City Sports 

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Growing Up Stro'

Does Stromile Swift have a future with the Grizzlies?

By Chris Przybyszewski

Part of the fun of having an NBA franchise in town is you can even enjoy the off-season, which includes the draft lottery and possible trades. The Grizzlies will most certainly be a part (again) of the lottery, the high-stakes poker game that is finding new talent. The Grizzlies obviously won big with last year's wheeling and dealing, which brought forwards Pau Gasol and Shane Battier to Memphis.

And now all the talk begins again. Because, while majority owner Michael Heisley has stated publicly that certain unnamed players are untouchable, GM Billy Knight has said and demonstrated that no Grizzlies player carries that status. Just ask Sacramento's Mike Bibby or Atlanta's Shareef Abdur-Rahim, each of whom was traded last off-season.

One of the players, if not the player, on everyone's list of theoretical trade-bait is forward Stromile Swift. The Grizzlies picked up Swift from LSU as the second overall pick of the 2000 draft. Since then, Swift has put together uninspiring career averages of 7.5 ppg and 4.6 rpg. And these numbers are that good only on the strength of Swift's performance this season (11.2 ppg, 6 rpg).

So why would anyone want him? First, Swift is young. If he'd stayed at LSU, he would be graduating this May. Coaches or GMs around the league might imagine they have the formula to develop Swift's enormous potential.

But do the Grizzlies actually want to trade Swift? He's only a second-year pro, and he still carries more inherent if unrealized talent than 85 percent of the players in the league. Also, Swift's progress is necessarily and unfairly compared to that of his rookie teammates Gasol and Battier, who have each had profoundly successful rookie campaigns.

Grizzlies head coach Sidney Lowe says he is happy with Swift's progress. "I think at one point Stro' was playing really well," he says. "He was leading [the league] in points scored off the bench. But then he started to get some injuries and he wasn't playing as well. He wasn't running the floor."

Lowe is quick to point out Swift's large improvement from last year. "He's much improved," Lowe says. "The thing with Stro' is that we have to realize he would be a senior in college this year. That's a young man growing up in a man's world. I think he's made great progress. I think he's where we want him to be. Obviously, you want to see him improve in some areas a little quicker. He's such a laid-back kid that you look for some type of emotion in there to get him going. I think he's on track to be a very good player in this league."

According to veteran forward Grant Long -- one of Swift's many NBA mentors -- time plays a key role. "I think he's coming along slowly, but he's definitely improving," Long says. "I think the coaching staff took a look at him and said we want to bring him along a little more slowly than we did last year. Last year, he was thrown out there so we could see what he had. As long as he gives the effort, he will be fine, but he has made progress."

Going slow, working hard, making progress. There's nothing wrong with any of that. And Swift's comments are in line with Lowe's and Long's. "I haven't been playing as well as I know I can," he says. "I've been in kind of a slump. I know I haven't been scoring a lot. I just try to go out with some energy, get rebounds, block shots, things like that. I'm just trying to do the things I can until I get back in my rhythm."

"I wanted to be a better player than I was last year," he adds. "That was my only goal, to be a better player than I was last year."

Most super-rookies who go high in the draft but lack age and experience take at least three years to mature. Good examples include Orlando's Tracy McGrady and Minnesota's Kevin Garnett. The Grizzlies need to be open to deals, but trading Swift negates two years' patience and work. Stromile still carries the label of having an "upside" and hasn't proven a bust. Yet.


One More, 'Juanny

The case for Dajuan Wagner staying in school for another season.

By Frank Murtaugh

Unless his coach talks him out of it, there appears to be a reasonable chance Dajuan Wagner will return for his sophomore year at the University of Memphis. The freshman star has hinted that he's leaning toward a return, which would surprise more than a few members of Tiger Nation. From the day Wagner announced he was coming to the U of M, the assumption was made in many circles that he would be "one and done." To expect four years from a player of his caliber -- with the fame and fortune of the NBA a decision away -- would simply be starry-eyed naivete.

Here's hoping the kid stays. And I'll try and avoid preaching the gospel of education, campus life, and maturation that makes four years of college among the best of an individual's life. We'll stick to basketball. Dajuan Wagner should keep that Tigers jersey on another year because, simply put, he's an example of what a great college player can be.

Forget all the scoring for a moment. We knew he'd wear out the twine from the get-go. Average more than 40 points in high school (and drop in 100 points in one game), and there's no doubting your ability to score. But, over the course of this prodigy's freshman campaign, we've seen elements too often lacking in players with merely a fraction of Wagner's skills.

The first half of Memphis' second-round NIT battle with BYU seemed to be a 20-minute Dajuan Wagner promo reel for why the college game so desperately needs him. He scored 15 points, hitting 6 of 10 shots (including 3 of 4 from beyond the arc). But, again, the scoring is incidental here. This 19-year-old honorable mention All-American did things that won't be found in the box score, things that may go unnoticed by the casual fan.

First, Wagner looks his coach in the eye when he's being directed during play stoppages, not always easy when your boss is John Calipari. Which means he pays attention, understands there are elements of the game still to be learned. At this point in his hoop development, it's Wagner's mind that could further separate him from his peers and competition.

Surprisingly for someone of his talent, Wagner is not a flashy player. Try and count the behind-the-back dribbles or no-look passes. You won't see them from Wagner. He's the rare exceptionally skilled, fundamentally sound college player.

And he hustles. Wagner is nothing if not a competitor. If only Kelly Wise's brow would furrow the way Wagner's does when a game gets intense. It's rather Jordan-ish (perhaps hating to lose more than enjoying victory?). Late in the win over BYU, as the outcome became clear, Wagner pumped his fist on a made free throw by one of his teammates. It was conspicuous because Wagner was alone at the defensive end of the floor and beautiful because it showed how much he cared. Sound simple? It's rare these days.

There is no wasted energy to Wagner's game. During pre-game introductions, as Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" shakes The Pyramid, players leap to chest-bump, and fans go bonkers -- Wagner walks to midcourt when his name is announced. His energy reserve is better tapped in the aggressive lane penetration that will someday make him a pro star. He's got to be the most determined inside scorer of his size this side of Allen Iverson.

Calipari is intent on measuring Wagner's position in the June draft before advising him to stay or go. Perhaps his friends and teammates can interject if Wagner does start leaning toward NBA life. They might begin by pointing out how good college basketball has been for him. They might finish by letting him know just how good he's been for college basketball.

The Score

NOTABLE:
Bobble mania. Current prices on eBay for Grizzlies bobbleheads: Shane Battier -- $58; Jason Williams -- $51; Pau Gasol -- $49.95. For perspective, hockey great Wayne Gretzky’s bobblehead currently sells for $300.

The Grizzlies’ win over the Portland Trailblazers on Monday night marked two franchise milestones: biggest comeback (25 points) in Grizzlies history; and, at 3-12, the team has tied the franchise’s best record for March.

QUOTABLE:
“We had a game plan that I thought was great. It was a game plan that called for us to really communicate and switch and talk with each other. Something we haven’t done in two years here. Well, what it did was put us on our heels.” -- U of M basketball coach John Calipari on his team’s lack of team play in the first half against Tennessee Tech during the third-round NIT game. The Tigers won, 79-73.

“You can’t teach height.” -- Celtics forward Antoine Walker, praising Memphis Grizzlies forward Pau Gasol.

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