A 'tweener' finds his niche

BY foxsports • February 1, 2011

By Randy Hill

Combining unexpected power with rare speed and agility, they seem like physical contradictions. They're able to produce complicated maneuvers in explosive bursts that are replicated during impressive displays of stamina.

The stunning ability to move from point A to point B while producing demonstrations of severe manual dexterity set them even further apart from their sporting peers.

Without fear of reasonable contradiction, we can say the NBA is home to some of the greatest athletes in the world.

And then there's Jared Dudley.

At 6-foot-7 on a modestly distributed 225 pounds riding under a purple headband, the fourth-year swingman could be mistaken for a rec-league all-star preparing to ditch some calories at the local health club. But even though he may need extra credit to pass the eyeball test, the Phoenix Suns had 22.5 million reasons for signing Dudley to a five-year contract extension last November.

Those reasons have nothing to do with making vertical salvos or filling the lane with a dizzying burst of speed. What Dudley brings the Suns is a desperately needed sense of, well, desperation. When he's competing against NBA-caliber wing players -- without the benefit of crazy ups or blistering lateral quickness of his own -- the ability to dig deep just to compete is what defines the terms of JD's survival.

"Sometimes it's an advantage and sometimes it's a disadvantage," Dudley, who's averaging a tick under 10 points per game this season, said of lining up next to players who bring more explosive power to the hardwood. "Sometimes they're lazier.

"I just try to use angles and gain an advantage in how I position my body," he added. "I may not have that level of quickness, but it makes me want to work harder."

Since earning All-Big East honors as a sophomore at Boston College, Dudley realized working hard could propel his pedestrian physical gifts into an NBA career. Two years later, he was Player of the Year in the Atlantic Coast Conference and selected by the Charlotte Bobcats with the 22nd pick in the first round of the NBA Draft.

Early in his second season with the Bobcats, Dudley and Jason Richardson were traded to Phoenix, where -- in his first full season as a Sun -- the scrappy swingman known as "The Junkyard Dog" had the league's fourth-best 3-point percentage (45.8). With J-Rich considered the prize of this transaction, Dudley's ability to step in as a leader of the second unit was a bit unexpected around Phoenix.

"In Charlotte -- especially with (Coach) Larry Brown -- there wasn't a lot of freedom," Dudley said of his modest NBA beginning. "They thought I was a 'tweener,' playing the four sometimes. I was guarding guys like Kevin Garnett.

"In the offense, I was the dribble-handoff guy."

In Phoenix, Coach Terry Porter also had Dudley pegged as the dreaded tweener, a label that was removed when Alvin Gentry took over and restored spacing and freedom to the Suns' offense.

The following season was the relative breakout for Dudley, who bagged 8.2 points per game and established himself as a Sun willing to ignore his limitations and fight on defense. The tenacity put him on the floor; even though he had been a scorer in college, what was thought of as a surprising ability to make shots kept him there.

"The scouting report was 'let him shoot,' " Dudley said.

So Dudley shot. By the end of last season, close-outs by defenders were more frantic, so Dudley went back to the lab.

"With Amar'e (Stoudemire) gone, I knew I'd have a bigger role," Dudley, who began his summer routine after taking a week off after the playoffs, said. "Everyone needed to get better."

For Dudley, the first order of this improvement was to incorporate shot fakes to help clear space for pull-up jumpers and drives to the cup. Working with different basketball skill trainers, JD's makeover included business trips to Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Miami. The regimen included upgrades in eating habits that enabled Dudley so show up for training camp with 10 fewer pounds to drag around.

With a few starts mixed in, Dudley has eclipsed his 20-point career high five times this season. His slightly deeper offensive repertoire has helped produce a 33-point effort against the Miami Heat and a 27-point game vs. the San Antonio Spurs. While his 3-point accuracy has dipped to 38 percent, the rest of his numbers have remained steady. Now backing up Vince Carter and Grant Hill at shooting guard and small forward, Dudley -- who's averaging 24 minutes per game for the second consecutive season -- realizes his opportunities may vary, depending upon situations and opponents.

"Here in Phoenix," he said, "if you show them what you can do, they'll let you do it."

By next season, Dudley hopes to show the Suns that he's capable of even more.

"I want to be in even better shape," he said. "Add some muscle, improve my ballhandling ..."

To skeptics, there now could be 22.5 million reasons why Jared Dudley could sit back and mail it in this summer.

But the most important thing to remember about junkyard dogs is their commitment to staying hungry.

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