NBA players have to be many things to make it in professional basketball. Talented, smart, responsible, resourceful. Some guys rely on elite athleticism, others on pinpoint shooting. Shaun Livingston had many abilities--they earned him a top-5 draft slot right out of high school. But there's one quality that saved him from disaster: adaptability.
I'm not going to show you a video of Livingston's injury. If you really want to see it, look it up yourself. Fair warning: it's brutal. When you see it, it's hard to believe such a thing wouldn't be career-ending. Livingston was with the Clippers when it happened in 2007; the team physician called it " probably the most serious injury you can have to the knee."
Yet here he is, not just playing basketball again, but starting for the Milwaukee Bucks. He arrived in a trade as little more than an afterthought, a throw-in to a trade centered around shedding bad contracts and moving down in the draft. Months later, it seems wrong to call it anything other than the "Shaun Livingston trade."
Even if calling it "inspirational" tips your cheese alarm, Livingston's redemption is undeniably impressive, if only for its improbability. At one time it seemed his injury would be career-ending. Instead, the changes he's made to his game could have us looking back and calling it career-defining.
It's unfair to claim Livingston's potential laid solely in his physical talents back in 2004, but we'd only be deluding ourselves to ignore them. Possessing outstanding size, length, and athleticism for his combo-guard position out of high school, he promised to be a matchup nightmare for defenders, both as a scorer and distributor, as he played over the top of smaller guards. As one of the top high-school players in the country, he received a scholarship from Duke University, but opted to enter the NBA Draft even after signing his Letter of Intent.
His first year with the Clippers was, naturally, an adjustment period, as LA's addition of Sam Cassell pushed him to the 2 for much of his court time. And even before the knee disaster, Shaun struggled to stay on the court, stuck behind entrenched players and plagued by nagging injuries. His lack of outside shooting ability limited his effectiveness unless flanked by strong shooters at other positions, and his physical talents didn't immediately manifest in the form of good defense.
Considering how little court time he had to adjust, or make a name for himself as a player who could contribute in a featured role, the February 26, 2007 knee injury could easily have been a death sentence for his career. Cutting the legs out from under an athletic player with yet-developing auxiliary talents is pretty much the worst-case scenario.
After bouncing in and out of the league--and professional basketball in general--for the next three years, Livingston landed with the Charlotte Bobcats, who signed him to a two-year, $7 million contract in 2010. In his first season with the Bobcats, he finally made it through an entire year with minimal damage. Unsurprisingly, it was his best ever. He shifted back to the point for most of his playing time, and was particularly effective as a defender: the Bobcats' defensive rating was 8 points better with him on the court. His role was still limited, though, playing only 17 minutes per game as Charlotte worked to accommodate a breakout season from D.J. Augustin.
With Augustin playing well and Charlotte management resigned to the fact that the roster as constructed wasn't ready to compete with the elite, the Bobcats pulled the trigger on a three-team deal to grab the seventh pick in last summer's draft. Shaun Livingston was headed to his sixth team.
John Hammond and Co. must be happy he came. Livingston has emerged from the "limited role player" haze to usurp the starting SG spot from Stephen Jackson. While I'm obligated to admit that the move has as much to do with Jackson as it does Livingston, it's still the natural progression Livingston's tale deserves.
If anybody in Milwaukee has earned a featured role, it's Shaun (or Jon Leuer, but rather than nodding in approval at his situation, I'm shaking my fist in frustration). He's currently second on the team in FG%, behind only Leuer, and only Beno Udrih has a higher assist rate. While he's had his share of rough games, there are few shots that Bucks fans feel better watching than his mid-range pull-up.
One of the most pleasantly surprising developments, though, is that his athleticism seems to making a comeback as well. A few years removed from the injury, Livingston's legs are surely as healthy as they've been in some time. He's flashed plenty of explosiveness, especially on a Bucks team starved for exciting individual plays, throwing down emphatic two-hand slams without warning.
That mix of ability, combining both craftiness and sheer power, is what makes many of the NBA's best players who they are. Livingston is a long ways off from the NBA's elite, sure, but I doubt many folks thought he'd ever reach this level again back on February 27, 2007. Still just 26 years old, there's real hope that Livingston could continue to improve. It's probably too early to say for sure what Shaun Livingston is capable of in the future, but what he's overcome in the past speaks for itself.