Price here today, gone tomorrow — and back again
A.J. Price was signed by Cleveland Sunday, two days after he had been released by the Pacers.
The Pacers had signed him three weeks earlier, a week after he had been released by Cleveland.
Cleveland had signed him late in September. He was available because Minnesota had waived him in April. Minnesota got him because he had been left unsigned after one season with Washington, which signed him after the Pacers let him go after three seasons in Indianapolis.
Heck, Price was even traded before he became an NBA player, in essence. The Pacers drafted him in the second round in 2009 with a pick that had been acquired in a trade with Dallas the previous year.
It’s an instructive tale.
Nobody within the Pacers’ locker room was happy to see Price go. Coach Frank Vogel said he thanked him and promised to keep an eye on him. Who knows, Vogel told him, perhaps we’ll have a chance to work together again in a future season. And the news of Price’s latest contribution to the NBA transaction wire was greeted with smiles by his now former teammates, particularly Rodney Stuckey.
“Really?! Wow, that’s good for him, man,” said Stuckey, who gave Price rides to and from the airport and was an occasional dinner companion in Indianapolis.
“I’m going to reach out to him today and congratulate him. This is a good opportunity for him. Best of luck to him, man. He deserves to be in this league.”
Nobody seems to dispute that. Price averaged 10.5 points in 10 games and helped an injury-weakened roster to five wins in his three weeks with the Pacers. He’s clearly talented enough to contribute on the court. He’s sharp and soft-spoken, popular in every locker room. He showers regularly. He doesn’t create problems.
His worst transgression in the NBA seems to be the fact he was late for practice a few times in Washington, underestimating the time it would take him to navigate the D.C. traffic. Jerry Sichting, then a Wizards assistant, called one of the Pacers assistants to ask if that had been a problem in Indianapolis, and was told it wasn’t. Sichting says he would give a positive recommendation to any team that asked him about Price.
So would Pacers assistant Dan Burke.
“He’s one of the more cerebral players,” Burke said. “He picks up things fast. He’s not afraid of taking charge out there, telling guys where to be on plays. He’s a good little general.”
The Pacers knew they would have to release Price from the moment they signed him this year, using the NBA’s roster exemption to sign a 16th player because of injuries, but other teams haven’t had that issue. So, what is it? If Price is capable of helping any team, why does every team let him go?
Because players of Price’s caliber aren’t difficult to find, and there’s always going to be a younger player teams want to look at. Price doesn’t have exceptional size, quickness or shooting ability. He’s good at everything, great at nothing. That’s good, but won’t separate you from all those other guys fighting for a roster spot in the NBA. His quiet demeanor could be regarded as an asset for a backup player, but helps keep him below the radar.
“Even as a rookie, I would tell him, ‘Your skill set is a dime a dozen. What are you going to do to separate yourself from other guys?’” Burke said. “Are you going to practice hard? Are you going to elevate the intensity in practice? Are you going to do the extra work, get your early shooting in, and really join the group? Get engaged with the group?”
Price is among those who needs to be in the right place at the right time to last for long with a team, and will always be at risk from a front office looking to improve a team’s bench. But it’s telling that with each of his NBA teams, he was replaced by someone who didn’t play as well as him and was released after a season or less. Cleveland, for example, had let him go to make room for Will Cherry. Cherry averaged 1.9 points in eight games with the Cavs. So now Price replaces Cherry.
What can Price do about this? Not much, really. At 28, he’s virtually a finished product as an NBA player. He can only get better in small ways from this point. He just has to hope he lands with a front office that appreciates him for what he is, and doesn’t have an itchy trigger finger. Maybe hope he winds up with a team for which he gets to start and play major minutes because of injuries, as Donald Sloan has done with the Pacers, and make a deeper impression. And, embrace the chance to see the country.