesn’t care. Beasley’s game is so fluid, and his on-court demeanor is so even-keel, that he actually looks like he doesn’t give a shit whether he wins or loses. (Apparently those 13 30-point games and 28 double-doubles don’t mean much.) Sure, he’ll thump his chest or let out a bellow now and then, but most of the time he just goes about his business of dominating the game. Sometimes he even smiles, which is obviously unforgivable, because God forbid teams want to draft someone who clearly enjoys playing basketball.

For me, the quintessential Beasley moment of the year came in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against Mayo’s USC squad, when CBS randomly cut to the game in the middle of the first half. Right away, Beasley caught the ball at the top of the key, took two hard dribbles left, spun back to his right away from the defender, left his feet, absorbed contact from a help defender, hung in the air, and knocked in a 16-footer while getting fouled for a three-point play. It was a beautiful blink-and-you’ll-miss-it type of move, and he made it look so effortless that unless you were paying close attention you wouldn’t have noticed how unbelievably difficult it was. And oh by the way, the southpaw made the jumper with his right hand. He’s that good.

(You can actually see the move at about the 5:25 mark of this video. It’s almost telling that whoever made the video consistently shows replays some of Beasley’s more ordinary open-floor dunks but only played this move once – that’s how inconspicuous he can be.)

(By the way, a note on that video: I couldn’t believe it, but the author set it to the music of … wait for it … Death Cab for Cutie. Seriously. That automatically makes it the greatest basketball clip ever made, with the possible exception of this clip from “The Office” set to “O Fortuna”. But honestly, I was utterly convinced I was the only person on the planet obsessed with both Michael Beasley and Death Cab for Cutie. If you’re the author of that clip and you happen to be a cute Asian girl who likes Harry Potter, for the love of God, find me.)

Look, this isn’t a post bashing Derrick Rose. I think Rose is going to be a terrific NBA player. He has a great NBA body, he’s athletic, he has court vision, he plays hard and understands defense, and he has a high basketball IQ. He is going to be very good. He just isn’t as good as Beasley.

For all the gushing over Durant last year and the relative quiet regarding Beasley this year, let’s look at the numbers. (I won’t bother comparing Beasley’s numbers to those of Rose, since Beasley shreds Rose in nearly every statistical category other than assists – he even averaged more steals. Obviously Rose sacrificed some numbers because he played on a better team and is a far better player than his numbers indicate, although it’s somewhat curious that his teammate Chris Douglas-Roberts, and not Rose, was elected to the All-America Team).

In 2007, Durant averaged 26 points and 11 rebounds and led Texas to a second-round loss in the NCAA Tournament to USC. He was voted Player of the Year (garnering 70 of 72 votes) after turning in what was widely considered one of the most dominant collegiate seasons ever. As far as teammates, he played with D.J. Augustin, who became an All-American a year later and is projected to be a lottery pick in this year’s draft.

In 2008, Beasley averaged 26 points and 12 rebounds, leading an otherwise atrocious Kansas State team (Walker is unlikely to go in the first round) to an upset over USC in the tournament before falling at the hands of Wisconsin. This led to an All-America selection, although he lost the Player of the Year voting to UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough; Hansbrough received 56 votes, while Beasley received only 15. This led to an unfortunate preponderance of idiotic, racially charged articles questioning whether Hansbrough won solely because he was white and Beasley was black. (For the record, the real issue wasn’t their race but where they played. Put Beasley in Carolina blue in the ACC and stick Hansbrough in the middle of rural Kansas, then give them the same stats and same supporting casts. If you think Hansbrough still nabs 78% of the vote, you’re spending too much time smoking weed with Sam Perkins.)

Regardless, for whatever reason, despite putting up numbers almost identical to Durant’s while playing on a worse team, Beasley’s historic season just didn’t seem as historic.

Shame on the historians, then. Because honestly, I think Michael Beasley is better than Kevin Durant. I think he’s better than Greg Oden too. I haven’t been this excited about a player coming out of college since Jason Williams in 2002 (here’s hoping this story turns out differently). I believe he is going to have a dominant NBA career. I believe the Chicago Bulls are beyond foolish to pass on him with the #1 pick (although I wouldn’t mind the Heat passing on him at #2, since I’m convinced Pat Riley will make every effort to sabotage his career if he winds up in Miami). And I believe that, when it’s all said and done, we will look back on the 2008 NBA Draft and wonder what the hell teams were thinking when they passed on the chance to draft one of the most talented power forwards ever.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

A Bold, Fearless, and Utterly Inconsequential Prediction

For all of my supposed self-deprecation, I actually pride myself on quite a few things in life. I’m unbelievably quick utilizing the keystrokes in Microsoft Excel. I instinctively know how to wire a TV set without reading a manual. I can play shortstop successfully in softball despite being left-handed. I can recite the entire offensive starting lineup of the 1992 Houston Oilers from memory, as well as most of the defense. And of course, I’m an unstoppable weapon in certain trivia subjects, particularly Harry Potter, Star Wars, and softcore porn.

In addition to these worthy talents, I like to think I’m a successful prognosticator. Not in terms of predicting the results of sporting events, mind you (boy, these NBA Playoffs sure are tricky), or even in prophesying Oscar winners, my supposed area of expertise (don’t get me started on Trash). I do believe, however, that I have the sight when it comes to forecasting future stardom for upcoming actors and actresses, as I’ve accurately heralded success for a variety of aspiring actors when their fame was in its relative infancy. These include – but are not limited to – Tobey Maguire (after Pleasantville but before Cider House Rules and way before Spider-man), Charlize Theron (after her pantheon nude scene in 2 Days in the Valley, before her pantheon nude scene in The Devil’s Advocate), and, of course, Keira Knightley (after Bend It Like Beckham, before Pirates of the Caribbean). The latter remains one of the greatest accomplishments of my life, along with guiding Warren Moon to an 8,500-yard passing season in Tecmo Bowl and leading the league in infield hits last softball season.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I also predicted stardom for Jena Malone (not quite there yet), Elisha Cuthbert (ditto), and Casey Fossum (whoops). So I’m not perfect. Sue me.)

Sadly, I don’t have any proof of these prescient prognostications, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. Now, however, this whole blog thing gives me the (slightly scary) power to publish my predictions before they become true, thus lending credence to any “I fucking told you so!” outbursts I may have in the future. (And if they don’t come true, well, that’s the advantage of not having any readers.) To that end, I hereby offer you the next future star in a long line of (mostly) successful predictions: Emily Mortimer.

If you’ve never heard of Miss Mortimer, well, that’s sort of the point. She’s a slightly anomalous choice for this sort of thing – at 36 years old, she’s hardly a newcomer (she’s appeared in roughly 40 different films and television productions), and she has been recognized for her work by a number of lower-tier awards outfits, mostly in the UK. That said, I’d wager that if I walked around my office tomorrow morning and asked everyone if they’ve heard of Emily Mortimer, the response would be either “No” or “Do I care?”. So I think it’s a safe bet that Miss Mortimer isn’t a household name. But she will be.

(Note: We’re calling her “Miss Mortimer” because just saying “Mortimer” sounds too brusque, and I don’t feel that I know her intimately enough just to call her “Emily”. Maybe after a few more movies.)

I’m citing three recent performances from Miss Mortimer as proof that she’s a marvelously talented actress (in this, I’m neglecting her affecting work in 2001’s Lovely & Amazing, only because I haven’t seen it in years). In all three roles, she showcases a singularly appealing trait, and that is a profound capacity for emotional sincerity. The women she portrays are generally tenderhearted, but if the goal of acting is to inhabit characters and make an audience believe your feelings are theirs, then as a performer Miss Mortimer is frighteningly capable.

In Woody Allen’s exemplary Match Point, Miss Mortimer plays Chloe, a mild-mannered aristocrat who falls for the film’s leading man, a humble but dashing tennis pro named Chris (the incomparably dreamy Jonathan Rhys Meyers). After their marriage, the movie centers around Chris’ obsessive, destructive affair with Nola, played by the gorgeous Scarlett Johansson. A lesser picture (and a lesser actress) would have fashioned Chloe as an archetypal plot device, the pleasant-but-boring housewife who represents a lifetime security but a lack of passion. Miss Mortimer, however, brings true poignancy to Chloe’s persona, by turns illuminating her warmth, loneliness, anxiety, fear, and above all her decency. The scene in which Chloe confronts her husband about whether or not he’s cheating could have functioned as a mere plot point, but the melancholy in Miss Mortimer’s voice and the wounded look in her eyes immediately engender our sympathy for her. This depth of feeling is critical to the movie’s success, as Chloe’s fragility adds further weight to Chris’ ultimate decision to disengage from his affair.

Last year’s Lars and the Real Girl again finds Miss Mortimer playing the devoted wife, only this time her attentions are focused on her husband’s withdrawn younger brother (a stoic Ryan Gosling in the title role). Ever the humanitarian, her character of Karin is desperate to impart some of her own personal happiness to Lars, so much so that in an early comedic scene, she literally tackles him in an effort to make him join her and her husband for dinner. That levity is starkly contrasted later, after Lars grouses sullenly about his community’s lack of care for him; at this point, Miss Mortimer takes the heretofore composed Karin to the emotional brink, supplying a furious, anguished rebuttal. “None of this is easy,” she exclaims in conclusion – tears streaming down her face, her voice cracking in sadness and frustration – “but we do it – oh! – we do it for you!” It’s an astonishingly powerful moment, one that left me in tears myself, and Miss Mortimer’s mixture of agonized heartbreak and unyielding love resonates long after.

This year’s Redbelt is a bit of a departure for Miss Mortimer. As Laura, her soulful nature remains, but the easier circumstances of her prior films have been replaced here with desperation. The opening scenes of the David Mamet drama strangely intercut instruction in a martial arts studio with Laura driving frantically in rain-soaked streets, shouting helplessly in a cell phone, something about not being able to find a pharmacy. Mamet structures the studio to be a place of peaceful tranquility, but when Miss Mortimer enters it looking for directions, she brings with her a palpable sense of panic and fear, thus lending credibility to an odd occurrence in which she accidentally breaks the studio’s plate-glass window.

We later learn that Laura is a rape victim, and her enrollment in a self-defense class leads to the film’s most harrowing scene, in which the protagonist of Redbelt (an excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor) abruptly reconstructs the moment of her rape, complete with a plastic knife held to her throat, only this time illustrating the possibility of her escape. “Stab me with the knife!” he commands, and she obliges, over and over again ramming the toy knife into his chest, shrieking and screaming and unleashing what can only be years of buried fury. It’s a moment oddly akin to her signature scene in Lars and the Real Girl – the love and tenderness may have been replaced by anger and suffering, but they are no less forceful, and no less real.

So these are the bases of my claim – three powerhouse supporting performances of genuine emotional intensity. Are they enough to propel to stardom a British lass who, while appealing, isn’t overwhelmingly hot? Time will tell. But fuck it, I’m feeling optimistic. See you in the Big Time, Emily Mortimer.

(And if not, well, at least I still have Keira Knightley.)