As legend has it, there once lived a man whose shot Greg Stiemsma could not block. Stiemsma spent years plotting his revenge (or something like that), and the two finally met in a professional game in the country Georgia. Mike Wilkinson, a former teammate of Stiemsma’s at Wisconsin who Stiemsma calls an “undersized post but crafty,” rose for a shot and Stiemsma knocked it away.
“I finally got you, man. It took me eight years to do it, but I got you,” Stiemsma said (via WEEI). The long journey to block Mike Wilkinson sounds a little like Stiemsma’s quest to the NBA.
There’s something magical about the start to Stiemsma’s NBA career, about the way someone who averaged fewer than nine points and eight rebounds during 50 career D-League games improbably earned a start for the Boston Celtics within six games and now is turning himself into a growing folk legend with every highlight reel block. But there’s also something magical about the way none of this has anything to do with magic.
Stiemsma’s early-season run is preparation meeting opportunity. It’s one man who has always held one NBA-level skill, shot-blocking, and improved every year as the rest of his game caught up. It’s a 26-year old rookie who has made stops in Turkey, South Korea and Sioux Falls, who never averaged more than 11.5 minutes per game in college, overcame bouts with depression while at Wisconsin, really only got a chance with the Celtics because they entered training camp with severe depth issues at center and now looks like he could stay in the NBA for a long time.
“The Steamroller,” Paul Pierce said (via the Boston Herald). “That’s my man. He got himself to the league, and now I’m going to keep him here. He’s going to have a 10-year career. Just rebound, set picks and block shots — and know the plays. And get paid.
“He’s the Steamroller. You bring it into the lane, and he’s going to steamroll you.”
Shot-blocking is a talent that Stiemsma figures he was born with, one that he harnessed through the years as his athleticism caught up to his size. But it’s also a mentality. More specifically, it’s a choice. It’s a choice to attempt blocking shots that Rasheed Wallace wouldn’t even think about contesting. It’s a choice to try swatting Wall when he has a full head of steam and has already taken off on his 40-inch vertical. It’s a choice to see Blatche spotting up on the perimeter and to do whatever it takes to quell the shot before it reaches anywhere near the rim. The best shot blockers fear nothing. They get dunked on one play and return for dessert the next.
Stiemsma still has improvements to make defensively when he is not turning shots away (JaVale McGee finished with 17 points and 14 rebounds on 8-9 shooting yesterday, after all), but he has picked the right mentor, Kevin Garnett. He watches film and is amazed how often Garnett does the right thing. Garnett’s genius is in the details, often illustrated by the angles he chooses when he shows on a screen-and-roll or the routes he takes to recover afterward. Stiemsma has been struck by Garnett’s defensive intelligence, and his mentor feels a mutual respect.
“He came from the bottom, came from nothing, very appreciative of his opportunity,” Garnett said (via WEEI). “Comes in and works his ass off. I’m not just saying that. He comes in and works his ass off, a true professional. You’re just happy to see a guy get an opportunity like that and more importantly take advantage of it.”
Almost four years after graduating from Wisconsin, Stiemsma started yesterday when Jermaine O’Neal was kept out of the game with a sore hamstring. Stiemsma scored Boston’s first bucket and blocked a Rashard Lewis jump shot less than two minutes into the game. That blocked shot led to Flip Saunders earning two technical fouls, which sent Saunders to the locker room with 10:14 remaining in the first quarter. Twenty-three seconds later, Stiemsma threw a gorgeous assist to a cutting Kevin Garnett. Just more than a minute after that, the rookie blocked an Andray Blatche jump shot and Tommy Heinsohn whipped out the first Bill Russell comparison of 2012. Even when Stiemsma got dunked on, good things happened. John Wall followed a thunderous slam by posing in Stiemsma’s face, earning a technical foul in the process.
“Once you get a couple of plays to go your way,” Stiemsma said (via WEEI), “it really kind of settles you down and makes you realize I’ve been playing this game for quite a while and it’s the same game, just on the highest level I’ve ever played at. At the same time, it’s a simple game.”
At least it is the way Stiemsma plays it. That’s the highest praise we can give him so far. He’s not the most talented player on the court or even close to it, but Stiemsma does one thing particularly well — block shots — and he keeps the rest of his game as simplistic as he can. Stiemsma isn’t going to demand the ball in the post and do his best impression of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook. He’s not going to lead a fast break or throw a behind-the-back pass or try shooting three-pointers. He sets screens, moves without the ball and shoots it if he’s open from 17 feet and in.
But he didn’t always shoot that shot.
“I think I passed up a couple looks in practice, one of the first few workouts and he kind of asked me, ‘What are you?’” Stiemsa said (via ESPN Boston). “And I said, ‘I don’t know, shooter?’ He kind of made me say it a few more times and it started to sink in a little bit more.”
“We had the silly day where he wouldn’t shoot, and I made him stand in front of the whole team and say, ‘My name is Greg Stiemsma, and I’m a shooter.’ And we kept making him repeat it,” Rivers said (via the Boston Herald). “He said, ‘I can shoot. I’m a shooter.’ And he is. And it was good.”
Now Stiemsma, who scored a career-high 3.5 points as a senior at Wisconsion during the 2007-08 season while the Celtics were busy winning an NBA championship, looks like a legitimate pick-and-pop threat, the rare big man who protects the rim on one end and spreads the court on the other. Shooting is not his role — blocking shots, setting screens and rebounding the basketball will keep Stiemsma in the NBA — but it’s a peripheral benefit he can provide while also managing the dirty work. It’s a skill he has developed and now he is beginning to show the confidence to use it in real games, even though he knows shot blocking will always be his finest trait.
It’s Stiemsma’s ability to block shots that made him attractive to the Celtics in the first place, the same ability to block shots that finally chased down Mike Wilkinson in the country Georgia. Poor Wilkinson was unlucky. If he had managed to avoid Stiemsma for another year, he might have been able to hide away from the center’s long arms and impeccable timing forever. Stiemsma no longer has much need to visit the country Georgia. He’s too busy paving a path in Boston, one that is quickly looking like it might include a productive NBA career.