Role change could suit Ariza just fine
Trevor Ariza(notes), Bryant’s former teammate with the Los Angeles Lakers the previous two seasons, had missed all but one of his 11 shots – including all four of his 3-point attempts – and failed to hand out a single assist. Bryant figured Ariza was in need of a little brotherly advice, so he sent him an encouraging text message.
“He was like, ‘I’ve been through the same situation before. So just slow down, stay focused on your goal and it will come around. You’re in a situation where you have an opportunity, so take advantage of it,’ ” Ariza said of Bryant’s message.
Ariza welcomed Bryant’s advice because he now finds himself in a unique position: The Rockets need him to become their go-to scorer, a role Ariza hasn’t held since he was a senior at Los Angeles’ Westchester High six years ago. In his six NBA seasons, Ariza has never averaged double figures in scoring.
“It’s an adjustment,” Ariza said. “It’s a different style of basketball that I’m playing now. I’m going from being the fifth option to one of the main guys on the team. It’s taken a little while to adjust to it, but I’m happy to be in this situation.
“The best part about it is I can take shots, and if I take a bad shot, I’m not going to be yelled at. But the toughest part is probably having to take it all on my shoulders. It’s what people say pressure is.”
Ariza expected as much after signing a five-year, $33 million contract with the Rockets this summer. With All-Star center Yao Ming(notes) sidelined for the season, guard Tracy McGrady(notes) likely out until January and Ron Artest(notes) having taken Ariza’s place with the Lakers, the Rockets are desperately counting on Ariza to tap into more of his talent and expand his game.
While trying to change his mentality from that of role player to dependable scorer, Ariza leaned strongly on Bryant for guidance. Ariza figured he would still be alongside Bryant this season after helping the Lakers win their 15th NBA title by averaging 11.5 points in the playoffs. He entered free agency hoping to land a big contract from the Lakers.
Negotiations, however, never really progressed after Ariza’s agent made it clear he wanted more than the $5.8 million midlevel exception. The Lakers quickly turned their attention to Ron Artest, who eagerly accepted their five-year, $33 million offer. Ariza was left to take a similar deal from the Rockets.
“I can’t keep looking back at that,” said Ariza, who will receive his championship ring when the Rockets visit Los Angeles on Nov. 15. “You don’t live in the past. You live in the present and look toward the future.”
Before choosing Houston, Ariza said he also received strong interest from the Cleveland Cavaliers, Portland Trail Blazers and the Toronto Raptors. But despite those intriguing overtures and the fact he knew Yao would be out at least this season, Ariza joined a team that will do well to simply make the playoffs.
The reason? An opportunity to grow as a player and become a leader, the chance to viewed as much more than a defensive standout.
“A lot of players here are younger and they come to me a lot more,” Ariza said. “It’s weird, because I still feel young. I’m 24, but I’ve been in the league for a while.”
Ariza said he has sought guidance from Rockets forward Shane Battier(notes) and the coaching staff. With Yao and McGrady out, Houston coach Rick Adelman is in desperate need for a go-to guy. Without a proven superstar on his active roster, he hasn’t known exactly where to turn.
Point guard Aaron Brooks(notes) is coming off a breakthrough playoff performance and is a comfortable first option for now, but he also has lacked consistency. Luis Scola(notes) can score inside and outside, but is more of a role player. Ariza, meanwhile, has the athleticism to become a more dynamic scorer – he also improved his 3-point shooting considerably last season – but has never averaged more than 8.9 points in a full season.
“He played a certain role with the Lakers, and we’ve asked him to do more things,” Adelman said. “It takes time for a player to get acclimated to doing that. It’s not going to be an easy process for him, but he has to just keep fighting through, find out where his comfort levels are and find out where they’re not.
“He is one of the guys we have to keep force feeding. We lost so much scoring from last [season’s] team, we need someone to step up and we hope he’s one of the guys that can do that.”
Ariza’s goal: To become more like Bryant and less like his old self.
“I have to tell myself to shoot more, and everyone reminds me of that,” Ariza said. “Every practice when I pass up a good shot thinking someone else is open for a better shot, they tell me to shoot the ball. I got to [be aggressive], and I’m still having problems with it.”
Ariza showed some of his potential this week when the Rockets beat the Golden State Warriors on the road. He scored a team-high 25 points while making four 3-pointers.
Said Ariza, “That’s what I came to Houston for. And that’s what I’m supposed to do.”
Some 400 miles down the road in L.A., Bryant probably had a proud smile on his face as he looked at the box score.