Albuquerque Journal (NM)
March 21, 2008
Justin Ray, we hardly knew ye. When J.R . Giddens ' last-second 18-footer rimmed out Wednesday night in Berkeley, Calif., it brought a sudden end to one of the most spectacular careers in Lobo basketball history.
And, sad to say, one of the most short-lived; 2006-07 doesn't count. A basketball season is a terrible thing to waste, and Giddens wasted one.
Yet, '07-08 -- a season found -- became unforgettable.
Credit firstyear coach Steve Alford and his staff for harnessing Giddens' free spirit without destroying it. Credit Giddens' teammates for recognizing that this season's J.R. wasn't last season's J.R.
Mostly, credit Giddens for one of the most dramatic turnarounds I've witnessed in UNM athletics.
The water under this particular bridge isn't fit to drink, so we'll deal with it only briefly. To call the 2006-07 season a train wreck would tend to trivialize train wrecks.
If coach Ritchie McKay was the engineer of that runaway train, Giddens was the runaway train -- firing contested 3-pointers from absurd distances, dribbling into turnovers, quarreling with teammates.
Then, McKay, who'd brought Giddens into the program as a Kansas transfer with baggage, was fired. After the hiring of Alford, a no-nonsense Bob Knight guy, speculation was rampant that J.R. had played his last game in a Lobo uniform.
Now that Giddens has played his final game, leaving on his shield after his 11th double-double of the season, certain things are clear.
Giddens, despite his exceptional physical gifts, came to UNM a victim of stunted development. At Kansas, more than 60 percent of his field-goal attempts were 3-pointers. He shot just 52 free throws in two seasons. His education as a college basketball player was sadly inadequate.
McKay -- remember, Giddens wouldn't be here if not for him -- did little to further that education. When a guy shoots five 3s a game but makes just 30 percent of them, that person belongs inside the free-throw line. Or on the bench.
Alford and his staff, in their approach to Giddens' basketball education, were nothing less than brilliant -- at once patient and demanding.
In mid-December, with Giddens averaging just 11.5 points and 9.4 shots per game, I wondered why Alford wasn't doing more to feature his best offensive player.
It's clear now that Alford wanted to see Giddens pass Basketball 101 before taking on any advanced courses. Until Giddens understood he was just one of five Lobos on the court, he could not become more than that.
And what a Lobo he became.
Consider his final 10 games: 23 points, 9.7 rebounds -- yes, he darn near averaged a double-double -- and 3.5 assists per game. Exploiting screen after screen and set play after set play in Alford's offense, he shot 54 percent from the field.
These were Danny Granger's statistics three years ago during the last 10 games of his brilliant senior year: 19.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game on 51 percent shooting.
Here, at least, statistics don't lie. The new, improved Giddens of the past three months has been every bit the player and leader Granger was in 2005.
No, he didn't lead his team as far. Granger was joined in the starting lineup by two juniors and two seniors, Giddens by a junior, a sophomore and two freshmen.
And, no, I don't see Giddens enjoying Granger-like success in the NBA. Having taken his game inside the foul line to excel in college, J.R. now must take it back outside -- and dramatically improve his jump shot and ballhandling.
Of course, I've been guilty of underestimating Justin Ray Giddens before -- never his athletic ability, but his head and heart for the game.
Justin Ray, we miss you already.