He was an unsung rookie with a rehabbing knee. The last thing Danny Granger needed was to be called out by one of the league's baddest men. But sure enough, there was Ron Artest, challenging his Pacers teammate to man up.
To get a feel for how harrowing this is, you need to understand one-on-one Artest-style. It's part basketball, part football, with a bit of wrestling tossed in. He slaps at the ball with a ferocity that bruises wrists and forearms and throws shoulders like boxer's jabs, repeatedly bouncing them off your chin. All of it is a test of will, of course, to see if he can trust you once the real games begin.
In the summer of 2005, Artest tested Granger, again and again. But he didn't render a verdict until weeks later. Following an early-season game, Danny Granger Sr. approached his son's infamous teammate. Artest made polite conversation then began to walk off. Suddenly, he stopped and headed back. "Mr. Granger," he said, staring into the father's eyes, "in two years your son is going to be a star."
Artest was a couple of years premature in his prediction, but he wasn't wrong. Today, Granger is a rising star, a 25-year-old All-Star averaging 25 ppg. In the words of teammate Jeff Foster, it's "an astounding rise" for a player who was offered one D1 scholarship (from Bradley; he later transferred to New Mexico) and was passed over 16 times on draft night in favor of such current benchwarmers as Ike Diogu, Antoine Wright and Joey Graham. Yet even now not everyone is sold on Danny Granger. Indy's sub-.500 season has talking heads from Jeff Van Gundy to local legend Reggie Miller arguing that the 6'8", 228-pound forward should have watched the All-Stars, not played among them.
And he is hardly the only player who faces this particular skepticism. The Clippers' Zach Randolph and Wolves' Al Jefferson are 20-point, 10-rebound machines, but neither has come close to being an All-Star. The Kings' Kevin Martin was seventh in the NBA in scoring last season, but few, if any, consider him big-time. Look, everyone knows that who is or isn't an All-Star in any given year can be as much a question of depth as the final word on a player's skill set. And this season, the Raptors' Chris Bosh and Nets' Devin Harris were teammates of Granger's on the East despite also playing for less-than-mediocre clubs. Bosh, in fact, is an Olympian. But still, it is individual leaders like them who cause the same question to be asked each year: Is a guy who puts up huge stats for a bad team as good as his numbers?
Being able to reconcile the space between a player's stats and his team's record is a big part of what separates championship-level talent evaluators from the recycled masses. All sorts of x factors come into play: Who is the guy scoring against? How does he get his points? Is he effective in crunch time? And the consensus on Granger, not just in front offices, but on sidelines and in locker rooms as well, is that he's legit.
And that's because…
Danny Granger is efficient. Even as Granger acknowledges the lone-wolf theory—that on a poor team someone is bound to post impressive stats—he is quick to add a corollary: "Some say it's harder to score on a bad team because everybody's loading up on you."
Don't let the Pacers' 6—5 record when Granger sat with a partially torn tendon in his foot fool you. It's not like there are many other guys on Indy who can do damage. Granger has been double-teamed, denied the ball and keyed on in ways that other prominent wings, like Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson and Carmelo Anthony, never are. "He's scoring volumes of points with the best defenses in the league focused on him,'' coach Jim O'Brien says.
Granger's shooting percentage of 43.2 isn't blistering, but it's within percentage points of Johnson's as well as Kobe's in both his last season with and first season without Shaq. With a quick release and deft touch from behind the arc, a snappy first step that gets him to the rim (and the line: 6.8 FTA per game) and a solid midrange game, Granger gets his points in the flow of a democratic offense, not by going rogue like many top dogs on sorry teams. "He gets his points quietly," says Rockets stopper Shane Battier. "When they beat us in Indiana, I guarded him, and I thought I'd done a pretty good job. Then I looked at the stat sheet and saw he had 25."
Danny Granger has a winning work ethic. There's 0.9 seconds left, game tied, and four Pacers are lined up at the foul line. Granger pops out beyond the three-point line, catches Mike Dunleavy's inbound feed and hurls the ball toward the rim in one motion as Steve Nash flies toward him. All net. The Pacers mob Granger as the home-team Suns walk off the court in disbelief.
It isn't luck that has Granger draining shots like that. He practices those heaves almost daily. The guy who scored an impressive 30 on his ACT and was accepted to Yale works on stuff some players don't even think about. In addition to catch-and-release J's, he practices shots off bad passes, from deep beyond the arc and from the apex of his highest jumps. "I'm telling you," he says, "I get at least one unorthodox shot every game."
There are six cities in which NBA players gather for hard runs in the off-season: Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Las Vegas. If a player is serious about getting better, he'll spend significant time in one of them. Granger always heads for LA as soon as the season ends, but last year he hit Vegas as well. He returned to Indy with a nice payoff: an improved midrange shot and more basket-attacking skills. Armed with those new weapons, he is on pace to be the first player in NBA history to raise his scoring average at least five points in three straight seasons. His determination also manifests in on-court toughness. In November, Granger lost two front teeth in a loose-ball scrum against Boston. Within moments, as blood dripped from both sides of his mouth, he was begging to return. That fearlessness is the product of his upbringing in a violent, drug-infested neighborhood in Metairie, La.; several of Granger's childhood friends wound up in prison. "Danny's not backing down from anything or anybody," says Pacers president Larry Bird.
Danny Granger doesn't pad his stats—Not against bad teams, not during blowouts. Through mid-March Indy's record (28—40) is lame, but more than a few league-watchers concede the Pacers aren't exactly bottom-feeders; they do stay close most nights. A league-high 18 of their games have been decided by three points or less (they're 7—11 in those contests), and they've beaten the Celtics, Lakers, Cavaliers, Magic and Pistons, and the Rockets twice. Granger put 42 on the Pistons, 36 on the Nuggets, 33 on the Cavaliers and the Magic and 32 on the Lakers. He's tied with Dwyane Wade in average fourth-quarter scoring (at 6.9) and has a game-winning tip against Houston to go with that buzzer-beater in Phoenix. "If he was scoring and we were losing by 20, maybe the numbers would be a little false," O'Brien says. "That isn't the case."
As go-to as Granger has become, though, he is a long way from crashing the league's elite wing triumvirate of Kobe, LeBron and Wade. In fact, if those guys are the first tier of swingmen, most scouts put Granger in the third, behind a group that includes Pierce, Anthony, Johnson, a motivated Vince Carter and a healthy Tracy McGrady. Granger heads a bunch that includes Rashard Lewis, Caron Butler, Andre Iguodala and Josh Howard. League wisdom holds that in a more conventional system than O'Brien's quick-draw, every-look-is-a-good-one scheme, Granger would be good for 17 to 20 points a night.
In the end, it's not even about the numbers. "It's not an indictment of him that the Pacers aren't winning," says an Eastern Conference scout. "But if he's your best player—which he is in Indiana—you're in trouble. You're not going to win at a high level." One West exec, referencing the NBA's most heavenly duo, puts it more poetically but just as bluntly: "Granger can be a Scottie to somebody's Mike. He just can't be Mike."
But he can continue to get better. Unlike several players of his caliber, Granger may be far from tapped out. "I'm about 70% of the player I can be," he says. O'Brien sees him becoming a lockdown defender, rather than just a wicked weakside shotblocker (1.5 bpg). Bird sees seven or eight boards a night, rather than the five he corrals now. And Granger says he's determined to hone his post-up skills and develop a point forward's mentality and handle. Now he works solely from the wing, but someday he wants to be the guy grabbing a defensive board, pushing it upcourt and running a high pick-and-roll from the top of the key. He wants to be the type of player who can create for himself and his teammates from any spot on the floor. You know, like LeBron or Kobe.
Maybe it's optimistic to think Granger will morph into a beast in every aspect of the game. Can hard work alone really take someone so far? The best of the best all bust their tails. They also were born with qualities that put them far beyond excellence. For LeBron, it's vision and physique. Kobe has grace, Wade burst. "It's no insult to say Danny can't be as good as those guys," O'Brien says with a laugh. "Some guys are just the greatest of their generation." Granger gets that. In early February, moments after being congratulated on his All-Star invite by patrons at Sullivan's Steakhouse on the outskirts of Indianapolis, he addressed the aforementioned "third-tier" assessment. "I think it's accurate," he said. "Right now, other guys are a little better than me in some areas."
Danny Sr. fidgeted in a white sweat suit beside his son. He clearly thought Danny Jr. was shortchanging himself. After all, he saw his son grow from a high school power forward who didn't make all-state into an NBA All-Star swingman. He heard the coaches at LSU tell Danny he wasn't good enough to play for the Tigers. To Danny Sr., who raised his three children alone after his wife deserted the family when Junior was 12, nothing is impossible, on the court or off.
"He's a father," the younger Granger said with a smirk, as he shot a look toward his dad. "Parents always think their kids are the best. One time, I had 35 points and 15 rebounds in high school, and on the way home he told me he thought I was ready to go straight to the NBA. I said, 'Let's get a scholarship first.'"
Father and son cracked up at the memory. But Granger's humor and modesty cloak something more cold. You can hear it in the preface to his steakhouse self-eval: Right now. Junior is as confident in his skills as Senior is. He believes he can attain not only the second tier of stardom but also the rare air of Kobe & Co. "I can definitely be the No. 1 guy on a really good team," he says without a hint of doubt. "People can say I'm not good enough, and I'll just keep proving them wrong—and smiling inside."
Granger actually prefers to have naysayers. At this point, he says, love from all corners would just feel weird. He relishes the challenge.
Just ask Ron Artest.