Thursday, December 23, 2010

Gary Neal: Not Just the J.R. Smith Poster Victim

Prior to last week, only the most die-hard NBA fans know about Gary Neal, the Spurs rookie guard who spent three seasons in Europe after finishing college. Then, on Dec. 16, he became something of a household name, but not the way he wanted.

On that day, in a game against the Denver Nuggets, Neal was on the wrong end of the dunk of the year, by J.R. Smith. There are multiple copies of the video on YouTube, and combined they've got about a million views.

Here's the thing, though. The Spurs won that game, and Neal was a +10. He was only 2-of-7 from the field, but the week since has been kinder to Neal. With Spurs backup point guard George Hill out with a sprained toe, Neal has played at least 26 minutes in each of the last three games. He's averaging 18.3 PPG in that stretch, including back-to-back games with 22 points. Over the last three games, he's San Antonio's second-leading scorer (behind Tony Parker), helping the team extend its win streak to 10 games.

To many around the league, Neal's emergence as a legitimate bench scoring threat has been something of a surprise, particularly in light of his poster moment, but getting dunked on is nothing compared to what Neal had to go through in college. Neal started his career at La Salle, where he was the Atlantic 10 freshman of the year, and averaged 18.6 PPG in two seasons. However, before the 2004-05 season, Neal was dismissed from school after being accused of rape. He was eventually acquitted, but because of multiple issues surrounding the incident, he couldn't return to school.

Neal landed at Towson University, my alma mater, where it became clear that he was the best basketball talent to ever grace the school. Though the team never really achieved much success during Neal's tenure, he was unstoppable. In just 17 games as a junior, he scored a team-high 444 points, and would have ranked as one of the nation's top scorers if he'd played enough to qualify. As a senior, he did qualify and finished 5th in the nation with a 25.3 PPG average, becoming one of only three players to score 1,000 points at two different Division I schools.

Despite that success, Neal went undrafted in 2007. There's no way of knowing if the rape allegation played a role in that, but it's just as likely that NBA scouts were skeptical of a player coming out of Towson. Prior to Neal, the school had produced just one NBA player: Kurk Lee, who had a brief stint with the Nets in the 1990-91 season. However, as Neal continued to produce in Europe, his natural scoring ability couldn't be ignored anymore. He lit it up this summer with the Spurs summer league team, earning a multi-year deal in the process.

Being realistic, it's unlikely that Neal is going to continue his recent run of success, if only because Hill will return to the Spurs at some point and cut into Neal's minutes. But Neal is a lot more than "the guy J.R. Smith dunked on", and he deserves credit for his unlikely success.

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