OVER THE last three years the Grizzlies have auditioned point guards the way 24 trots outs villians. Damon Stoudamire. Javaris Crittenton. Kyle Lowry. Mike Conley. (The first two are gone; the last two are still on the roster but have yet to take ownership of the position.) You get the feeling that if John Stockton showed any interest in coming out of retirement, Memphis would FedEx him a 10-day contract and a plane ticket. But there is still one in-house candidate who is hoping to get a crack at the job: rookie shooting guard O.J. Mayo. "I would love to be a point guard," says Mayo. "I think it would be a great fit."
The way Mayo has played this season, it's hard to put limits on his game. The No. 3 pick out of USC had scored 20-plus points in 20 of 39 games at week's end and cracked 30 four times. He leads all rookies in scoring (19.4 points per game) and is connecting on a team-high 37.9% of his threes. "He's a flat-out scoring machine," says Pacers coach Jim O'Brien. "He's not LeBron or Kobe as far as being able to dominate, but he's not far behind." And Mayo is a two-way player. During his one season with the Trojans, Mayo absorbed defensive fundamentals from Tim Floyd, the former coach of the Bulls and the Hornets. Going against Dwyane Wade in December, he held the Heat guard to 5-of-16 shooting and four turnovers. Says Mayo, "Lock into the waist and keep your chest even with the other player. Coach Floyd told me God had given me great feet, and I should use them."
Soft-spoken, Mayo isn't a typical leader, but he can be vocal when he sees the need. In training camp he rode his teammates after poor performances in scrimmages, and he organized workouts after practices. Mayo also isn't afraid to ask questions. "A lot of rookies don't want to let on how little they know," says Memphis coach Marc Iavaroni. "He doesn't have that fear." While he's friendly with his younger teammates, Mayo has gravitated toward the handful of veterans on the Grizzlies, including Greg Buckner, whom he works out with for two hours before and after each practice. "The superstars, they are so competitive they want to win at everything," says Buckner, a nine-year vet who has played alongside Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson and Dirk Nowitzki. "O.J. is like that."
But what position is Mayo best suited for? Averaging 2.9 assists and 2.6 turnovers through Sunday, he understands he would need to work to develop point guard skills; he doesn't envision trying for the position until next season. His preference for the point may have to do with the toll that playing two guard has taken on his lean frame. Listed at 6'5", the 200-pound Mayo is closer to 6'2" and is sometimes overpowered by bigger shooting guards. Already this season Mayo has battled shoulder and hip injuries, and he talks of his desire to "stay healthy" and "avoid wearing down."
Though the Grizzlies would prefer to keep him where he is—"I see O.J. as a Ray Allen--type two," says Iavaroni—they are open to shifting him, especially given their limited options at the point. "Nothing is off the table," says G.M. Chris Wallace. "O.J. has tremendous vision, and size-wise you can see him playing that position."
Besides, the rebuilding Grizzlies may have nothing to lose—especially if a switch ends the game of musical chairs at point guard. Says Mayo, "I want to do anything I can to help this team win." Pausing, he grins. "But like I said, I'd like to play the point."
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On Timberwolves rookie forward Kevin Love, who was traded for Mayo as part of an eight-player deal on draft day:
At 6'8"—and I'm not sure he is even that tall—he's going to have problems guarding bigger power forwards, and he's not very athletic, so he's going to have trouble with quickness too. Still, he'll probably develop into a good help defender because he's smart. Offensively he's not going to jump over anyone, and I've seen forwards with length alter his shots. I'd like to see him extend his range to 18 feet and play more like Elton Brand, who perfected that mid-range shot when he was with the Clippers. He's an above-average passer and rebounder. He's not a bad player. I think he could be part of a rotation on a really good team, but with the No. 5 pick you hope for more than that.
JOE MURPHY/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (MAYO)
GRIZZ WHIZ A threat inside and out, Mayo leads the league's freshmen in scoring.
LAYNE MURDOCH/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (LOVE)