LaMarcus Aldridge: Handle With Care

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

LaMarcus Aldridge's mid-range jumper is among the most indefensible shots in the game. His length and quick release make it infallible when he's on, whether he's facing up, leaning into his defender -- something he's become more comfortable doing lately -- or fading away. This month, Aldridge has averaged 19.8 ppg on 50% shooting from the field, up from his November totals of 15.9 ppg and 46%. Despite the steady progress, Aldridge still hears the whispers: "soft," "mercurial," "finesse player." Some of these characterizations are disputable. But, as Ric Bucher reports in the upcoming issue of ESPN the Magazine, Aldridge is well aware of his confidence issues, as are the Blazers, and their origins:

"I'm not normal," Aldridge says. "The only person I really trust is myself."

When those are the words you live by, your tendency is to examine everything you encounter with a microscope, looking for signs of deception or dishonesty, for any speck of someone trying to get over. Even something as simple as changing a pregame routine-say, replacing [Blazers video coordinator/assistant coach Kaleb] Canales-requires deliberation and execution, lest Aldridge peer into his scope and find something not quite right.

Of course, Aldridge's lack of faith in his fellow man isn't the first topic of conversation for those who mull whether the Trail Blazers will live up to the expectations that have them skipping right past "playoff team" to "perennial contender." Greg Oden's right knee, Brandon Roy's nagging injuries, Steve Blake's point guard play … each is a lot more top of mind. This team-which has not made the playoffs in six years, which has half a dozen players (including Aldridge) who will be eligible for options or extensions this summer, which has the NBA's second-youngest roster-is just poking its head out from the cocoon. In other words, the Blazers are as fragile as they are enthralling-just like Aldridge.

So this metamorphosis is going to take time, which requires patience, which demands, well, trust that the time spent will be worth it...

Now, after a couple of weeks of subtle hints and a one-point home win over the Kings in which Aldridge is so out of sync that he pleads with McMillan to stop calling his number, the coach has had enough. He orders assistant Joe Prunty to work over Aldridge the next day. Prunty is no bigger than Canales, but after practice he and two other staffers put Aldridge through a post drill-pushing, grabbing and slapping with focus-and suddenly Aldridge isn't grinning anymore. Practice is long and the prepractice film session longer, but Aldridge is revving in midgame form, wheeling and crushing dunks. "Haven't done a drill like that since college," he says afterward...

Later, Aldridge is at his locker when McMillan comes over and slides a hand under his T-shirt. Wanting to see if the new workout has produced the desired result, he frowns when he doesn't find a sheen of sweat. Aldridge, exasperated, says, "C'mon, I've been done for a minute! Dang!" The intrusion touches more than skin; it strikes a nerve.

Aldridge's internal battles aren't merely a personal endeavor. The entire Blazers' organization is mindful of Aldridge's temperament. They're deliberate about how to foster his development while being aware of -- and smart about -- the psychology at work:

BEING A Texan, Aldridge has a particular love of red meat. So it was especially wounding when he thought that Roy had left him out of a trip to a Brazilian barbecue joint in Memphis early last season. So that's how it is, he thought, and steered clear of Roy everywhere but on the court. It wasn't until the summer that Travis Outlaw convinced Aldridge that he had simply forgotten to tell him about the dinner. The issue is a memory now, but that kind of response to a perceived slight is what the Blazers work every day to avoid. They can't afford not to...

One of the main reasons McMillan opted to bring Oden off the bench when the No. 1 pick first returned to the lineup was to squelch Aldridge's urge to defer to him. And while the Blazers' marketers gladly would have followed everyone's lead and made Oden and Roy the thrust of their strategies, Kevin Pritchard and McMillan knew better. Aldridge gets equal time on the cover of the team's media guide and on area billboards.