Friday, February 29, 2008

NBA D-League Profile: Blake Ahearn

Blake Ahearn is not tall. He's not exceptionally fast, nor does he have unbelievable acceleration. He does not have what is commonly referred to as "tremendous upside." He is not freakishly athletic. He is not naturally gifted. He's just a very talented basketball player that wakes up every single day and does whatever he can to get better.

Blake didn't go to a major program. He wasn't heralded by magazines. He came from St. Louis Missouri, out of DeSmet Jesuit High School. He went to Missouri State University in Springfield, MO. He wasn't discussed in draft breakdowns, didn't have a video package on him prepped by ESPN. He was just another college player that graduated. and was expected to disappear. Funny thing, though, Blake Ahearn didn't plan on disappearing. He planned on doing what he'd always done. Working hard, getting better, succeeding in the face of doubt, and playing in the NBA.

I had no idea who Blake Ahearn was until about a week ago. I went to cover a Toros game for the Austin Chronicle and got the media notes. I noticed that since Ahearn had moved to the starting spot 7 games ago, he was averaging 27 points a game. "That's a nice little bump," I thought. "Wonder if the kid's any good." Blake turned in 27 points on 53% shooting, with 4 assists and a steal. But numbers can be easy to rack up in the D-League, same as the NBA (hello, Larry Hughes). Blake's wasn't a statistical fluke, though. He exhibited poise and versatility, running the offense and showing exceptional decision making for when to slow the game down and when to speed it up. He pushed when they had the break, and pulled up when they needed to reset. And he shot when he knew he had the look. I came away very impressed with him. So I decided to track him down and talk to him.

The thing that surprised me off the bat was Blake's confidence. This is a rookie, mind you. I've found in the D-League that it's rare to find guys that aren't on assignment from an NBA club with confidence. They're either trying to find their footing in the league and constantly weighing whether they're wasting their time and if they should just go to Europe, or they're vets that have bounced back and forth and seem weary, just hoping to get some measure of security somewhere. Blake was all guns when I asked him about Europe. Before that, he'd been very casual, talked about how he was trying to open up his point game since he knew he didn't have the size to play the 2 guard in the NBA. He talked about the game and his feelings on it. When I asked him about how he felt about his chances of being called up, and if he'd be heading overseas anytime soon to take the money (an everyday conundrum for D-League players), though, he centered. He looked me straight in the eye, and said,

"I didn't grow up as a kid dreaming of playing in Europe. I'm going to play in the NBA."

One of the reasons Ahearn may have so much determination about himself is that he doesn't seem to think anyone else has it for him. When I sat down to talk to him over the phone yesterday, I asked him why he doesn't think he's been called up yet. His answer was revealing about how he approaches the challenges in front of him.

"You know, that's a good question. I feel like I can play now. I think it's just... people are hesitant. Each level I've gotten to, people have doubted me. When I was in St. Louis, people said I should play in a small, Division II school. I went to a Division I. Then in college, my coach said if I made a shot, or made a three in the game, that'd be good. I started scoring consistently. I don't look like a basketball player. People don't think I can do it. That's why I work so hard, I want to prove people wrong. "

Blake learned to lean on his talents, on skills, to excel. His game is clearly inspired by Steve Nash, and you can see it with the way he approaches the game, right down to the way he tests the perimeter like Nash. He also has mastered the fundamentals to add the little details to his package. And when I say mastered, I mean mastered.

Turns out Blake Ahearn is a record holder. Blake owns the record for career free throw percentage in the NCAA. He shot 94.6% for his career. Think about that for a tick. That means, if you take 100 of his free throws, he's probably going to hit 95 of them. He had a down year his senior year, only shooting 92%. Yeah.

Funny thing, guess who's on top of the D-League for free throw percentage? Yeah, that is funny.

You can tell from talking to him, though, that he doesn't like to talk about it, for fear of being turned into "the free throw guy." It's clear that free throw shooting is just another aspect of his game that Ahearn is trying to make perfect. Each day, with each shot, always pushing, always working. Trying to get better. Trying to make the league. Trying to achieve his dream.

And he's convincing people. One shot at a time.

Blake Ahearn was kind enough to take some time out of obsessively watching basketball to sit down with me for an interview.

Matt: Do you still hold the record for free throw percentage, that you know of?

Ahearn:Yes I do.

Matt:How do you feel about that?

Ahearn:I don't talk about it a lot. That's what people knew me for. But I like to think I do more than just shoot free throws. It's not something you like to look back on when your playing days are gone.

Matt:You're also leading the D-League in free throw shooting. That's a little bit insane. Is that something you keep track of?

Ahearn:Actually I don't. I haven't looked at my stats this year. I'm a superstitious guy and I kind of don't want to know. My cousin calls me all the time and lets me know if I'm doing good or if I need to step it up a little bit. I've never been a guy that follows stat. If you get to looking at him and get caught up in them, you should just go out and play, it'll take care of itself.

Matt:How many free throws do you shoot a day?

Ahearn:During my workout in the offseason, I'll make 152. during the year, I'll make 102 a day. In the d-league, with the lack of facilities, we don't have the gun, so... I've made 102, I try and do the same here.

Matt:You told me the other night that you were focusing on becoming more of a combo guard. Can you tell me what that process involves? Is it mostly work on your own, or does the D-league or the individual teams work with you on those things?

Ahearn:When i played the 2, I knew I'd have to learn to play point guard, it's one of those things where you just kind of have to do it. I obviously watch a lot of basketball. I watch a lot of Steve Nash, he's similar to me, 6 foot white guy, not a lot of speed. The more i put myself in a point guard situation, the better I can become.

Matt:What do you think is the biggest thing keeping you back from the NBA?

Ahearn:You know, that's a good question. I feel like I can play now. I think it's just... people are hesitant. Each level I've gotten to, people have doubted me. In the St. Louis division, people said I should play in a small division 1 school. Then in college, my coach said if I made a shot, or made a three, that'd be good. I don't look like a basketball player. People don't think I can do it. That's why I work so hard, I want to prove people wrong.

Matt:What players have you tried to emulate?

Ahearn:Steve Nash is the model. He relies a lot on skill. Passing, dribbling, shooting. My favorite player of all time is Pete Maravich.

Matt:Did you enter the NBA draft?

Ahearn: No, I didn't. My agent probably put me in. But I couldn't tell you. It was a hard year. I went to Portsmouth, and didn't shoot very well. And basically, no one game me a serious look.

Matt:Were you in any of the summer leagues or preseason?

Ahearn: I wasn't invited to anything. No workouts, no summer camps. Nothing.

Matt:How did you get into the d-league?

Ahearn:I had some offers overseas. My agent said going to the league would be a good resume builder. Obviously you're seen a lot here. I didn't work all my life to play in Europe. Now there's nothing bad about that. But my dream is to play in the NBA. I put my name in the draft, and my agent called all the teams, and I got drafted.

Matt: How much communication, if any, have you had with the league?

Ahearn:Yeah, my agent's talked to a lot of people, as well as my coach. Some scouts and general managers that are interested and have said some positive things. It's just a matter of finding the right place at the right time. Like I said before, I'm looking for any opportunity to make the most of.

Matt:What's your usual day like when you're not on the road?

Ahearn:Travel days take up our whole day. We'll get up, have breakfast, do practice around 11, practice about an hour and 15. And then, it's kind of on your own. Get your extra shots, and work out. Lot of free time. It's good with the travel wearing you down. It's a lot. We're up at 4:30 of 5AM, and it can wear on you a little bit.

Matt:Free Time:

Ahearn: Watch TV, watch a lot of basketball. Being in Bismarck, it's so cold you don't even want to leave your apartment. It gets kind of boring here in Bismarck. I love Golf, I watch that a lot.

Matt:Big win last night over Sioux Falls. JC Mathis mentioned that the was tired of playing you guys because you'd played so often. Do you have that same feeling?

Ahearn: Oh yeah. When we showed up, I think it was the fifth time we've played in seven games, and it's one of those things, you want to play someone different. You know all the plays, you know where they're going. It's nice to not see them for a while that's for sure.

Matt:I've spoken with some D-League personnel and it seems like the emphasis of the coaches and staff is to develop the players, not necessarily to win games. Is that the attitude in Dakota?

Ahearn:I think it's both here. Coach Ticknor and assistant Martin, they do a good job of developing your skills. I know scouts don't want to look at teams that are losers, and the more you win, the more chance you'll have of people looking at you. Nobody likes losing anyway.

Matt:How much emphasis do the players put on it, knowing they could get called up any minute?

Ahearn: It's one of the deals with minor league basketball. You re trying to represent yourself and what you can do, but you also want to win games. everybody here in the D-league is used to winning. People are also trying to further their careers. I like to win.

Matt:Would you ever consider doing a blog?

Ahearn:Probably not. I'm not the guy for that. I could probably learn from Rod. I've never been into that stuff, I don't read online and stuff. I don't get caught up on what people say.

Matt:What's been the biggest key to Dakota's success this season?

Ahearn: We haven't lost anybody. We lost Mo Baker. We lost Baker 10 games or so ago. And we haven't had a lot of transition. That's a big deal. And when with so many players coming and going, the chance to play with the same guys consistently helps. Team chemistry.

Matt: What role do you see yourself playing in the league?

I look around the league, and shooters are so rare nowadays. It's hard watching games and not being able to do anything about it.

Matt: Thanks for your time, Blake. Good luck with the rest of the season.

Ahearn: Thanks.

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