I always thought the art of towel-waving should stay in school where it belonged. NBA players didn’t need that faux enthusiasm you see in high school, where the bench players’ job is to cheer on the starters and pretend to be thrilled that someone else is getting the buckets and snatching up the top shelf cheerleaders. I thought the pros were here to do a job, not watch delighted as someone else does it for them. But man, doesn’t it make Ronny Turiaf’s $4.3M player option an easier pill to swallow knowing we get another year of the most likeable Frenchman since…probably ever?
Maybe you’d be happy too if you had another year of earning $4.3M at the wave of your hand. Maybe Turiaf, who will turn 29 next season and may now be playing for his final long-term NBA contract, won’t take so kindly to an unknown Russian cult hero taking his minutes, or to Mike D’Antoni’s strategy of keeping Amar’e Stoudemire at center while the Knicks got perpetually outhustled in the paint. Surely among the many games we’d see Turiaf for a few effective minutes early, followed by a two-quarter hiatus and an inconsequential late-game cameo, there were at least a few games where Turiaf did not suffer some phantom injury – perhaps getting his minutes jerked around will come to wear on him next season. (Aside: did you ever notice that, for the dozens of times Turiaf was hurt this season, how few times we actually saw him get hurt?) Or maybe all this talk that the Knicks have no center as Turiaf surely stood to one side thinking, “Hello! I’m right here!” will fray his nerves. Maybe, but one look at that big ol’ Martiniquais grin makes me think this could be the only player in the league with bigger things on his mind than who gets to play.
None of this is to say that he could’ve or should’ve been the fulltime answer in the middle this season. Sure, there were times when we all said, “Why the hell aren’t they playing Turiaf right now?” but then we assumed he was injured and moved on, and the reality was that his consistent injury issues made his style of play unsustainable over a full season. (And get ready to hold your breath, because Turiaf will be playing with the French national team this summer as they attempt to qualify for the 2012 Olympics.) It didn’t matter how dire the frontcourt situation was; D’Antoni knew he couldn’t realistically ask Ronny for more than 20 minutes per game.
What Turiaf did with those minutes may not justify $4.3M, but it’s something. Turiaf doesn’t rebound well or stretch a defense with his jump shot, but he’s a strong finisher at the rim (73%) and opposing offenses know that any dribble penetration will meet his challenge (he accounted for 48% of the Knicks’ blocks while he was on the floor). He’s a wide body who defends the post reasonably well; offensively, he uses his frame to set good high screens, and works D’Antoni’s high handoff action well. He doesn’t put up assist numbers like David Lee or Al Horford, but he’s a reliable passer who doesn’t turn the ball over often. His raised his free throw shooting to tolerable levels this year, but his midrange game appears to be a thing of the past – he’s attempted just 45 long twos the past two seasons combined.
Yet I suspect that, like me, you don’t much care about all that because the numbers aren’t the first reason he’s here. It’s often said in NBA circles that energy is a skill – Turiaf certainly brings that, but I’ll take it a step further: I’ll say that if energy can be a skill, so too can enthusiasm. It may not be the most valuable skill in the game, but as I look around the league I sense it may be among the rarest. Watching these guys slog through an 82-game season, probably forgetting what city they’re in half the time, it’s not often you see a smile in the middle of January that doesn’t come from a game-winning shot, unless maybe Nate Robinson saw a kid get ice cream on his face or something. Ronny Turiaf will need help out there, and he can’t hold down the frontcourt alone or for any length of time, but his player option ranks roughly 74th on the list of “Worst Knicks Contracts of the Decade,” and besides, we get the pleasure of his company.