Knicks Balkman Trying To Learn From His Past To Find His Future

Published on: 22nd December, 2011


Knicks Balkman Trying To Learn From His Past To Find His Future   | read this item

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New York, NY – In any sport, one of the more interesting aspects of pre-season games are the individual stories and challenges every single player, stars and non-stars alike, always bring with them to a new season. It is a renewed battle every year to be an important and relevant part of a team in its upcoming season. Most players are either on their way up or on their way down but rarely is there a player battling to stay the same as the previous season.

 This could be Balkman’s last hurrah in the NBA

For some players on the New York Knicks, like superstars Amar’e Stoudemire or Carmelo Anthony, it is the need to prove they can not only put up big scoring numbers but that they can translate those numbers into winning basketball games. For others, like first-year guard Iman Shumpert and the rookie center, Josh Harrelson, their motivation is solely to show the coaching staff and their teammates they could be counted on each and every day to contribute to a championship contending team.

And then, there is the case of Renaldo Balkman, back with the Knicks for a second time in his six-year NBA career. Quite possibly, in this training camp, Balkman is getting his final chance to stay in the league or be gone forever. Here was a young man, 6’8″, 225 pounds who was drafted in the first round of the 2006 NBA draft out of the University of South Carolina by then-Knicks General Manager Isiah Thomas. He was seen, not as a savior for a franchise that hadn’t sniffed playoff dust in five years but as a potentially important piece of a team contending for a playoff berth. Although Balkman was not a scorer at any level of his career, it was thought he would be a player who could rebound, play defense and scratch and fight on every possession. The kind of role player every superb team needs and the kind of player who is most effective without the ball in his hand.

He reminded Thomas of a young Dennis Rodman, Thomas’ former Detroit Piston teammate whose playing career led straight to the National Basketball Association Hall of Fame. It was perhaps, one of Thomas’ many mistakes in judgment in his Knicks tenure as the young Balkman, never really a college star, was placed in the untenable position of improving a struggling professional team without the commensurate skill-set to do so.

In Balkman’s case, this 2011 training camp may well be a story of redemption, of proving to himself that a career started with such flourish, great hope, and a three-year contract hasn’t been a complete bust despite his obvious lack of production. Balkman would like nothing more than to prove whatever may have slowed his progress in the first six years of his career is not even close to what is going to happen for this young man over the next several years.

On this Knicks roster, Balkman is an old warhorse of 27. After tonight’s final exhibition contest at Madison Square Garden against local rivals, the New Jersey Nets, won by the Knicks, 88-82, many of the media in the Knicks post-game locker room surrounded the two draft choices, Shumpert and Harrelson to get their point of view about how they feel being young, highly-paid hotshots in their inaugural NBA season. But, it was Balkman who used to be that hotshot, here in this locker room, when he was drafted in 2006.

The Knicks’ choice of Balkman in the first round surprised many, notably ESPN’s Jay Bilas who noted that projected lottery pick Marcus Williams was still available as well as future All-Star guard Rajon Rondo. ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, among others, joked that perhaps Isiah Thomas thought he was drafting Rolando Blackman, a former Knicks player and NBA All-Star. However, other analysts praised Balkman’s work ethic and attitude, as he had transformed himself from a relative unknown into a first round NBA draft pick over the course of a few months.There was further controversy when Thomas claimed that the Phoenix Suns were prepared to take him; the Suns publically stated that he was not even “on [their] radar.”

In the NBA’s official draft guide, which was released to all reporters covering the draft, Balkman was not included in the list of the 300 top players eligible to be drafted in the 2006-07 rookie class. However, the Knicks selected Balkman with their first of two draft picks, which was 20th overall. The Knicks later selected Mardy Collins with the 29th pick. It has also been speculated that Thomas and the Knicks selected Balkman because his agent, Leon Rose, was also the agent of then soon-to-be free agent LeBron James.

Whatever the reasons, Balkman turned out not to be able to play an important role in any success the Knicks had or were trying to achieve. Perhaps, it was the pressure of being a number one draft pick when no one thought it was deserved. More likely, his skill level as an NBA player simply wasn’t up to snuff, especially on the offensive end of the court where he often didn’t have a clue what to do with the ball in his hands. But, it was also Balkman’s youth and commensurate lack of maturity that may have done him in, as it has to so many before and since he broke in.

“It really is about my level of maturity, now and then,” said Balkman. “I’m 27 now. I’ve grown up a little bit.”

Balkman was unable to advance past being a bit player for the Knicks in his three seasons in New York. As a first round draft pick, he was considered a bust in every definition of the word. 

“I got myself into some trouble, I have to admit that,” he said. “But, we all grow up. I just told myself, I can’t do this anymore. I didn’t work at my game, I didn’t try to get better. I think my lack of progress was due to my not working hard enough to improve and my not getting minutes on the court only made things worse for me, and my attitude.”

The Knicks got rid of him after the 2008 season, sending him to the Denver Nuggets, where he wasted away on the bench for another two years.

“I always want to play basketball and I wasn’t getting the opportunity to do that,” he said. I didn’t understand what was going on until I was playing for the Puerto Rican National Team last year. The players on that team would go to church together; many of the Puerto Rican players are very close to G-d and they taught me so much about being close to Him, too.”

“He let me see it was all in my power to change my situation with basketball,” Balkman told me. “I love this game now, more than ever. I’d play this game for free but I love being in the NBA.”

Balkman was also only 21-years old when he came into the NBA. His frustration was obvious to his past teammates and coaches. It did not matter to them that Balkman had once held the lofty status of being a number one draft pick and the big money contract that goes along with that.

“I’m playing, now. I hadn’t gotten that chance to play for a few years. It really has been about getting a chance. You see things over the years. When I came out, I was young, for my age.” 

He’s not so young anymore, especially in a league where high schoolers and players with just one year of college ball under their belt are plentiful. What does he need to do to stick with the team, this season?

“The coaches tell me to stay focused, to be consistent,” he said. “I think I can do that now, better than when I was just coming up.”

The pressure on these players can be enormous. It can drive some to success while others get mired in the muck of external or internal expectations they can’t live up to. It can swallow some players while others rise to the occasion.

You get the idea this is a kid who is thanking his lucky stars for what could be his last opportunity to play in the NBA. As hard a worker as he’s been in this training camp, possibly his final shot at basketball redemption, he’s one of the players you root for.

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