As a frontline witness to the changing climate, Jason Kapono could see he was on the wrong side of a basketball revolution. One of those four-year college kids pushed aside in the NBA's lust for the drop-dead Euro shooter, Kapono saw his draft status become a casualty of the escalating war on American basketball.
At the time, in 2003, Kapono delivered a fabulous commentary on the increasing skepticism toward elder collegians. "I should have left UCLA after my freshman year, played in Croatia, grown a beard and changed my name to Vladimir Kaponovich," he said.
Mostly, he was exasperated with a system where the longer you stayed in school, the more NBA executives picked apart and devalued your game. "They'll keep talking about all the things that you can't do," Kapono said. "And it just doesn't dazzle people to walk in the gym and watch a 6-7 white guy shooting the ball in those pre-draft workouts. They want that upside, that potential, that kid who can handle and run and jump.
"But I developed a skill that's needed on every team."
Yes, the Miami Heat's Kapono could shoot it, and that never loses value.
After going to the Cavaliers in the second round of the 2003 draft and moving on to Charlotte in the expansion pool for two years, he got a front-row seat to a championship season in Miami in 2006. His path resembled the starter kit to a journeyman's life.
So he bided his time, waited for a chance and never, ever lost that shooter's belief. Suddenly, he's a valued part of the Heat's rotation and a rising commodity in next summer's free-agent market. Most of all, Kapono happens to be shooting an NBA-best 54 percent on three-pointers, reason alone for NBA vice president Stu Jackson and his staff to invite him to the three-point shootout during All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas.
If nothing else, Kapono's exclusion would be an injustice of the highest order. His league-leading three-point percentage deserves to override his modest name appeal on the Strip. As All-Star snubs go, the stats would tell you his would be one of the most grievous.
"It would be an honor and a privilege to take part in it," Kapono said by phone this week. "Growing up, I watched it all the time. I watched Steve Kerr and Craig Hodges and Reggie Miller do it.
"When I saw (Kyle) Korver in there, that's the first time that I realized maybe there's a chance for me to get in it. We came in together – same age, same draft, both in the second round. I thought, 'If he can do it, why can't it be me, too?' "
Across the NBA, this season has been something of a testament to the staying power of second-round picks – Gilbert Arenas to Michael Redd, Carlos Boozer to Rashard Lewis. Kapono will never be a star, but he's made that treacherous climb from journeyman to keeper. Six times in January he's had 18 or more points, including 22 on Monday night against the Knicks. Pat Riley and Ron Rothstein haven't been afraid to leave him on the floor late in games. They've come to trust his defense.
Through it all, Kapono, averaging a career-best 10 points in just under 24 minutes a game, is shooting with the kind of long-range accuracy seldom seen in the NBA. He's made a ridiculous 62 of 114 three-pointers this season, mostly without a double-teamed Shaquille O'Neal on the floor to give him more space, and is proving that labels can be obliterated.
"I'm seeing more zone than ever," one Eastern Conference scout said, "and that's because there still aren't enough guys who can make shots. A guy like Kapono has a lot of value in this league right now. He's going to get himself some security this summer."
Maybe with Miami. Or somewhere else. Make no mistake: He's on that list of free agents that includes the vastly underrated Andres Nocioni of the Bulls, the Lakers' Luke Walton and Washington's Jarvis Hayes.
"Deep down, I always knew I could be a player in the league," Kapono said.
So Jason Kapono kept shooting, kept making shots. Eventually, it impresses people in the NBA. It just wears them all down.
- Jason Kapono