LAFAYETTE — The door to the Louisiana-Lafayette basketball practice facility is always open for junior forward Shawn Long, but that doesn’t mean he always uses it.
Don’t misinterpret that to mean Long is content with where he’s at after averaging a double-double in each of his first two years with the Ragin’ Cajuns. He puts in plenty of work to improve his game on that shiny hardwood.
But sometimes, simple repetition isn’t enough to satisfy Long’s insatiable basketball craving. He lives to compete, to be creative and go on autopilot while his natural athleticism takes over. He knows he must work on perfecting the minutiae of his craft, but all he really wants to do is ball.
“I’m going to find a place to play,” Long said, emphasizing the word play.
That’s why he doesn’t spend as many off hours as one might expect a basketball junkie to spend in the climate-controlled indoor facility. There is a time and a place for practice, but there are many times and many places to compete. For Long, a gritty chunk of concrete and a group of like-minded individuals will scratch his basketball itch just as well as the polished court of an arena.
“Every day, I find a different way,” Long said. “Lafayette is pretty big — bigger than Morgan City, so I can find a pickup game or two to play.”
You’d be surprised, Long said, at the competition he finds in pickup games, though it’s hard to believe the 6-foot-9 owner of an 18.5 points-per-game scoring average last season finds someone that could truly guard him. Not when he’s able to flow up and down the court with no real rules holding him back.
Coach Bob Marlin knows why he’s out there. It’s because Long loves the act of playing, of competing against another team or person. It’s that natural competitiveness combined with his skill that makes Marlin think Long is in store for a breakout season.
Didn’t Long just have one of those? Just watch, Marlin said. He has improved this offseason and, with a little consistency, this could be a breakthrough year for him As long as he stays healthy and off those concrete courts, that is.
“We give guys a day off, he’s playing pickup,” Marlin said. “If we’re not careful, he’ll be on the slab over at Girard (Park) or down in Morgan City, which is not good for his knees.”
Don’t sleep on him, either
Just visible on the fabric stretched around Long’s ankles is the electric hairstyle and No. 91 Chicago Bulls uniform worn by former NBA great Dennis Rodman in his heyday.
They’re socks, each displaying the same snarling image of one of the NBA’s all-time great rebounders, legs splayed as he leaps over a defender to clean the glass.
Rodman socks? Don’t see many of those out there.
“No you don’t, but I found ’em,” Long said. “A lot of people sleep on Rodman, but he’s a great player.”
Rodman played with fire and an attitude that Long admires — and to a degree, re-creates. When asked a lighthearted question about what he would eat for his final meal, Long didn’t hesitate when he said, “Georgia State” — referring to the team that was picked to finish ahead of the Cajuns in the preseason Sun Belt Conference coaches’ poll.
Rodman and Rasheed Wallace, two players who were known for their tenacious attitude as well as their standout play, those are the players Long wants to emulate. It’s not attention that Long seeks, though.
“He loves the game so much that he gets so involved, sometimes so emotional,” teammate Xavian Rimmer said. “That’s his style. I love it. I love playing with him. He loves to win.”
And that’s exactly what Long intends to do this season.
He’s not going into the year with any personal ambition. That stuff, he said, will take care of itself if the team wins. He remembers how great it felt to cut down the net after winning the Sun Belt tournament last year and, more importantly, he remembers how the team got to that position.
“It took a team effort to cut those nets down, and I’m aware of that,” Long said. “That’s our focus. I want to get my team better and get wins any way I can.”
The next level
Ben Rikard, the first-year media relations man for the Cajuns hoops squad, has had a little extra work on his plate already. Included with the usual group of people requesting credentials for Cajuns games have been NBA scouts.
A handful of them have poked around the Cajuns practice facility this fall. They’re there to see Long, Marlin said. They get there early and watch as the player goes through warmups. They observe everything, from the way a player stretches to the way he interacts with teammates and coaches.
But the prying eyes haven’t bothered Long. He has been dealing with it for a while, both personally and vicariously when saw the way things unfolded last year for his former roommate, Elfrid Payton.
The pro attention started a couple of years ago when the Cajuns played North Texas and star forward Tony Mitchell. Scouts came to see Mitchell, but Long and Payton caught their eye. They were curious about the two youngsters in Lafayette.
With that first nibble in place, Marlin set the hook by getting his players better exposure. He did it with Payton, a lottery pick in this year’s NBA draft, by getting him to play in China and with USA Basketball. This summer, Long played against some of the top talent in the country at the Nike Skills Academy and Adidas Nation camps.
Not only did the camps allow Long to showcase his own talent, they offered him lessons. He would observe the better players, watching their moves or intricacies of their play and incorporate it into his own game.
“I just kind of soaked up some of the things they did,” Long said. “When I play, if I see a guy doing something that I like that I’ve never tried, I’ll try to soak it up like a sponge.”
Having a diverse game is nice, but Marlin thinks there are two obvious reasons why Long will make it at the next level. Much like he told scouts last year that Payton could get to the paint and draw fouls in the NBA, he has a message regarding Long this year.
“I’m telling (NBA scouts) this year, ‘He can rebound in your league, and he can score the ball in your league,’ ” Marlin said.
The scouts will listen to Marlin, but they’ll also watch with their own eyes. They’ll keenly observe whether he’s engaged with teammates or warming up solo with headphones on. They’ll take notes as he skies for a rebound, attacks the basket or slips out to the perimeter. They’ll watch him practice and determine whether he can work hard enough to last at the next level.
And if they don’t catch him after hours in the practice facility? They might want to check the courts at Girard Park or in Morgan City.