One of the most unsatisfying feelings in life in life is a situation where you are left eternally wondering “what could have been?” It could be the end of a personal relationship, a job opportunity, an alternate path to direct your life; it could be anything. We’ve all experienced it to differing extents, some more notably than others, and these cliff hanging moments often exist completely out of our control.
Commoners like us aren’t always forced into the whirlwind of public exposure for our shortcomings, but professional athletes couldn’t shake the spotlight from their unfinished business if they tried.
Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone and John Stockton come to mind when basketball junkies discuss the great NBA icons that were never fortunate enough to win a championship. When you’re the number one overall pick in the draft, you better live up to your potential or you’ll be associated with the underwhelming career trajectory of “busts” like Anthony Bennett, Kwame Brown or Michael “The Kandi Man” Olowokandi. Even worse, there have been a large number of high level ballplayers who forcefully had their careers cut short due to health and injury concerns.
Unfortunately for the spirit that exists deep within the game of basketball, the window closed on Brandon Roy’s peak far sooner than it could have otherwise been destined to be. Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill and other once-youthful superstars can relate as their careers were unwillingly swallowed into the darkness of unmet expectations beyond control. When healthy, Roy was as complete of a perimeter player as their was in the league and the 6’6″ swingman carried himself with the “it factor” that places certain athletes into an upper-echelon category. He set the state of Oregon on fire with new hope.
All good things come to an end, however, and we don’t get to decide what life throws at us next. Sometimes our downfall clashes with us at our best.
Roy put his name on the map as a youngster at Garfield High School in Seattle, WA, where he was ESPN.com’s 36th ranked high school basketball prospect in the class of 2002. Initially, Roy entertained the idea of entering his name into the NBA draft out of high school back when the rules allowed players to do so, but University of Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar eventually persuaded the talented guard to join his Huskies. Not only did Roy decide to go to college before attempting a move to the pros, he stayed for four years.
Following sparing usage as a freshman going through the ropes at a new level of competition, Roy earned a spot in Washington’s starting lineup as a sophomore. His game grew with opportunity, averaging roughly 13 points and five rebounds per game in a guard-heavy rotation including Will Conroy, Nate Robinson and Tre Simmons. Roy’s junior output matched what he contributed the previous season in terms of production, but coach Romar decided to shake things up by replacing Roy with Simmons in the starting lineup. The Huskies would go on to achieve a 29-6 record leading up to their “Sweet 16” loss to Louisville in the Regional Semifinals of the 2005 NCAA Tournament.
With Nate Robinson heading to the NBA, Roy visioned his senior season as his time to shine and make a bigger name for himself on the national stage, and he did just that. Boasting collegiate career high averages of 20.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.4 steals while leading the Huskies to second place in the Pac-10 for the third consecutive year, Brandon Roy was no longer “one of the guys.” He was the guy, and he was awarded his name on the 2005-06 NCAA All-America 1st Team to back it up. Coach Romar’s squad was eliminated in the NCAA tournament’s Regional Semifinals in back-to-back seasons after falling to number one-seeded Connecticut, but Roy left a lasting impression as a senior and monumentally skyrocketed his pro stock with his newfound improvement and usage as a shooter.
Roy only hoisted an accumulated 57 three-point field goals throughout his first three years in college, connecting on just 14 of those attempts (24.5%). As a senior, Roy went 39 of 97 at a high quality 40% clip from beyond the arc. Everyone knew he could create with the ball and make plays for others, but that outside jumper elevated his game and opened up his ability to do everything he would come to excel at on the court.
Perhaps the highlight of Roy’s senior season was his monstrous 35-point performance in a nail-biting double-overtime thriller against Hassan Adams’ Arizona Wildcats, which occurred two days after another 35-point output against Arizona State. Adams fired back in a crunch time shootout with Roy, scoring 32 points of his own and eventually leading Arizona to win the game, but Roy came up big despite the loss and made a handful of key shots late in the game. Roy was already on the NBA draft radar as a consensus first round pick, but that game helped put him in the national spotlight and gave people more of a reason to value him as a high lottery selection.
Even so, the general consensus on Roy leading up to the 2006 NBA Draft was that he “did a lot of things well, but nothing great.” Teams were confident that his versatile skill set would help him contribute right away, but a lot of league executives were not sold that he would develop into a star caliber player.
Needless to say, the skeptics were wrong and the Trail Blazers lucked out in a 2006 draft night trade with Minnesota, who drafted Roy sixth overall and sent him to Portland in a deal for Randy Foye at seventh overall. Roy was never necessarily what you would consider a freak athlete, but he methodically terrorized his opponents with one of the smoothest, most complete skill sets in basketball. As crafty as they come with the ball, Roy broke down any defense you could throw at him and almost looked as though he was attacking seems in slow motion.
He found a way to remain a step ahead of opponents, even when the competition had a step on Roy from a physical standpoint. As a rookie in the NBA, you could see that he had the complete package pretty quickly. Always aggressive to make plays, Roy had quality size for a guard at 6’6″ and he sported the ball skills to make a lot of different things happen on the court. He was one of the best isolation players in the game, he could run pick and roll, he could give you minutes at the point as a willing playmaker with excellent court vision, he had floaters in the lane and could post up, he could shoot the ball from long distance and he was able to knock down shots off-balance with a hand in his face. Roy’s mid-range game was lethal with his ability to hurt you in a variety of ways as he could shoot off the dribble, he could hit you with step backs, fall-aways, crossovers and if you over-commit he could get into the lane and make you pay.
Averaging 16.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists in his debut season as a pro, Roy earned the NBA’s 2006-07 Rookie of the Year award. Joining Roy on the All-Rookie 1st Team was his own teammate, second overall pick LaMarcus Aldridge. Portland was in rebuild mode and despite a 32-50 record, general manager Kevin Pritchard put the team in an exciting position headed in the right direction.
Not only would “B-Roy” become an elite player early on, he was named a Western Conference All-Star in his second year in the NBA, a year where Portland missed the playoffs but improved to a .500 record of 41-41. Roy would go on to be named an NBA All-Star the following two years, as well, averaging 21.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game on a 47% clip from the field over the course of those three years.
The 2008-09 squad was the most successful NBA team Roy ever played for, as they jumped up the standings with a 54-win season that earned them the fourth seed in the Western Conference. Portland eventually fell short against Houston in the first round, losing a tough series 4-2 but the young core showed promise. Aldridge had a breakout year and Roy averaged 26.7 points per game in his first playoff series, highlighted by a 42-point explosion in Portland’s Game 2 victory.
At the beginning of the 2009-10 season, the Trail Blazers looked as poised as anyone to build a potential championship contender for years to come behind a strong young nucleus of Roy and Aldridge, while praying for the health of seven foot prodigy Greg Oden. Veteran head coach Nate McMillan also sported quality supporting players Nicolas Batum, Andre Miller and a plethora of young prospects around their “big three,” and they also acquired Marcus Camby at the trade deadline that year.
Roy was the leader of the team in the prime of his career, fresh off an $82 million extension signed two months prior to the start of the season. He was individually recognized as one of the top players the NBA had to offer, Aldridge was on the verge of stardom in his own right and the Blazers were everyone’s choice as the new team on the rise. Everything looked as though it was in place for Portland.
Until it wasn’t.
Oden’s attempt to rebound from arthroscopic knee surgery didn’t quite go as planned, to say the least, as the promising center would only suit up for a total of 82 games for the Trail Blazers from when he was drafted in 2007 to when he was released in 2012. Only 21 of those games were played in 2009, where Oden would play his final game for Portland in a December 5 game in which he tore his left patella.
After a disappointing 2010 postseason campaign in which Portland was beaten in the first round of the playoffs for the second consecutive year, things continued to spiral in the wrong direction for the franchise. In early 2011, Brandon Roy required arthroscopic surgery on both of his knees which held him out of 35 games in the middle of the season. The three-time All-Star competed in 47 contests where he was a shell of his former self, scoring just 12.2 points per game and struggling to physically maneuver on the court at the same level he used to.
The killer instinct never left his spirit, however, and he made his presence felt once again in the postseason. Roy was not only one of the most productive perimeter players in the game, but also one of the top clutch performers the league had to offer. One of his most memorable clutch moments came in his Game 4 performance against Dallas in the first round of the 2011 playoffs. Portland was down by as many as 23 points before Roy lead the charge on a miracle comeback, scoring 18 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter including the game clinching shot to help the Blazers win 84-82.
Unfortunately, that moment was ultimately the last image of vintage Brandon Roy we will ever see on the court.
Prior to the start of the 2011-12 NBA season, Roy announced his retirement from the game of basketball. Both of his knees were absent of so much cartilage that he was advised a continued playing career could eventually compromise his ability to walk.
It’s a real shame, not only for Roy but for the Trail Blazers and the entire fan base. There will forever be that reflective wonder about “what could have been” in the back of everyone’s head. General manager Kevin Pritchard did a terrific job building the team through the draft behind the core trio of Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden, but the injury bug never gave them a chance to maximize their potential and robbed them of a Rip City resurrection. It isn’t outlandish to suggest that Portland could have contended for multiple championships if they were able to hold up physically.
Roy attempted a comeback in 2012 by ironically signing a one-year deal with Minnesota, who originally drafted him. After appearing in just five games for the Timberwolves, averaging 5.8 points and 4.6 assists per contest, Roy was forced into yet another season-ending surgical procedure on his right knee. His playing career was inevitably over and while most didn’t expect his comeback to last very long to begin with, it was still difficult to watch such a talented young player go out that way.
Following his playing career, Roy continues to battle injuries in a seemingly never-ending series of unfortunate events. Early in 2017, Roy was shot in the leg as an innocent bystander in a Southern California shooting.
One thing you can always say about Brandon Roy, however, is that he is resilient. Despite knee troubles ruining the peak of his journey as an NBA star, the Seattle native was able to go back to his roots and rediscover his love of the game from a different perspective. This time not as a player, but as a coach.
As head coach of Nathan Hale High School back home in Seattle, Roy helped lead the Raiders to win the 2017 Washington state championship with an undefeated 29-0 record. Along with that state title, Roy received the Naismith National High School Coach of the Year award in his first season as a head coach. Of course, it helped that Nathan Hale had 6’10” phenom Michael Porter Jr., ESPN’s number one overall prospect in the 2017 high school class.
Roy has chosen to move on from Nathan Hale next season by accepting the head coaching position at his former high school stomping grounds, Garfield High School.
As Roy begins his journey into a coaching career, we will always remember him as a player for his silky-smooth versatile game. It’s a shame that we will never know what kind of legacy he could have left behind had he been healthy enough to put together a lengthy career. Portland had a potentially devastating roster built around him, as well, and we will never know how good they could have been.
Physical shortcomings aside, make no mistake about the fact that there was a four-year period of time where Brandon Roy was one of the best players in the NBA. His skill set and style of play oozed versatility, he had a complete all-around game and he was as likely to hit a clutch shot as anyone in the league.
Roy joins Sam Bowie, Greg Oden and Bill Walton on the list of Trail Blazers who never reached their full potential due to injury. Even though the door slammed on Roy’s prime just as he was beginning to take off, we should at least be grateful about what we got a chance to see.
Just make sure you don’t forget Roy’s name when you and fellow basketball connoisseurs reflect on old times because when healthy, “The Natural” was one of the top ballplayers in the world.