“I am Galactus. The be-all and end-all am I!” – Galactus, Devourer of Worlds
Do you remember last week — those simpler days, that more innocent time — when O.J. Mayo was generally regarded as the no. 2 offensive option? Nowitzki would be Nowitzki, and Mayo could simply fill the far right column of the box score behind him. Mayo’s biggest concern was walking in Jason Terry’s shoes. But now, with Nowitzki out for the next six weeks due to knee surgery, Mayo has some larger shoes and a longer road.
Mayo did not start a single game for the Memphis Grizzlies last season, and now, he’s potentially the Mavs’ best offensive hope for the month of November. Sure, Elton Brand will take Nowitzki’s position on the court, but not his role on the team. That will almost surely belong to Mayo.
We may ponder the cruel fate of a universe that would place the task of gods into the hands of a mere mortal. We might wonder if the swelling in Nowitzki’s right knee was intended not to test the German’s resolve, but Mayo’s. However, for Mayo, unfair expectations have followed him throughout his entire basketball career. While he’s only played in the NBA for four seasons, his legacy will be forever attached to his ability to ascend those high hopes.
The Creation Myth
O.J. Mayo was a standout talent in high school, where he averaged 29 points, nine rebounds, and six assists per game in his junior season. During his last high school game, his team demolished their opponent with a savage 103-61 beating to win the Class AAA championship in West Virginia. Mayo had a triple-double: 41 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists. Towards the end of the game, Mayo raced ahead of everyone, threw the ball off the glass, caught it and dunked it. He threw the ball into the crowd. Victorious. A swarm of teenagers in yellow t-shirts hopped up and down, chanting “O-J-May-O.” Clap, clap, clap- clap-clap. It was a mythic beginning, the kind that makes scouts and sports writers unable to see straight.
For a young star, the only thing worse than being labeled “The Next LeBron James” is, a few years later, to be constantly referred to as “Not the Next LeBron James.” Mayo was not a victim of bad scouting; he was a victim of the whole concept behind scouting. The experts saw his talent and his youth, and in hoping to prophesize the future, they looked back. And they saw LeBron. These experts were so worried about missing the next big star that they jumped too quickly to superlatives. These sages rush a developmental phase where sometimes it’s more apt to wait and see. False prophecy happens all the time. There’s always a “next”. There’s always a player who will change the game and restore our sense of awe. LeBron makes us yearn for the next LeBron. Woe to the player who is saddled with the expectations of being next.
Mayo probably would have gone straight into the NBA from high school, if not for the NBA’s newly implemented age limit. After playing for a year at USC, he left and was selected 3rd in the 2008 draft by Minnesota. He was immediately traded to Memphis in multiplayer deal that included Kevin Love.
Time in the Wilderness
Memphis hoped to make Mayo the key addition to an already promising young team. During Mayo’s rookie season, he had flashes of brilliance that made the experts rejoice, and ultimately was named the runner-up for the Rookie of the Year Award behind Derrick Rose. However, after his second season, fate took a turn. Coach Lionel Collins moved the unremarkable Xavier Henry into the starting lineup, placing Mayo on the bench for the first time in his life. Collins hope was to have more offense off the bench. Instead, it demoralized Mayo and his game suffered as a result. Being a sixth man requires a certain disposition, well suited for veterans comfortable with the unwieldy task or younger “sparkplug” players earnest to prove they belong in the league. That was simply not how O.J. Mayo operated.
If Mayo was to be the son of promise, these years were his valley of darkness. The time when “not the next LeBron” was an easy go-to for sports writers and talk radio hosts. The youthful player who lobbed the basketball into the stands while people chanted his name was now reduced, both in minutes and status. The weight of expectation settling on his slumped shoulders — he’s not LeBron James, not Kevin Love, not Rudy Gay, not Zach Randolph.
I consider basketball an art form, not because I’m a huge nerd and I need to validate my obsession with artistic gravitas (maybe a little), but because basketball is about an individual exerting his will and ego upon his craft. That is art. The player takes the ball and speaks his ego into existence. “I am going to make this happen whether you like it or not. Here is how I see the world,” i.e. controlling the game. Kinder souls, and fans of the film Hoosiers, may retch at the egocentric notion, but greatness in basketball requires an abundance of ego. In Memphis, Mayo suffered a crisis of ego, painful and detrimental, but also necessary for further growth.
The Three Eyes of Fate
When Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban brought Mayo to Dallas, immediate comparisons were made to Jason Terry and not without cause. The Mavericks had an ideal balance with Nowitzki and Terry. They were harmonious in nature and opposite in attitude. The Mavs now need Mayo to fill the void in some capacity, an opportunity that again comes heavy with expectations.
It’s not that other basketball players don’t have expectations placed upon them. But for whatever reason, Mayo’s very presence invites higher hopes and a pentacostal belief in a loving and benevolent NBA.
But expectations are balanced by perspective. The pessimist will see an O.J. Mayo who has not wowed us during the preseason. They will see a player who peaked in his late teens, who had an explosive rookie season but was not able to adapt long-term to the NBA, a prima donna who scorned his role off the bench, and a player who is a little too anxious to prove himself. The pessimist will place the scoring role on more experienced players like Brand, Chris Kaman, and the consummate scorer Vince Carter. The pessimist sees Mayo as another wayward traveler with a short-term contract.
The optimist will disregard the preseason as a time when the teams are looking for their rhythm and coaches are still thinking through line-ups. Instead, the optimist will remember that O.J. Mayo was here before almost everyone else, practicing every day at the AAC, morning and night — the one who in interviews was earnest to play with Nowitzki and glean wisdom from him. Here’s a versatile player bursting with raw talent who wants to be in Dallas, who took less money to be in Dallas, and will grow into the player he was meant to be in Dallas. Memphis took a talented top draft pick and did not appropriately develop him for the NBA. His first season wasn’t a fluke. It’s a good omen for things to come now that he’s in a better system.
The realist will keep in mind that no one has really wowed us during the preseason, except Jae Crowder. It probably won’t stay that way. The preseason exists to save players from embarrassing stats that could’ve been the regular season. Mayo’s 4 of 16 shooting from last night may look dismal, but his offensive efficiency will improve. Trust in Rick Carlisle’s ability to develop talent. And trust in O.J. Mayo’s trust in Rick Carlisle. The realist will not expect O.J. Mayo to explode into an elite player during the first month of the regular season. Instead, the Mavs will need to share the burden left by Nowitzki’s absence. This experience won’t make Mayo a better star, but it just might make him a better player.
David Hopkins is a freelance writer — a regular contributor to D Magazine and Smart Pop Books. Follow David on Twitter at @davidhopkins.