Wild times for the Wild Thing
One month into the season, Anderson Varejao is All-Star worthy.
“He’s the best center in the NBA right now; by far the best in the Eastern Conference,” said Cavaliers coach Byron Scott.
Even if you don’t entirely agree with Varejao’s coach, it’s hard to argue with the numbers.
The 6-foot-11 wild man is averaging a career-high 14.5 points. He leads the NBA at 14.9 rebounds per game. That included a whopping 22 boards against Memphis, which features two monsters of its own in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
In Varejao’s 14 games, he’s grabbed at least 15 rebounds 10 times — and at least 17 six times. But the man they call Wild Thing has always been an enthusiastic chaser of missed shots and loose balls. This is nothing new.
What’s impressive is Varejao’s production on offense. Some might call it unexpected.
“We don’t (feature) him one bit at the offensive end, and he’s averaging 14, nearly 15, points a night,” Scott said.
The coach paused, perhaps in amazement, before adding that Varejao is one of the few players Scott actually had to tell to shoot more.
“That’s a first,” Scott said. “I’ve had to tell a lot of guys not to shoot, but I told him, ‘You play so hard I think you deserve to take shots.'”
Amazingly, Varejao is nearly automatic from the elbow, setting his feet, squaring up and following through. There was a time, and not long ago, that the idea of Varejao taking (and making) 15-footers was unthinkable — and even frowned upon.
“He’s always had the energy. The thing we’ve worked on the past couple years is just telling him to shoot when he’s open,” Scott said. “He’s always made them in practice. This year, he has a lot more confidence. He’s taking shots when he has them.”
At the beginning of the year, Scott handed out index cards to the players used to define their roles. Varejao’s list was simple.
“Defend, rebound, shoot,” Scott said. “He’s been able to do those three things, obviously, on a night-to-night basis.”
Over time, Scott also learned Varejao is “a heck of a passer.” Not something anyone expected from a guy who’s all arms, legs and crazy hair.
But these days, there are times the Cavs’ offense actually runs through Varejao — who acts as somewhat of a facilitator near the top of the key. His passing is vital in the pick-and-roll offense, which drew praise from opposing coaches when point guard Kyrie Irving was healthy.
Without Varejao, however, it would fizzle.
“In practice, I got a pretty good idea that he had, No. 1, a very high basketball IQ, and No. 2, that he’s a very willing passer,” Scott said. “Nine out of 10 times, he’s going to make good decisions with the ball.”
How good has Varejao been? Good enough that Cavs fans (and some media members) publicly wonder if the team should trade him — like, tomorrow. After all, his value has never been higher.
The Cavs have no plans to make such a move at the moment, even if Varejao is an NBA old-timer at 30-years old. Not really, but that’s what some folks seem to think.
Of course, the problem is, most teams with interest in Varejao (read: contenders) don’t really have the assets to match his productivity, either now or even the future. If they do, they’re not willing to part ways with them. Not yet.
That’s fine by the Cavs, who feel Varejao can be a productive player for another six or seven seasons. Most big men in the NBA, after all, have that sort of basketball lifespan.
As for the talk of the All-Star game, well, that’s a bit premature, too.
The Cavs have won just three of their first 15 games. No matter how good you are as an individual, it’s tough to get voted in by coaches or fans when your team can’t win. It doesn’t matter if your team is young, or that it’s unfairly spent a month of the season primarily on the road, or that it’s been burdened with ridiculous back-to-backs.
The people who do the voting see in black in white only — or again, in wins and losses. So unless the Cavs pick it up considerably, the odds of Varejao making the All-Star team are decidedly against him.
But that’s OK by the Cavs. They know and appreciate his effort and value, how much he’s improved, how he leads this young bunch by energetic example.
In their eyes, he’s already a star. And that’s all that really matters to them.
Follow Sam Amico on Twitter @SamAmicoFSO