DALLAS — All week in Reno, Nev., the D-League Showcase has provided some 200 basketball players — some former NBA first-rounders, some with legitimate NBA service time and many more who fell through the cracks — a stage to perform in front of a horde of NBA team decision-makers.
Kendall Marshall is not among them. He almost assuredly would have been as a member of the Delaware 87ers if not for an unbelievable string of injuries to all three of the Los Angeles Lakers’ point guards. On Dec. 21, the Phoenix Suns’ No. 13 pick in 2012, who was traded to Washington on Oct. 25 and waived that day, became the Lakers’ emergency plan.
“Honestly,” Marshall told NBA.com Tuesday night, “I’m just thankful for the situation I’m in. I’m trying to make the most of it, trying to get better and find a way to help this team.”
Instead of playing his heart out during this five-day stretch in northwest Nevada on a shoestring D-League salary of about $25,000, Marshall is auditioning nightly — strange to say of a lottery pick one year removed, but altogether true — in front of league executives on the biggest stage. And as of Tuesday he’s doing so on a fully guaranteed contract for the remainder of the season at about a half-million dollars.
Still, it guarantees nothing beyond a few more weeks, perhaps more, of genuine playing time for the former North Carolina Tar Heel, a heady although not overly athletic, smooth-passing point guard aptly nicknamed “Butter.” Soon Steve Blake will return from an elbow injury. Jordan Farmar will come back from a hamstring injury. Steve Nash is targeting a February return.
For Marshall, the time is now. In his first two starts, the 6-foot-4 southpaw unleashed flashbacks to Linsanity with a combined 32 assists and 29 points. In eight games, including starting the last four after point-guard fill-in Xavier Henry went down with his own knee injury, Marshall has 56 dimes. A quick study in coach Mike D’Antoni‘s point-guard friendly offense, Marshall is averaging 9.1 ppg, 7.0 apg and 3.0 turnovers. Before a brutal 2-for-13 (1-for-6 on 3-pointers) shooting night in Wednesday’s loss at Houston, L.A.’s ninth in 10 games, he had shot better than 56 percent overall and made half of his 22 3-point attempts.
Considering he jumped head-first into a bare-bones Lakers lineup, Marshall’s performances have ranged from impressive to steady, and have, at the least, provided the Lakers’ offense with structure and some rhythm. He had managed to keep his turnovers down until the last two games with six in each, but some of that falls on teammates unable or unprepared to handle his thread-the-needle passes through traffic.
His best game remains his first as a starter on Jan. 3 when he outplayed rookie and No. 9 pick Trey Burke, scoring 20 points on 8-for-12 shooting, with 15 assists and six rebounds to beat Utah and snap the Lakers’ six-game skid.
And think about this: Marshall has gone from averaging 14.6 mpg in just 48 games as a rookie last season with Phoenix to playing 37.6 mpg in seven games with Delaware to now having logged more than 38 minutes in three of his four starts with the Lakers.
“He’s passing the ball, he’s finding a lot of seams,” said Henry, who grew up playing against Marshall in AAU tournaments from the time they were 9 years old through high school. “As our only true point guard right now he’s moving the ball pretty well and getting us into stuff fast. That’s good for us because we have a lot of guys that can score and play the game, but we don’t have that true point guard right now because everybody’s injured.”
The Suns envisioned Marshall, ironically, to be Nash’s replacement and as something of a Nash starter kit — crafty, smart, good floor vision, excellent facilitator. Marshall doesn’t possess tremendous speed or athleticism and when new management took over in Phoenix last offseason they weren’t enamored with him. They already had Goran Dragic, then drafted super-athletic Kentucky guard Archie Goodwin and traded for Eric Bledsoe to run new coach Jeff Hornacek‘s up-tempo attack.
At the Las Vegas Summer League in July, Goodwin outplayed Marshall and the writing was on the wall.
“I thought there was a chance I might be traded,” Marshall said. “I didn’t know they would wait until right before the season started. Obviously, the timing was unfortunate. The whole situation was unfortunate.”
Phoenix packaged Marshall with center Marcin Gortat in a trade with Washington just days before the season opened. Marshall’s agent called him 45 minutes after he found out he had been traded to tell him the Wizards would waive him.
Marshall, 22, was out of the league. With rosters set and no offers forthcoming, he signed with Delaware, the Philadelphia 76ers affiliate in the D-League, after Thanksgiving. The weeks in between went by brutally slow as he simultaneously concentrated on picking up his career while trying not to become negatively consumed by his circumstance.
“You want an honest answer?” Marshall said when asked who or what he leaned on during that time. “Vine, the social media site. I met a lot of friends on there that half of them didn’t even know I played basketball. So it was cool to interact with people that I wasn’t constantly hearing about what I was going through. So honestly that’s what kept me positive throughout that couple of weeks of not being in the league.”
Now comes the question of whether he can stick in a league predicated on athleticism and at a position dominated by speed.
“I joke with him all the time about how he can’t jump and stuff like that,” Henry said. “He’s not the fastest guy, but he just plays it smart, he knows what he has to do to complete his task. He’s smart with the game of how to make things happen. That’s what he does.”
Added Marshall: “Fifty percent of this league doesn’t get by on their athleticism. A couple of guys we played against [Tuesday at Dallas]; Dirk [Nowitzki] never relied on athleticism, Jose Calderon has never relied on his athleticism and they found a way to be successful. It can be done. But it’s just a matter of going out there and doing it and finding ways to do it.”
That’s the opportunity Marshall has in front of him, not in Reno for Delaware, but on the NBA stage for the Los Angeles Lakers. His audition will continue until likely the Lakers’ regulars return and reclaim their spots.
“My only objective right now is to help this team,” Marshall said. “That’s all I’m worried about is finding ways to win games and continue to get better.”