MINNEAPOLIS — Tuesday was a different kind of homecoming for Jordan Taylor.
For the past four years, the Bloomington native has heard the same questions, over and over, each time he’s returned with the Wisconsin men’s basketball team to play against the Gophers. He was the prodigal son, so easy to cheer for or against but impossible to hate for leaving. He was at home, at ease, especially after his first career win as a Badger at Williams Arena on Feb. 9.
That homecoming was 27 points, tied for the fifth-best scoring performance of his career. It was a 68-61 overtime victory. It was the perfect end to his rivalry with his home state.
This time, it’s different.
Just four months later, the conversation has changed. At Tuesday’s Timberwolves draft workouts, it was still Jordan Taylor, hometown darling, 2008 Minnesota Mr. Basketball. It was still Jordan Taylor, All-American. But that’s all so far removed now, high school and even college stardom things of the past. Taylor is waiting for a new identity, hoping to earn one in spite of the shortcomings that seem so much more obvious at this level. He’s not quite a star anymore, not among the likes of Anthony Davis and Thomas Robinson. He’s projected by some as a second-round pick, by others to go undrafted. He was a last-minute invitee to the draft combine June 7-8 in Chicago.
Now, Taylor has to tell anyone who’s listening that he’s right for the NBA, and his combine invitation was the perfect opportunity to do so. For a fringe player like the Wisconsin guard, the combine’s spotlight and attention were its greatest value.
“Anytime you get a chance to be in front of the decision-makers like that, it’s definitely a great opportunity,” Taylor said. “That’s really all you can ask for, a guy in my position, just to get a chance to try and show what you can do.”
Thinking back on those two days in Chicago, Taylor can’t help but laugh. He was one of the “old guys” there, a senior among underclassmen. He’d been imagining it for years, no doubt, but in the end, it was more a show than the phenomenon it can be built into. He sat back and watched, he said, knowing that all he could do was go out on the court and play. Getting invited was likely more complicated and daunting than the event itself.
The combine does little more than affirm and make official what most know already. It can’t change realities for a player, especially not when it quantifies and categorizes them, inch by inch. In Chicago, Taylor measured 6-foot-1 without shoes, taller than just Xavier’s Tu Holloway. He was one of only 14 players to weigh in at less than 200 pounds, and his 6-foot-3 wingspan was the shortest of any player present. None of that can work in the guard’s favor, but it’s nothing new. He’s been playing with those physical tools for years, and though they might be obstacles, he’s also accepted them.
“Physically, I don’t think I’m going to morph into anything in the next week or two, so it’s just trying to come out, compete and show the things I can do,” Taylor said.
It’s as simple as that. However, Timberwolves’ general manager David Kahn said that Taylor’s size, particularly his height, necessitates that other parts of his game must be more refined. To be a success in the NBA at 6-foot-1, Taylor needs to make his shot more dependable, especially after a downturn in production his senior year.
As a junior at Wisconsin, Taylor averaged 18.1 points and 4.7 assists per game, leading the Badgers in both categories. That scoring average was also second-best among guards in the Big Ten. His senior season, though, Taylor faltered, averaging 14.8 points and 4.1 assists. Those numbers still led the Badgers, but Taylor’s field goal percentage decreased from .433 to .402, and his shot was far less consistent.
That drop-off in production is no secret. Scouts know it. General managers know it, coaches too. Yet Taylor is still invited to workouts. He still trained with Rob McClanaghan, the same Los Angeles-based trainer who’s worked with Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love and Derrick Rose, among others. There are criticisms and questions, but Taylor still has a shot at the NBA. A good shot.
At least one question about Taylor’s game seems easy to dispense. It’s the kind of question Kahn can guess before it’s even fully asked, the kind that prompts him to interrupt. Bo Ryan’s offense at Wisconsin is …
Kahn knows it. Taylor knows it. Anyone who’s ever watched the Badgers knows that Ryan’s offense was methodical on its good days and slow on its worst. Kahn can answer that question, at least, of whether Taylor can overcome that system. Of course he can.
“I wouldn’t read too much into that, because I’m sure he plays all summer long, and there’s the style of play he played in high school,” Kahn said. “For every positive there’s a negative, and vice versa.”
Check that worry off the list, but with Taylor and nearly every other player in the draft, there are always qualities to question. It’s such a nit-picky process, breaking down every infinitesimal element of dozens of players, but in the end, it comes down to fit. It’s really about the place a player has on a team and the relationship that team can imagine with whomever it picks. For Taylor, that relationship might come, but it is no more likely to be with the Timberwolves than any other organization.
Kahn said that picking a hometown player offers little benefit to a team. It’s about picking the best player, not the one who will garner the most fan attention. So no matter how many nerves Taylor felt before Tuesday’s workouts in front of the team he grew up watching, it really doesn’t matter. Taylor is a high-character kid, Kahn said, good at driving the ball and finishing at the rim. Those qualities matter, to other teams and the Timberwolves. Where he’s from, though, has little bearing on the process.