Style vs. Substance: Lessons learned at Portsmouth

Style vs. Substance: Lessons learned at Portsmouth
Apr 07, 2006, 03:30 pm
It was the second of three games that day in Portsmouth. The NBA decision makers and various other basketball types were gathered for what appeared to be a rather unexciting match up between two teams that featured predominantly 2nd round or rookie FA players. So, there was nothing magical or star struck about the events that were about to take place, no one was expecting an epiphany of any sort from this game.

Despite the lack of national fanfare however, there was quite a turnout of support for two particular players. Tim Smith, the diminutive guard from East Tennessee State had brought with him quite a following, each of whom let it be known what they thought about their player. Fully armed in number with “” t-shirts bearing the quote “I’m faster with the ball than without it”, Smith’s legion of followers took up residence behind the media table and revved their hype machine up to full throttle.

Meanwhile, a less assuming but equally as ardent contingent had made their way up from Raleigh to support a local hero of their own, Sean Dockery. Dockery was finishing up a solid career at Duke where he had been a beloved if unspectacular player for one of the country’s most powerful teams. Not much was expected out of Dockery at this tournament, though the previous years’ success from teammates Chris Duhon and Daniel Ewing certainly helped get him an invitation and should garner him a longer look from pro scouts.

So the stage was set, two diametrically opposed players in every way. Smith with his lightning quick speed and frenetic style of play, commanding the ball and the attention he could get with it in his hands; and Dockery, the proverbial “cog in the wheel” who never played outside the bounds of his role or responsibility to his teammates.


The game started out very much like the players whose egos and dispositions would make it memorable. Smith came in off the bench and instantly began pounding the ball into the floor with jitter bug hesitation and flashy crossover quickness. His bating steps had Dockery and LSU’s Darrel Mitchell totally off balance and susceptible to Smith’s every whim.

But, the initial excitement and awe that Smith’s raw tools created was very rarely backed up by any actual production. Smith continued to get into trouble by over committing himself on drives and ending up in the tall trees of the interior defenders. Smith hadn’t shown any perimeter game at that point and hadn’t needed to because of his ability to penetrate past anybody who he faced. However, without finding any space to finish these drives it was becoming clear that something had to give.

Amidst the fanfare and general buzz of Smith’s electric performance, Sean Dockery was quietly doing what he had done for 4 seasons at Duke-fit in. While an admirable trait, Dockery was not here to “fit in”, he was here to stand out. Athletes sometimes become so conditioned by their environment, they lose the individuality that got them recognized in the first place. Up until now, Dockery looked like a man who had forgotten who he was-- but that was about to change.

Finding no success in his dribble penetration, Smith elected to show off his range at the expense of Dockery, who had been increasing his ball pressure over the last few minutes. Smith broke off a devastating crossover to the right side then planted his foot hard and yanked himself back for the step-back triple. Dockery’s attempt to react to the initial move brought him to one knee as he helplessly watched Smith pull up for the shot. The crowd went wild for the speed and effectiveness of the playground move, but Smith delivered only a failing chuck of a shot that slammed against the side of the backboard, barely drawing iron.

This was all Dockery needed to wake up. Given the chance to respond and being more enraged than embarrassed at the previous play, Dockery broke out of the constraint he had placed on himself and finally started balling like a pro.

Dockery received the outlet in transition and chop-stepped back and forth, left to right, while bringing the heat directly at Smith. Almost as a mirror image of the previous play, Dockery pulled the rug out from under Smith with a killer cross and step-back…but he, unlike Smith, drained the shot with confidence, poise, and near flawless form.


For the next few possessions both Smith and Dockery went at it in their own personal duel of ego and skill. But, as Smith faltered with each individual attempt at recognition, Dockery utilized all his aggressive tendencies with purpose and execution. With each assist Dockery laced through the traffic and each basket he made in Smith’s face, Smith’s bravado shrunk and his game became virtually non-existent.

The Message

The purpose of this piece was not to insult Smith or laude Dockery as much as it was to articulate a point. Every year there are far more celebrated players who share these same traits and are similarly misjudged. We all love to dream of what a player with amazing athletic attributes may be capable of, if only he did the simplest of things to apply that enormous talent to the thinking part of the game.

But, the sad reality of it all is that as much as many of us wish to oversimplify how easy it is to teach the fundamentals of the game, it may be just as difficult as finding players with the athletic ability to become the stars of tomorrow.

An important lesson for all would be to temper the rose-colored glasses that we wear when watching the spectacular and try and pay attention to a player’s grasp of the basics. The combination of the two will surely lead to success, but both must be there, or at least be capable of showing themselves in order for a player to shine on the next level. Truly, any player who has mastered an understanding of how to play the game can afford to sacrifice some of the more attractive athletic attributes without losing his ability to impact the game. The difference in athletic ability between most NBA players is very little. Few possess the ability to amaze on raw physical talent alone. While there is no doubt that some undefined baseline of physical talent exists in order to be a success on the pro level, there is still another side to that proverbial coin.

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