If you follow Bill Simmons, or the NBA, then you probably know that the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder played in the finals in 2012. Not big news, I know. Also not immediately applicable at all to Hawaii Basketball or the Manoa Summer League. But bear with me.
During the stretch run of those finals, when the Heat had all but locked up their championship, Bill wrote a fantastic column about Russell Westbrook, aptly titled "That Boy Competed." Though the Thunder lost game 4, Westbrook's famous final stat line of 45 minutes, 20-32 shooting, 43 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists led to Charles Barkley famously gushing after the game that "that Boy Competed tonight!" And indeed he had. If you follow Westbrook then you know that his skills as a player are grounded in his freakish athletic ability. He's not a particularly gifted passer, or a gifted rebounder, or even a gifted shooter. But he attacks the rim like it was Riley Cooper and unquestionably gives every ounce of every sliver of effort in his body to his team, every night that he's on the court.
And this, to me, is Aaron Valdes in a nutshell. Aside from the fact that he's (I think) the only Hawaii guy to play in all of the Summer League games that I've been to so far, its is how easily your eye gets drawn to him when he's on the floor. And no, it's not just because of the dunking, or the blocking, or the spin moves around the basket (which, don't get me wrong, are all fun to watch). Aaron Competes. At all times. And I think THAT is the quality that magnetizes the casual fan (or at least, magnetizes me.)
Some of this is probably the bi-product of his style of play. Which after a few games, appears to me to fall somewhere in the middle of the ShamWow/Nevels/Fotu triumvirate.
Keith is impossibly smooth. So much so that even when he's exerting 1,000% effort, when he's sweating so much that his shorts are soaking through, when he's picking up the opposing guard full-court, he STILL looks like he's going somewhere between 70-80%.
Nevels on the other hand, is like a coil. A spring? He's quick and jerky and explosive. But in a way I think that's more scary than anything else. Although, hmm…on second thought, maybe he's only scary because he has a permanent scowl on his face. In truth, I haven't figured that one out yet, mostly because I'm too scared to go over and introduce myself. Lets just call Nevels a great athlete who can jump out of the gym and be done with it (don't hurt me Garrett!).
Fotu is Andy Varejao. He's jerky and he's elbows and he's got that enormously fantastic head of hair. And man does he play hard. And dunk it. All with the biggest smile on his face imaginable. And you know, I've always wondered…Is he smiling because he's just a happy guy? Or is he smiling because he knows that at some point in the game, he's going to punk you in the most embarrassing way possible? Either way he's the anti-Nevels. Expression wise at least.
Which brings us back to Aaron. He's smooth, but he's not necessarily Keith Smoove (see what I did there?). He's super crazy athletic, but not necessarily as outwardly explosive as Garrett. And he's always smiling on the court, just…not really in the same "someone just told me the funniest joke ever" way that Fotu does. And again. He COMPETES. Which is what really makes him a joy to watch, especially since his team routinely has only about 6-7 guys show up (meaning he plays basically the whole game…every game.)
It would be easy for him to just float around the perimeter and bomb threes. He's got a nice stroke so he probably COULD do this and be fairly successful. Instead? He hustles. He rebounds (he almost had a triple double last night, going 23/10/9) and he blocks shots. The kind of blocks that could (would) change the pace of a game in the regular season. To wit: Last night there was a three on one fast break. Aaron was the one. And, after some drill-like passing, Wesley Armbrust put up what I assumed was a gimme floater. That Aaron blocked. Fairly effortlessly. In a game? Ideally he'd have teammates running back to help on D. Last night? After the block it was still…3 on 1. So despite Aaron's best efforts afterward, someone on National Fire collected the ball and laid it in. A seemingly innocuous play that was, for me at least, a microcosm of why Aaron is "That Boy Competed!" No plays off. Not even in the Summer League. Not even when you're up (or down) big. And certainly not on the fast break.
People who know things tell me that Aaron made easily the biggest jump from last year to this year. His teammates swear it. Coach Tony swears it. The fans I talk to swear it. And they aren't wrong. Is it time for the season to start yet??
For a rundown of the game, hit up Dayton's recap on Warrior Insider. Also, if you have the video of Stefan (potentially) dunking on Aaron, hit me up. Can't have this be all compliments, right Aaron?