Earlier this summer, during a final-evaluation article with longtime confidant Charley Rosen, New York Knicks President Phil Jackson discussed a variety of topics involving the disastrous 2014-15 Knicks season, including comments made about point guard Shane Larkin’s “tiny hands” that affected his ability to handle the basketball.
“I put that to bed a long time ago,” Larkin told me in the Brooklyn Nets locker room. “He said what he said and that’s what it is. I haven’t really thought anything about it since. It is what it is and they’re having a good season so far, so best of luck to them.”
After struggling last season with the lottery-bond Knicks, the 23-year old Larkin is hoping a different system and borough will rejuvenate a career that he believes was stalled by Jackson’s triangle.
“The triangle itself isn’t necessarily a tough offense to learn, it just suits players differently. If you’re a pick and roll guy, CP, Steve Nash, Rondo, those type of guys aren’t going to be best fit for the triangle offense,” says Larkin, who was timed during the 2013 pre-draft combine running a 3.09 (a combine best) in the three-quarter court speed drill. “I did my best to fit into it, but I’m more of a pick and roll, use my speed as I come off a screen type of guy.”
Prior to the season last year, Jackson decided against exercising the option on Larkin’s rookie deal because of the price tag of about $2 million. The former 18th overall pick out of the University of Miami started 22 of the 76 games he played in, averaging 6.2 points on 43.3 percent shooting. He also led the 17-win Knicks in minutes played – which will make him the answer for a nice trivia question one day.
“It was tough, especially coming from a winning culture your whole life. You win in
college, you win in high school, you win in AAU, I won my first year in Dallas and went to the playoffs,” said Larkin, who began the season as the starter because of Jose Calderon’s calf strain. “So it was tough going into that type of atmosphere, having to adjust and keep a positive mindset and just go out there try to get better every single day when all you know is winning.”
Winning is also something that runs through Shane’s DNA. The young point guard’s father is Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin, who was a 12-time All-Star, NL MVP winner and one of the pivotal players on the 1990 Reds’ World Series championship team. Barry’s brother, Stephen, was also a professional baseball player; he made it to the major leagues for a cup of coffee with the Reds. Another brother, Byron, was a second-team All-American basketball player at Xavier University, and the eldest brother, Mike, was a captain of the University of Notre Dame’s football team in 1985.
Back when Shane was 5 or 6, he was, no doubt, going to be a baseball player. Barry thought his son could have been the next Mike Cameron. Guys like Tony Perez and Pete Rose made him their pet project, however, Shane took a stronger liking to basketball and football.
“I didn’t feel obligated to play,” Larkin says about playing baseball as a kid. “I just wanted to play, I played for a little bit, and obviously it wasn’t the sport for me. I didn’t feel like it was the funnest sport, but it was cool playing it I just didn’t really have a love or a passion for it, my sports were more basketball and football so those were the sports the I stuck to.”
Barry supported Shane’s basketball pursuits, but the lessons learned while hanging around Dad and the Reds weren’t just beneficial on a baseball diamond.
“It was great growing up around those type of people, being a part of success, seeing your dad being an All-Star year after year, being around not even just baseball players but great athletes in general,” said Larkin, a 5-foot-11 speedster. “My Dad had friends in the NFL, NBA, so it was great growing up around those guys and seeing their work ethic and how they went about their business, kind of just showed me the way of how to become a professional and it really helped me growing up and becoming a better player.”
The Mavericks acquired Larkin, the No. 18 pick in 2013, in a draft-night trade. However, he never found his footing in Dallas, struggling between D-League stints and injuries. Larkin, who turned pro following his sophomore season at Miami broke his ankle just before what would have been his first summer league and he didn’t make his NBA debut until the season was a few weeks underway. He spent the majority of the season on the outside looking in at Dallas’ rotation and he understood the Mavericks were trying to win now around franchise stalwart Dirk Nowitzki.
The Knicks offered him a second chance, and when Jose Calderon got hurt, a starting spot. Larkin started 12 of New York’s first 13 games, gaining valuable experience. But his playing time throughout the season was sporadic and his production – 6.2 points, 3.0 assists, 2.3 rebounds and 1.2 steals in 24.5 minutes per game – was modest.
New York declined the third-year team option on his rookie contract – only one other player in the 2013 draft class had his third-year option declined; No. 30 pick Nemanja Nedovic, whom the Warriors outright waived because he couldn’t get on the court. So Larkin became an unrestricted free agent during the summer – a rare quandary for a player with his résumé and age.
Larkin had interest from four or five different teams and he passed up more money from one of them to stay in New York, a city his father famously nixed a trade to when the Mets tried acquiring him in 2000.
“It’s just very diverse here,” said Larkin, who secured a six-month lease for an apartment in New Jersey after signing a two-year deal with the Nets in July. “I grew up in Orlando Florida with a lot of different ethnicities, a lot of different cultures and being up here is kind of the same thing. A lot of different people, a lot of different looking people, a lot of different cultures. I just like the diversity that the city offers and obviously there’s always something to do up here, so I feel like it’s just a good place to live.”
Larkin has been far better than anyone expected during year one in Brooklyn. In a dark season, he has emerged as a capable backup to veteran Jarrett Jack, and so far, one of his biggest areas of improvement is 3-point shooting. Larkin has made 14-of-27 shots from beyond the arc (51.9 percent), up from 35-of-116 (30.2) last season. He is averaging 7.2 points, 3.1 assists and 1.2 steals in 17.9 minutes.
At 5’11”, Larkin is an undersized NBA point guard who makes up for his lack of size with quickness, but he’s beginning to make good on the potential he showed before the draft. For a backup, his skill set could work and if he maintains his improved 3-point shooting, he makes a case as a feisty 3-and-D player.
Make no mistake: Larkin is hardly an elite prospect. But he’s a former top-20 pick under the age of 24, a combination that shows his potential. Larkin, who is still learning how to play in the NBA and is on his third NBA team in three seasons, acknowledged that he’s motivated to avoid a journeyman’s career, but he has already learned the hard way that the NBA is a business.
“Everybody you talk to in the NBA will tell you it’s a business and not everybody sticks 15-20 years with the same team. Obviously you want to find a home and stay with a team for multiple years, but it’s a business at the end of the day,” says Larkin, who hit free agency twice as quickly as most of his draft-mates, unrestricted free agency four times as quickly as some of them. “If a team feels like they can go out there and get a better player, or if the team feels like you’re the best fit they are going to do what is best for their organization. So it’s a business at the end of the day and you just got to be ready for whatever comes.”