I (almost) believe in Sebastian Telfair

March 10th, 2010 by John Krolik

“Just when the guy with the James Earl Jones pipes who’s bellowing It’s all hype! is starting to sound like he’s onto something, it hits: the moment when the superlatives make sense. Late in the first quarter Telfair receives an outlet pass at half-court, and in one fluid motion he relays the ball 30 feet past a defender to an empty spot on the court. An instant later a cutting teammate runs into the pass for a layup. It is a remarkable play—all the more so because in order to make the ball bounce just so, the righthanded Telfair had to throw a spinning, underhanded bounce pass with his left.”

-Sports Illustrated, 2004

“Placed on opposing teams for the All-Star game, LeBron and Sebastian wasted no time justifying their status as the best and most exciting players in the camp. Their showdown didn’t quite rate the head-to-head legitimacy of LeBron’s battle with Cooke, largely because these players were so physically different. Bassy said he was pushing six feet tall, but five-foot-ten seemed more believable; either way, LeBron dwarfed him in size, and they rarely guarded each other. Regardless of who tried to defend him, Telfair was remarkable. Mixing an on-target perimeter game with virtually unstoppable forays to the basket, he was all but impossible to guard. Given room outside, he’d smoothly pull up and fire, hitting far more often than he missed. When a defender tried to contest his jumper, Telfair used his eye-blink first step to fly right by; once clear, he’d dart into the paint, either finishing on his own or drawing defenders and dropping the ball off to an open teammate. He did whatever he wanted with the ball, usually with flair, throwing in an array of crossovers and n0-look passes for good measure. When it was over, the crowd seemed to agree: LeBron had been very, very good — and Bassy had been better. MVP honors went to one player on each team, allowing each of them to claim the award, but for one night, LeBron had been the second-best player on the floor.”

-From King James, Believe the Hype: The LeBron James Story, by Ryan Jones

I’ve been waiting for the Sebastian Telfair described above to show up for half a decade now. To put it simply, I’m still waiting. Why has Telfair flamed out so badly in the NBA? Let’s try to find out.

Why I believed in Sebastian Telfair:

I love point guards. A true point guard is hard to find, and Sebastian Telfair was born a true point guard. Point guards are the smallest guys on the floor. That means they’re the guys who have the hardest time getting the ball to go into the basket. They’re also the guys who run the game. Instead of height or physical power, they control the game by being a step ahead of the defense. They know where an open teammate is before the defense finds him. They know where they’re going to go with their dribble before the defense can get there. They create angles while the defense tries to stop the ball.

On the court, a great point guard is a detective. They succeed by figuring out what’s going to happen before anybody else does, and that’s how they get their baskets. Steve Nash is Sherlock Holmes on the court. Not only is Nash usually the smallest and weakest guy on the court; he’s often the slowest guy on the court. But he more than makes up for it by knowing what’s going to happen before it happens. Steve Nash always has a plan. If the defense goes under the screen, he’ll hit the jumper. If they trap, he’ll find his man in the seam for a layup. In the open floor, he always knows where to go with the ball. It’s beautiful to watch, and it’s the nuance that separates basketball from the other major sports.

Sebastian Telfair isn’t just a point guard. He’s a New York point guard. If Steve Nash is Sherlock Holmes, New York point guards are Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Spade was only a half-step ahead instead of three steps ahead, but he made it work because he had the bravado of a man who was holding all the cards. That’s a New York point guard. Kenny Anderson, Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair, and many more. None of them quite made it at the pro level, but oh did they have style. Pulling massive crossovers on hapless defenders. Baiting the help defender with a shameless mug at the man on their right side before dropping a slight-of-hand masterpiece to the trailer before a dunk. Putting a defender on his heels by feinting a drive, then putting him on his tuckus by snapping back for a pull-up jumper from 20. Maybe they didn’t always make the right play, but their confidence never wavered. When it worked, it was what basketball is supposed to look like.  

Why I Stopped Believing In Sebastian Telfair:

Eventually, that half-step isn’t enough to live off at the NBA level. Neither is bravado. Telfair had an extremely promising rookie year in Portland, but after that his career was derailed because of systems that he wasn’t suited for and his own failure to evolve.

First off, the part that wasn’t Telfair’s fault. After his rookie year, Telfair got stuck feeding post-up big men. First it was Zach Randolph in Portland. Then it was Al Jefferson in Boston. Then it was Al Jefferson in Minnesota. When he got to the Clippers, Chris Kaman had established himself as a legitimate force in the low block. All of those players are good at what they do, and well worth feeding. However, crafting gameplans around them blocked Telfair from playing to his strength, which was creating in the open floor. Telfair’s success was a necessary sacrifice to building up some very talented young bigs, but he lost his chance to establish himself by playing his game.

Telfair didn’t help himself by failing to evolve. In the open court, that half-step and enough bravado can work in the NBA. When an NBA defense has the chance to set up, things become more difficult. And Telfair never adjusted.

Let’s talk about Sebastian Telfair’s jump shot. It’s bad. There’s no getting around it. His form is bad, he rushes his shot, and his shot selection isn’t good from the perimeter. He loves to pull up when a defender goes under the screen or sags back on a fast break, but it doesn’t work. He flicks the shot instead of following through, he doesn’t have good footwork, he fires knuckleballs, and he doesn’t set his jumper up with the proper footwork. When I saw Telfair hit two pull-up jumpers in a row at a Clippers game earlier this year, I believe my quote was “watching Telfair hit a pull-up jumper is like seeing Sonny get through the toll booth safely.” Defenses have been daring Telfair to shoot jumpers ever since he got into the NBA, and he’s been more than happy to oblige them.

Even worse, Telfair has never been a good finisher at the rim when he does get to the basket. Telafair is skinny and 5-10, and has a lot of trouble getting layups to go when he gets into the paint at full speed and tries to finish among the trees. What makes everything worse is that Telfair looks to score in half-court situations, which is exactly what he shouldn’t be doing. In the NBA, Telfair’s bravado has backfired on him, and that’s why he’s never been an effective player at the highest level.

Why I Still Hold Out Hope For Sebastian Telfair:

Telfair is a push guard. After a turnover or long rebound, Sebastian Telfair still looks like the kid who was going to be the next LeBron. He always has his head up, he looks to push the ball, he moves forward, and he wants to set up someone running the court with a layup or dunk. The current LeBron James happens to be one of the best full-court players of all time.

What’s more, LeBron has never played next to a pure point with the Cavaliers. Mo is a scoring guard who can pass. Delonte is an undersized two with good passing skills and the heart of a lion. Boobie is a spot-up shooter. Damon Jones was a shooting specialist. Eric Snow was Eric Snow. Even for 10 minutes a game, I want to see what LeBron can do filling the lane with a true push guard controlling the ball in the center of the court. These past few games would have been a perfect time for Bassy to show his stuff; when he gets healthy, I’d still like to see Telfair get a look.

Once upon a time, LeBron and Bassy were on parallel paths to greatness. Since them, they’ve gone in opposite directions. When they get together, and Bassy can feed LeBron with the easy dunks in the open court he’s never gotten, maybe LeBron can be the one to save Bassy from obscurity. There’s at least one person rooting for them to make it work.