Joel Freeland, the much maligned Blazers power forward / center, has said that he will forgo participating on Great Britain’s national basketball team this summer. Freeland, he of the single digit PER, 40.8% field goal percentage and frequent personal fouls, has said he wants to focus on his NBA duties during this time instead.
There are several ways to digest this information. The first is obviously to appreciate the sacrifice that Freeland is making. On the surface level, nearly every athlete dreams about being able to represent his or her country at the national level, and to give up this opportunity is no trivial decision for Freeland. Playing for your country’s national team is an immense source of pride, and Freeland is demonstrating that he is willing to put aside these emotions for the betterment of his NBA career, something every Blazer fan should appreciate.
Reading even deeper into the situation, though, this is an even bigger deal for Freeland since he hails from Great Britain, a country whose basketball pedigree is notoriously… underdeveloped. In fact, Britain’s national team just had to appeal a funding cut in order to receive money. As another example of basketball’s lowly status there, I once read an article detailing the difficulties British basketball players face. It described how a competitive youth team was booted from their court because the time slot had accidently been double-booked, and conflicted with a badminton game (yes, the badminton took precedence). Neither of these scenarios would be an issue in the US.
As a result of these extra difficulties, British players tend to be fiercely loyal to their national program (see: Deng, Luol). For them personally, playing for the team is a huge source of pride, because they know that they are carrying the torch for an entire sport in their country. Basketball is certainly on the unpopular side of the spectrum there (compared to say soccer), so those who participate in the national team feel a real responsibility to both sport and country.
Freeland’s decision to walk away from that this summer is a strong indicator of his level of focus on the upcoming NBA season. He wants to get better, and without trying to be overly harsh, he needs it. You don’t need fancy statistics or even normal ones to see that he struggled on the court last season, to the point that some were wondering if he was even an NBA-caliber player. I guarantee, though, that Freeland knows better than any of this just how much he struggled.
We as non-athletes too often put professional athletes on a pedestal and forget they are just as human as we are. Think of how frustrated you get when you struggle with something, whether it is your job or a new skill you are trying to learn. Now, imagine going through the difficulties of said struggle with millions of zealous fans watching your every move. That wouldn’t feel so great, would it?
The baseball slugger knows darn well that he is in a seven game hitless streak. The tennis player knows when his backhand is getting abused. The four interception game is on the quarterback’s mind without being constantly reminded about it by the media. Professional athletes are incredibly cognizant of their failures (and naturally their successes), and Freeland is no different.
That’s perhaps my biggest takeaway from all of this: this decision tells me that Freeland is clearly aware of his struggles last season, and wants to improve. And honestly, as a fan, that’s all you can ask. There’s nothing more aggravating than seeing a player waste natural talent, but when a player truly gives his all to improve, you have to simply respect that. Freeland is not the most prolific in terms of natural talent (to put it mildly), but at least his attitude looks to be in the right place.
Next season, Freeland looks to be the Blazers’ fifth big in the rotation, behind LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard. This should also afford him time to develop, without being asked to do too much too soon, as appeared to be the case during last season.