Make no mistake, this is not an attempt to make you feel sorry for Austin Daye. In fact, he's living a life that most would consider charmed. Austin will make just under a million dollars this year. He's 25 years old, tall, handsome and gets paid to play basketball. He travels the country for free and has signed more autographs than I ever will.
But as I've watched him over the past several weeks I can't help but think about the adjustments men like Daye must make to keep themselves sane.
In 2007 Daye was the ranked the 14th best SF prospect coming out of high school. He averaged over 30 points per game his senior season at Woodbridge High School in California and was a standout on his AAU team.
The son of former NBA player Darren Daye, Austin is a terrific prospect in his own right. He has an excellent outside shot, with deep range beyond the stripe. Very good understanding of the game, with the ability to create space for himself. He's grown about 5 inches in the last year.
Austin Daye was the man. In fact, he'd probably been so for years. As anyone who's watched Friday Night Tykes or attended a t-ball game can attest, we start our kids early these days. Potential stars are recognized quickly and swallowed up in an atmosphere that treats them as if they are different than others and therefore special. In our society of idolatry it's no surprise to see an eight year old treated as a god because he can outrun his teammates or throw a curve ball. Then add to the mix that Daye is the son of a former NBA player and you can see how an "I'm an other" mindset might have crystalized at an early age.
Austin attended Gonzaga for two years before declaring for the NBA Draft after his sophomore campaign. In his first college game he scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, further solidifying the idea that Austin was the man at a school known for its basketball acumen. He was a first round selection (15th overall) by the Detroit Pistons in 2009. His march to greatness continued.
Then a funny thing happened to Austin. It's the same thing that's happened to thousands of Austins over the years. In the corporate world it's called The Peter Principle. The theory is that managers (and in this case society) have a tendency to promote people to their level of incompetence. The NBA employs the absolute best players in the world which means that guys like Austin Daye get swallowed up. In an instant they go from a lifetime of praise and stardom to the last seat on the bench, if they're lucky. It's a shocking realization to say the least.
Now this is in no way an argument that Austin Daye has reached a dead end and is incompetent as an NBA player. But the theory is apropos to a degree. In a country where I'm The Man plays on our radios on a continual loop, guys like Austin Daye are -- often for the first time in their lives -- forced into a position where the exact opposite is true. For the first time in their lives they are not the man. It has to be a difficult transition.
Most of us have our career success measured in quartiles. While you might have a very successful career performing in the top 25% of your peers, the Dayes of the world live life fighting for space in the top half of less than one percent.
There are fewer than 200 men on earth that can perform a particular set of tasks better than Austin Daye, but it's possible he's reached his apex at the age of 25. That's what he's been building up to for the last 17 years. That's his pot at the end of the rainbow.
Michael Erler wrote a fantastic piece last week after Daye scored 22 points against the 76ers explaining why his performance in that game only sets him up for his most difficult test: proving to Gregg Popovich and his teammates that he can handle success and his role. The most important thing for Daye to accept and embrace is the fact that he's not the man, and it's probable he never will be again. Strangely, doing so is his only hope for true success in the NBA.
That's life in the top half of one percent.
A few weeks ago a reporter asked Coach Popovich about his plans for getting Daye into the rotation. Pop answered with a terse "that's not why he's here," signaling that Daye's time as a Spur was currently the Learning Only phase. That night I watched Daye behind the bench in a trim, fitted, plum blazer trying to soak in as much of the Spurs air as he could. During a timeout Daye walked on the court and tried to give Tim Duncan a high five as Timmy walked toward his seat. He never looked up and barely raised his arm to make contact with the young man that had cried tears of joy into his pillow when he found out he was traded to San Antonio.
He hadn't earned the trust or respect from Tim, or Pop or anyone else inside the organization. He was worlds removed from the superiors (Tim, Tony, Manu) -- but worse, he was without a peer. He was a young man in a plum blazer stranded on the outside looking in.
You can hear the confidence in his voice during the brief moments he's had with the media. He says how happy he is to be in San Antonio. He talks of simply wanting his chance to prove himself. After an assist against Philadelphia Pop gave him a high five and Duncan now seems to recognize his presence after delivering quality minutes on more than one occasion. It's a good thing to see.
And I applaud Austin Daye, and any of the hundreds that came before him that find a way to make the pivot. It has to be a complete shock to the system and a strain on the psyche. Those that figure it out and thrive are worthy of respect.
So here's to you, Austin Daye, as you scratch and claw your way through these next few weeks, fighting for a spot and for relevancy on a potential championship team.
You may no longer be the man, but you're becoming a Spur.