MAALIK WAYNS was back at his former basketball home on Villanova's campus on Wednesday, watching the team he still could be playing for losing to the Temple Owls. Wayns was sitting with his new 76ers teammate, Evan Turner, while teammate and former Owl Lavoy Allen took in the game from near the Temple bench.
While he watched, you had to wonder if it crossed Wayns' mind whether he had made the right decision to forgo his senior season at 'Nova to try his luck in the NBA. When you're a rookie in the league, unless you are finding a tremendous amount of success from the get-go, questions are as plentiful as minutes riding the bench and observing.
The NBA has been a roller-coaster ride for Wayns so far, although the season isn't a quarter complete. He wowed in Summer League play in Orlando as an undrafted free agent, then opened eyes, ears and mouths with his play during Sixers training camp. But in the final preseason game at Syracuse against New York, Wayns took a shot to the head during one of his usually successful forays to the basket. He left the court wobbly, though, but in typical Philly toughness insisted he would be fine. Testing later proved he was not concussed, but still there were ramifications.
"I was getting little headaches," said Wayns. "When you get headaches you are never yourself, you're just slow, you're down. I'm an energy type of guy and I didn't have that. It took a couple of weeks. I didn't have a concussion I just had headaches and I was sleepy. You don't want a lingering head injury, that's the worst, especially when they can't find out what's wrong with you."
While Wayns' head problems basically mired him in slow motion, the team and coach Doug Collins sped ahead to prepare for the start of the regular season.
The first four games produced 18 minutes for Wayns, which included all misses on his eight field-goal attempts, a couple each of turnovers and assists. The electrifying game had been stalled by that nagging head injury.
"When he hit his head, I think it took a little bit out of him and knocked him back a little bit," said Collins. "He was low on energy. We got right into the season and sometimes a guy like that gets left out a little bit because you have a tendency to go with your veteran guys a little bit, especially when you're trying to win some games coming out of the gate."
The next nine games consisted of eight DNPs and one 3-minute run in a blowout loss. The effects of the head injury were gone, but Wayns wasn't in the right place, so Collins had a talk with his rookie, describing it as Wayns seeing the preacher. Neither will discuss the particulars of the conversation, but it appears Collins put the challenge to Wayns, asking him to prove how much he wanted to be out on the floor. Wayns has responded the way his coach asked and it has meant an average of 10 minutes the past six games. He scored a career-high 10 in just 13 minutes in a win over Dallas and although his decision-making is still in need of improvement at times, Wayns is starting to show flashes of the training-camp version.
The sermon from Collins, he said, "was about getting my energy back, getting back to my old self how I was in the preseason and in training camp. Just [getting] my juice back."
We both said that a lot of it had to do with my head injury and things like that, just getting back to myself. Every rookie has a little frustration, just little things like learning the plays and learning about a new coach and things like that. I just came in here and got my energy back and did things that I could do to get back into the rotation a little bit."
Although thinking that Wayns would be manning any meaningful minutes before the start of camp was borderline ludicrous, it quickly became evident that he could lend to this team a feature it didn't have: a lightning bolt of a player who could create for himself but more importantly set the table for others.
"I was looking for some pop off of our bench," said Collins. "He is a guy who can give you some scoring and can do those kinds of things. I think it was a combination of things that when our bench was struggling to score a little bit he could he help Swaggy [Nick Young] a little bit, could help Dorell [Wright] out there, pushing the ball and either scoring or maybe getting us some transition field goals."
The head and perhaps just being a rookie stalled that a little.
"Back when I was a rookie, I was told that I was going to play some games, I wasn't going to play some games and that I was drafted on potential and whenever you get in and whatever you give us is a plus," said Thaddeus Young, "and that didn't sit well with me. I believe I told coach [Maurice] Cheeks that at the end of the season I was going to be part of the rotation. And that's what happened. It's all about a confidence thing. As long as you don't let anybody break your confidence you can go out there and continue to play."
That's Wayns' plan, and
Collins' hope for his rookie.
"He's had some good moments," Collins said. "He's still got to really focus on guarding that ball defensively and understanding our coverages. One of the things is that when you play in this league as a point guard, especially a young point guard, they're going to get you involved in all types of plays, especially pick-and-rolls. That's going to be a continued area of growth for him. He's had some good moments for us and he's got to continue to grow. We've got to continue to get him to grow."
Wayns says he's ready for the challenge.
"It's a new league, a tough league. It's the NBA," said Wayns. "You have to learn your opponents on defense, find where you can get your shots, get comfortable. I'm getting comfortable as the days go on. I'm comfortable in practice. When the games come I'm getting comfortable, too. I'll be fine."
Just as he insisted when leaving the floor after the collision in the final preseason game. Like the recovery from that injury, it just might take some time.