Friday, April 16, 2010 Updated: April 30, 2:55 PM ET
Afflalo emerges for Nuggets
By Anna Katherine Clemmons ESPN.com
DENVER -- It's almost midnight after the Denver Nuggets' recent come-from-behind victory over the Portland Trail Blazers. The locker room, initially chaotic after Kenyon Martin was the unhappy victim of an April Fools prank, has quieted as Arron Afflalo gets dressed. The 24-year-old is one of the last players to leave but promises he'll be back at the Pepsi Center by 8 a.m. the next day.
The chiseled 6-5 guard wants to work out before practice, he explains, even though practice isn't scheduled until 11 a.m. And if there's time, he'll fit in a few rounds of his other sport of choice: pingpong.
Many pro athletes claim to be table tennis aficionados, and Afflalo is no different, boasting an undefeated record of "somewhere around 49-0" ("I don't know about that," teammate Carmelo Anthony laughs when told Afflalo's self-proclaimed streak). Rumor has it there's a video of teammate Nene besting Afflalo on one of the dual tables inside the players' lounge. Afflalo grins while denying his teammate's W, a rare boast from one of Denver's most humble talents.
Often overlooked by fans in lieu of team stars such as Anthony, Nene and Chauncey Billups, Afflalo has been instrumental to Denver's playoff run in his first year as a Nugget. He says that he knows he has a set role with Denver and that it is often a supporting one: swarming the opposition's best shooter, knocking down the 3-pointer when Billups or Anthony is double-teamed and hustling at both ends for every minute he's on the court. As Hoopsworld.com's Travis Heath wrote on April 9: "Very few casual fans even notice Afflalo's presence. However, opposing players and coaches certainly do."
It's closer to 10 a.m. when Afflalo pulls into the parking lot the next day, though he still arrives before most of his teammates. Afflalo says his "workhorse" (the first word that rookie teammate Ty Lawson used when describing Afflalo) habits are key in distinguishing himself. "My size, height and athleticism isn't too hard to find in the NBA, so I try to use my work ethic and mental edge to stay ahead," he says.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Afflalo began playing basketball at age 2 and idolized Byron Scott, then a guard for the Los Angeles Lakers. "My mom had a video of the 1987-88 Lakers championship, so I'd put it on and watched it every day," Afflalo says.
A McDonald's All-American in high school, Afflalo was recruited by top programs such as Kansas, Oregon and Louisville. The team closest to home, UCLA, was coming off an 11-17 season under new coach Ben Howland.
But Afflalo says the idea of turning a program around appealed to him more than an already-successful team. So after talking to Howland, Afflalo canceled the visits he had lined up around the country and opted for UCLA. "What a stroke of luck for me to have [Arron] as my first recruit," Howland says. "He embodied everything in terms of turning this program into a successful one again."
Afflalo started 29 games his freshman year, 2004-05, and the Bruins finished 18-11. He led UCLA to the NCAA title game the next season while being voted the Pac-10 Player of the Year, thanks in large part to his defensive dominance and his 17.4-ppg average.
"He has always been a great defender and has such great lateral quickness," Howland says. "He does an incredible job of making everyone he defends work for every point they get."
Afflalo declared for the 2007 NBA draft after his junior year, and the Detroit Pistons drafted him 27th in the first round. "They had a lot of stars like Chauncey, Rasheed [Wallace], etc.," Afflalo says of the 2007-08 Pistons. "I wanted to go in, compete and earn my respect."
Billups was already familiar competition. Howland remembered the summer after Afflalo's freshman year, when several NBA players worked out at UCLA. "Arron was trying to guard the hell out of Chauncey, who threw an elbow and hit him right in the face," Howland says. "But Arron didn't back down, he got right back up and played hard. Chauncey appreciates Arron as a teammate because of those intangibles he brings like toughness and the defensive stops."
Afflalo appeared in 75 games (starting in nine of them) his rookie year with Detroit, averaging only 3.7 points per game. His playing time didn't increase much the next season, when he finished with a 4.9 ppg average. His 3-point shooting percentage, however, increased from 20.8 percent to 40.2 percent.
Detroit traded Afflalo to Denver in the summer of 2009.
"I didn't know what to expect from him when he got here," Anthony says of Afflalo. "But he came in the first day and stepped right into that role to play defense, knock down shots when he gets the chance and play hard."
Afflalo entered the starting five on Nov. 10 and hasn't left. He scrupulously studies each opponent through film and scouting reports because he knows he'll be assigned the opposing team's strongest shooter, whether that's Portland's Brandon Roy or the Lakers' Kobe Bryant. The latter has shot just 21-of-56 (37 percent) from the field in three games against Denver this season when Afflalo has hustled around screens and fellow defenders to stay on the former MVP.
"I internalize some of their tendencies and keep that in mind throughout the game," Afflalo says of his matchups. "So I can control what I want them to do a little bit as far as shooting jump shots, going left or right, and making them take it to the basket." There's another mental element to Afflalo's game: He never talks smack, not even in response to whomever he's guarding. "I don't want them to know what I'm thinking," he says.
When Afflalo took the last shot for the Nuggets in the first half against the Lakers on April 8, the ball bounced off the rim and into Lakers' hands. As Shannon Brown raced down the court to get a shot off with two seconds left, Afflalo, the only Nugget who sprinted to the other end, soared up from behind, blocking the attempt and garnering the NBA's "Block of the Night" award. Afflalo showed "great hustle on that play, never giving up," the TV commentators noted, a moment indicative of Afflalo's playing style.
"He's one of our keys, always taking the toughest matchup out on the perimeter," Billups says. "He doesn't worry about getting in foul trouble or about anything but disrupting the guy he's defending. That selfless mentality is what we need."
Afflalo has also worked tirelessly from behind the arc. His 3-point shooting percentage is 43.4 percent, eighth-best in the league. He's one of only two Nuggets to play in all 82 games this season (starting 75), averaging 27.2 minutes per game while providing consistency to a team that has seen its share of transition, particularly with the absence of head coach George Karl while he has undergone cancer treatments.
"We've got so many guards, everyone wants to play more, so it's a matter of me picking the spots when to keep him in against a good offensive player," says interim head coach Adrian Dantley. "But he's been great for us all year."
"I always want to be on the court helping the team," Afflalo says. "Then again, I know that we're deep -- it's kind of hard to argue when we have Chauncey, Melo and J.R. [Smith] to share minutes with. I try to make the best of my opportunity when I'm out there. I hate being on the bench when the guys I'm matched up against are scoring."
Afflalo is earning $1,086,240 this season and is scheduled to make just under $2 million next season, which has led commentators and writers such as Heath to label him the "biggest offseason steal in the NBA" this year. Remarkably, he could be improving further with the regular season's end -- Afflalo had 22 points and 13 rebounds against Memphis on April 12, the second game of the past 10 in which he has scored more than 20 points.
"He has limitations, but the bottom line is his strengths far outweigh his limitations," Howland says. "He helps you win, and you can count on him every day. He played for me for three years and never missed a practice. And every day, he practiced as hard as he can. That's why he's so good."
Like most professional athletes, Afflalo hates to lose, a competitiveness that carries over to the pingpong table. He grew up playing table tennis and bought a table for his home in Detroit. He has yet to buy one in Denver but will challenge anyone who wants to face him. "It's like basketball in terms of working on your touch, but there's not too many similarities otherwise," Afflalo says while battling Nuggets assistant coach John Welch (Afflalo would later declare himself the winner). "It's just fun."
Because it's after shootaround on a game-day morning, Welch suggests quitting after several points so Afflalo can head home and rest. But when another challenger steps up (this reporter), Afflalo doesn't hesitate. "You think you got game?" he asks with a grin. "Let's see it." Almost immediately, the conversation weaves back to basketball.
"I've always wanted to be a complete player, and I take pride in it," Afflalo says. When asked his most complete moment, the time in his career when he performed his absolute best, Afflalo pauses before answering.
"I hope it's to come," he says. "I'm really looking forward to the playoffs because I think it'll be the first time in my career -- I know it will be -- where I have a chance to make a real impact on a consistent basis and really affect what we do as a team. I'm interested to see how that works out."
So are Nuggets fans -- interested and hopeful. This bargain already has paid dividends in Denver.
Anna Katherine Clemmons is a writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.