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It’s late on a Wednesday night in January. Center Brendan Haywood has just played another game in an 11-season NBA career, and sits back for some down time. What does he do?
“Turn on League Pass, and watch the Denver Nuggets against the Milwaukee Bucks,” Haywood said.
New Charlotte Bobcat Haywood is a sports junkie. He says his remote seldom strays from ESPN, ESPN2 or TNT. The NBA is his profession, but college basketball also grips his attention. And this isn’t passive viewing. Former teammates and coaches marvel at the recall Haywood has about every player in the league, big man or not.
“You’d be surprised how many players don’t watch basketball. They’re just good at it,” Haywood said. “For me, watching basketball isn’t work, isn’t a chore. It’s what I love to do.”
When the Bobcats claimed Haywood on secondary waivers, after the Dallas Mavericks cut him under the amnesty clause, fans shrugged. They recalled the indecisive, passive kid who played for North Carolina more than a decade ago. How could he help?
Those he’s played with or for in the NBA say otherwise. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said waiving Haywood had little to do with his ability and a lot to do with his $11 million-plus salary. Carlisle calls Haywood one of the best teammates in the league and a fine help defender. Others – former Washington Wizards interim coach Ed Tapscott and ex-Wizards and Tar Heels teammate Antawn Jamison – say Haywood’s basketball intellect is off the charts.
“When the Wizards were making the playoffs, Gilbert (Arenas) and I got all the credit. But he was the glue guy on those teams,” Jamison told the Observer recently. “You saw a significant drop-off in our defense whenever he didn’t play because the help just wasn’t there, both with what he did and what he told us was coming.”
Under the amnesty clause, the Bobcats were able to acquire Haywood in return for paying $2 million of what the Mavs owed him each of the next three seasons. That’s a fair price for the savvy and memory bank Haywood packs in a 7-footer’s body.
The Bobcats’ at-the-rim defense was horrible last season. This team has athletes inside in Bismack Biyombo and Tyrus Thomas, but Haywood brings a moxie neither of those players yet possesses.
Jamison said he could go to Haywood for a scouting report on any player in the league and hear nuances he’d missed or forgotten. Haywood illustrated Jamison’s point.
“I might not be guarding Gerald Wallace, but I know he’s heavy right-handed,” Haywood said. “Guys who don’t want to go left only have limited counter(move)s. You know they can only do this, or they can only take a jumper.”
A player with this total recall would be valuable at any position, but more so at center, the last line of defense. Centers see the opposing team’s play developing with a vantage point guards and forwards don’t get. So if they’re not directing traffic – calling out screens, anticipating isolations, envisioning alley-oops – teammates are in trouble.
The last center the Bobcats had like this was Tyson Chandler, a self-described “chatterbox.” But Chandler and then-coach Larry Brown clashed, and he was a Bobcat a single season.
“Communication on defense is a very big thing,” Haywood said.”Sometimes it’s underrated, but you can never do enough of it.”
Teammates – current and former – say Haywood thrives at that traffic-cop role. Bobcats co-captain Matt Carroll played with Haywood as Dallas Mavericks for a season and a half.
“He’s almost like a defensive coordinator watching a football game from up high, because the center can see everything,” Carroll said.
“When you can trust the big guy behind you, you’re not scared to pressure the ball or contest shots,” Carroll said. “He’s very pro-active in letting you know, ‘I’ve got your back.’ If you’re going to play a high-octane defense, you’ve got to have that because (perimeter) guys aren’t going to take as many chances if you’re worried about guys blowing by you. He overcomes that.”