With the Blazers in town to play the Celtics last Friday I got the chance to chat with Jeff Pendergraph for a couple minutes as well as field a couple questions from coach Nate McMillan.
I went into the evening with a primary goal of simply getting a better grasp on Pendergraph as a player and a person, especially after we were trumpeting his draft selection back in June. With LaMarcus Aldridge entrenched as the starting power forward for the foreseeable future, one of the larger lineup questions (with a healthy roster) has been the backup four spot. Travis Outlaw has filled that role at times, but with rumors of David Lee, drafting Pendergraph, signing Paul Millsap last summer and working out various other big bodies before the season began, it’s not a stretch the think the Blazers fancy more of a physical rebounder to spell Aldridge, though preferably one with a mid-range jumper.
Since returning to the court on December 22, Pendergraph has filled some of that role in 16 minutes per game, coming away with an effective field-goal percentage of .686, a PER of 11.6, a 14.9 total rebounding percentage (21.5 defensive) and a reasonable defensive rating of 106. The sample size is minuscule, but for a second-round rookie the numbers are decent. But qualitatively, the thing that most people are starting to notice is how willing Pendergraph is to get physical in the paint. As far as I can tell, he’s not playing dirty, nor is he getting into many scraps, but he certainly isn’t shying away from an ounce of contact.
One term I’ve heard and seen bandied about with Pendergraph over the last week or so has been “Enforcer”. It’s ludicrous to think Jeff is anywhere close to that now, 16 games into his professional career, but the point I’ve seen many people making is that if Pendergraph can eventually be some semblance of that guy filling in behind Aldridge, then we have our backup four. So, I wasn’t surprised at all to get an incredulous look from Nate McMillan — who spent his professional career with a very different NBA ruleset in the 90’s — when I put the label, a relative term in the post-hand-check league, and Jeff’s name together in the same question. For McMillan, even looking down the road, it wasn’t even a thought.
Talking to Jeff after McMillan’s presser, however, you can see why. Though rookies are often like this, Pendergraph was amiable and quick to flash a big smile. When asked if he was comfortable with the enforcer term, his face lit up before dispelling the notion. The interview only lasted four or five minutes, but I could tell that Jeff’s locker-room demeanor, at least with the media, was distant from the club bouncer persona you think of with a guy like Charles Oakley. I still think that it’s perfectly reasonable to think that with a few year’s worth of growth and confidence, a nice ceiling for Pendergraph is as that physical compliment to Aldridge (someone to bang with Oden), and maybe as a tough-guy or protector, which is a role you earn after many years. But for now, that, and any enforcer talk, is just speculation. He’s just playing hard, doing what he’s told and slowly trying to carve out his place in the NBA. Click through for the transcripts of those conversations.
Do you agree with giving Jeff an enforcer label?
"Pendergraph? No, no. He’s played about 20 games. No. You don’t get that in your first year. I think he plays with a lot of fire. I think he plays fearless. But no. I wouldn’t stick that on him. I think he just plays with a lot of aggressiveness. Which we certainly need. I think for him to be successful in this league that is what he’s going to have to bring to the floor."
Is that something you think he could grow into?
"I don’t think the league allows that type of player anymore. You certainly don’t want that label. They don’t allow those types of players to really exist in this league."
Are other teams starting to get a feel for him?
"The more you play, the more people are going to have information on you. For us, he has done a good job of filling in at that five position of trying to be a guy that can defend that basket as well as, he’s been able to score a little bit and show some things that he’s capable of doing. Just for him to be out on the floor and give us anything is a plus for us because we didn’t really expect that to happen this year."
Are you comfortable with the term “enforcer” and people calling you that?
"(Laughs) I guess. That’s not bad. That’s a cool little name to have I guess. I don’t really see it. When I think of enforcer, I think of old school enforcer . . . like Bill Laimbeer, Kevin McHale, guys that are like, “Alright, you hit my point guard too hard so I’m gonna break your nose.” I’m not like that. I play super hard all the time. I don’t really take too much of anything from anybody. If that’s what makes me an enforcer, that’s cool, I’ll take it, but I’m not out there trying to hurt anybody."
Coach was saying the league doesn’t really allow that type of player anymore.
"I play as physical as I can. Coach tells me not to worry about my fouls so, I do get quite a bit (2.6 per game), but that goes with playing how I play. The rules change, they penalize you more for that. Coach doesn’t want me to change how I play. He just says keep it up, don’t worry about fouls just play hard and do what you do."
Have you been thinking about playing against Kevin Garnett?
"I grew up watching him. Out of all the players he was the one guy that was on my wall. Everybody would ask, “Who is your favorite team?” and I would tell them I don’t have a team, my favorite player is Kevin. This, probably out all my games I’ve played so far, it’s kind of like (nervous sound). Hopefully I can get over that really quick because he’s not going to care, he’s going to punch me in my face. He’s going to let me know real quick."
Do you know what he did to Jerryd Bayless last season (crawling on all fours)?
"There’s like a rivalry between us, I think that’s kind of cool. That brings more fun to the game. It’s not like, oh, it’s just another game."
Do you feel new to the teams you’re playing, in the sense that they are still feeling you out?
"I think so. A lot of these teams are still teams that, it’s my first time going against them. People are still trying to figure out me. But it’s not really that hard. I don’t think I’m getting scouted, I just don’t think it’s that hard for them to figure me out. Just find him, and get him and don’t let him get rebounds."