The look in the poor kid's eyes told Bob Hurley that the long, spindly kid out of Starkville, Miss., was lost. Drills? Offensive sets?
Just a blank stare.
As diligently as the St. Anthony of Jersey City (N.J.) coach tried to direct Travis Outlaw to play LeBron James in the 2003 Roundball Classic in Chicago, it felt useless. The difference between the first two high school players picked in the 2003 NBA draft – No. 1 and No. 23 – promised to be monumental.
If James had been the most prepared prospect to ever make the prom-to-the-pros leap, Outlaw looked like the longest of shots.
"He had a hard time getting through the organization of one of those practices," Hurley said. "He was totally unprepared."
Just imagine how lost and confused Outlaw would be upon arrival in Portland as a teenager out of that small Southern town, an earnest, naïve kid walking into the backend of the Jail Blazers era. At 6-foot-9, a specimen selected on the rawest of athleticism, Outlaw could've been considered a poster child for commissioner David Stern's push to end the parade of high school kids into the NBA.
They'll remember that 2003 draft for LeBron and Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh, Leandro Barbosa and Josh Howard. For his first three seasons, Outlaw had been dismissed as something of a cautionary tale, a wasted pick. Everyone drafted these high school players promising patience, but beyond the Kobe Bryants and Kevin Garnetts, it was preached far more than practiced. Outlaw hadn't reached his 21st birthday, and some were passing judgment that his career was a bust.
"There had been a theory that if a young player hadn't played well by his third year in the league that he wouldn't be a player," Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard said. "I'm not so sure that applies anymore."
Outlaw wasn't Pritchard's pick, but he was his benefactor. The GM made a textbook transformation of the franchise, restoring the roster with talented, young players and exterminating the poisonous atmosphere that surrounded it. This kid out of Starkville, out of the shadow of the Class of '03, is in his fifth season and finally flourishing as the Blazers' sixth man.
He's delivered 17.4 points a game in December, and beyond that, he defends, blocks shots and rebounds. Along the way, he learned the nuances of playing a part on a winning team. Along the way, the Blazers did something remarkable: In the microwave culture of the NBA, where judgments are passed too soon, where projects are wildly disposable, the Blazers allowed Travis Outlaw to become an NBA player.
Out of the here-and-there flashes of his first four seasons, out of the shadows of Greg Oden and Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers made a pro out of Outlaw. They reminded everyone that a plan, that patience, can still go a long way in turning a teeny-bopper into a polished product.
Now, the Blazers feel like a college program that's turned the corner. Even with Oden redshirting, these Blazers are threatening to challenge for the tournament. Behind the best young coach in the sport, Nate McMillan, they've won eight straight games to climb to 13-12, just a ½ game out of second in the Northwest division.
Through it all, Pritchard has delivered a blueprint on how to transform a raw basketball specimen into a productive professional. He cleansed the Blazers of the malcontents, assigned a bright assistant coach, Monty Williams, to work with Outlaw and 2005 prep draftee, Martell Webster, and measured progress over the long run. Pritchard decided that the Blazers weren't going to invest all this time and work and have them finally prosper somewhere else in the league.
Once McMillan arrived in 2005, everything changed for Outlaw. All the reads, all the options, Outlaw struggled to learn the system. He would get lost on the floor, end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. When his mind was racing so fast trying to keep up with his teammates, it was impossible to play basketball with instinct, with reaction.
On the surface, perhaps, Williams' background had little in common with Outlaw's. He had been a 4.0 student in high school, a Notre Dame graduate, on his way to a 10-year NBA career. Yet, Williams' life had taught him that everyone learns in different ways, and part of coaching, part of teaching, had to be adapting to the student.
Williams remembered the way that his wife, Ingrid, taught him to truly study as a student at Notre Dame. "All I ever did was memorize in high school," he said. So, it occurred to him: How would he help Outlaw study?
Here's what worked: After practices, Williams brought a white grease board to midcourt and diagrammed the plays as the two of them walked through them on the floor. This way, Outlaw could visualize the reads. This way, he could see where his teammates were supposed to be. Over time, the Blazers are sure his assists rose because it helped him understand where everyone else fit around him.
"Too many times in this league, they'll dismiss a guy as, 'Oh, he can't think,' or 'he's learning disabled,' when you could take the time to help him learn," Williams said.
His time with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich taught Williams about searching for the way to reach every player, to be flexible in tailoring the teaching to them. He watched Popovich take the time to understand the motivations and backgrounds of one of the NBA's most diverse rosters and use the knowledge to push and prod and reach them.
"If I'm going to affect them, then you have to be willing to understand who they are," he said.
How many old-school NBA lifers would've been inflexible with Outlaw, berated him for failing to take to the offense? Yes, Outlaw and Webster have benefitted by the commitment the Blazers made to go young. They had chances to get minutes, to play through mistakes and that wouldn't have been possible on a lot of teams.
"We made a commitment to play young guys through the good times and bad, and that can be a hard commitment to keep in this league," Pritchard said. "As long as you have a development process in place, as long as you see guys getting better, you can be patient with them. We're starting to see those dividends now."
From those empty stares on that high school all-star court, to walking into the Jail Blazers, to three seasons and into a fourth when no one could be sure that the light would ever flicker for him. Only, it did. He wishes Stern never instituted the 19 year-old rule, insisting, "College isn't for everybody." Nevertheless, he made it the hard way. That historic draft class of '03 just got a little stronger, a little deeper.
The Rose Garden hasn't been so loud in a long, long time, and Outlaw, a pro now, said in that soft voice, "It's nice to be a part of a winning team here. I'm just glad they believed in me to keep going here."
All those blank stares, all that uncertainty, are gone. Portland had that long, lost basketball virtue of patience and Travis Outlaw, 23 years old, is a pro now.
- Travis Outlaw