Ex-Cougar cracks ex-Sonics starting lineup
PORTLAND – NBA venues, such as the Rose Garden, are more than just supersized basketball gymnasiums. They are performing stages. Maybe that is why Kyle Weaver was out early one day last week, getting in extra shooting practice before the Oklahoma City Thunder’s final game before the All-Star break against the Portland Trail Blazers.
The rookie out of Washington State University is now a starter for the Thunder.
Being a starter for one of 30 NBA teams does not guarantee you’re going to immediately become a household name, not even in an area of the country where you played some of your college ball.
As Weaver finished up his pregame shooting, he was the last visiting player to leave the court.
He played a lot that game – 35 minutes – in the 106-92 loss to Portland. His primary responsibility was guarding Portland’s All-Star guard Brandon Roy.
Roy tallied 22 points. Much of it came at Weaver’s expense. Not all of it was Weaver’s fault.
It also came 24 hours after chasing Kobe Bryant, the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player, around for 36 minutes at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Bryant scored 34 points for the Lakers, but Thunder personnel were still talking a day later about the veteran-type defensive move Weaver put on Bryant, backing off as the two went at it in the lane and forcing the Lakers’ star into a traveling call.
Needless to say, it’s not exactly the same as guarding Chase Budinger in a Pacific-10 Conference game at Arizona, and then battling James Harden two days later at Arizona State.
“I would say this is a little worse,” Weaver said in the visitors’ locker room at the Rose Garden, laughing while still holding a bag of ice on his right leg. “Not knocking those two guys … but this is tougher. And doing it on back-to-back nights?”
But what Weaver is doing in the NBA is no different than what he did for WSU under coach Tony Bennett. He’s relied upon as a shutdown defender.
“I talked to him about just coming into the league … and what he needed to do,” said Portland coach Nate McMillan, who visited with Weaver at a pre-draft workout last spring. “He wasn’t a shooter. But he could defend, and his IQ was off the charts as far as his feel for the game.
“In seeing him play (now), he has found a role. Since (Desmond) Mason has gone out, they’ve put him in as a defender, a guy who can harass the best wing and allow Kevin Durant the opportunity to play off the weaker (wing).”
Weaver’s certainly holds more present-day value with the Thunder than he did with the team that drafted him – the Charlotte Bobcats.
The 6-foot-6 product from Beloit, Wis., was drafted in the second round (38th overall) by the Bobcats and new coach Larry Brown in June. He flew to Charlotte, met people in the organization the next day and went home, hoping contract negotiations would work themselves out.
And he kept waiting.
“I don’t know what it was. Maybe I said something (wrong),” Weaver said. “It was a weird feeling.”
As the stalemate went on in Charlotte, one man who recommended the Thunder consider making a move for him was Francis Williams, a longtime Seattle-area high school coach who served as a consultant for the organization while it transitioned from Seattle to Oklahoma City. Williams had watched Weaver play a lot for the Cougars.
The Thunder apparently listened.
It traded a second-round draft choice for 2009 to the Bobcats to get Weaver in early August. Three weeks later, Oklahoma City signed him to a multiyear deal, with a starting salary of just more than $800,000.
The transition was welcomed but not easy. Weaver came to camp battling a groin injury. When he did practice, his body wasn’t handling the physical punishment of the NBA very well.
“Before the season, I had doubt whether I could play here, because it was tough. In training camp, I was getting pushed around, and the time I spent out and not being able to play because of the (injury),” Weaver said. “I had mixed feelings.”
He played sparingly when the season started, sometimes not at all. But soon after, then-coach P.J. Carlesimo was fired and replaced by assistant Scott Brooks.
Late last month, after Mason suffered a season-ending knee injury against Memphis, Brooks decided to insert Weaver into the starting role, adding it wasn’t guaranteed to be on a rest-of-the-season basis.
“As a rookie, you’re so overwhelmed at times, and I’m sure he has been,” Brooks said. “To get thrown into the starting lineup is probably a major overwhelming experience. I’ve probably had that feeling only a few times in my career. But he’s done a good job.”
He’s started the past seven games – matching the career total of Bennett, his former college coach who played with the Charlotte Hornets.
During that span, Weaver is averaging 29.3 minutes per game, scoring 4.7 points and shooting 32.5 percent from the floor (13-of-40).
“Going from 10 minutes to 30 minutes and playing in this league, and at this level, it’s a big jump,” Weaver said. “They say as a rookie, you hit the wall. I don’t know if I hit that wall, but I’ve hit something.”
He’s certainly made an impression on his peers. Just ask the guy he guarded Wednesday night.
“He’s a good player, and I’ve always liked playing against Kyle because he’s a competitor,” Roy said. “He’s a little bit more mature. Defense is his niche, there is nothing wrong with that. There are players who win championships playing that kind of basketball.”
Any thoughts of an NBA championship are a long ways off in Oklahoma City. All Weaver wants is the opportunity to prove he belongs in the NBA.
His next game comes tonight against the Bobcats.
“Quite possibly, this can mean a lot for my future,” Weaver said. “I’ve got the chance to be out there, and I’ve been able to do some things. I feel a lot more comfortable with the ball. I definitely feel I can play in this league. My goal each game – each year – is to come back with something different, and keep improving.”
COUGARS STARTING IN THE NBA
Fourteen players from Washington State have played in the NBA, with six starting games. The six starters:
* Weaver (seven games) and Hendrickson (one) are only WSU players to start an NBA game as a rookie.
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442
Todd Milles, The News Tribune