Thicker skin, new perspective begin to define Aldridge's season

LaMarcus Aldridge referred to it as tunnel vision. The ability to tune everything else out — distractions, criticism, negative and positive suggestions — and focus in on the only two things he can truly control: himself and his game.

It has taken the Trail Blazer power forward nearly four years to acquire the trait. Four years to put on what he refers to as a “hardhat” and develop thicker skin. But the 6-foot-11, 240-pound Aldridge said he has finally grown tougher and stronger. And with the new skin comes a new level of confidence and determination.

“As long as my teammates know I’m doing what they need, that’s all that matters,” Aldridge, 24, said. “Because you can’t really listen to the fans all the time, because they don’t know what’s really going on in house, and they don’t know what the team needs.”

Aldridge understands what the Blazers need. He also knows who he is. He is fully aware of his rare blend of athleticism and talent that at times makes him an unstoppable, unguardable force on the court. He is also aware of the deep levels of still-untapped talent that lie just below the surface of his current game.

Aldridge also acknowledged that he struggled through the first part of the 2009-10 season, buried beneath the weight of a new contract, heightened expectations and decreased responsibility. But after weathering the storm, the second overall pick of the 2006 NBA Draft now sounds like a man ready to take his talent to the next level — and easily brush off any criticism that still falls on his shoulders.

“When things are not going well, I always can look at myself,” Aldridge said. “And when people are saying things that are not true, I always know my character.”

New weight

Now, Aldridge almost finds it humorous. The questions and worried discussions. The “will they?” or “won’t they?” debate that carried from the offseason into training camp, as the Blazers and the organization’s star player not named Brandon Roy attempted to negotiate a new contract extension.

But at the time, everything involving big money and L.A. was seriously in vogue. And Aldridge’s effort to get paid was viewed by many as a distraction shadowing a season filled with high expectations.

“I think this team and this city have been through so much, that it’s like that was kind of the focal point in the beginning, because there were so many positive things,” Aldridge said. “Now, there’s been so much negative that people don’t even think about that any more.”

Aldridge eventually signed a five-year deal worth about $65 million. But once the season began, the negative opinions began pouring in.

Aldridge was soft. He did not have “it.” He showed up early and disappeared late. The hardest punch: Now that Aldridge had his money, he would never maximize his talent.

To the forward, the accusations were off base. At the time, he had been given a reduced role in Portland’s offense, thanks to the addition of point guard Andre Miller and the Blazers’ attempt to quickly transform center Greg Oden into an offensive weapon.

But even when Aldridge attempted to tune out the negativity, he could never fully remove himself from the criticism.

“I never really read media,” Aldridge said. “I think if you talk to any of the reporters, they’ll be like, ‘Did you see the article?’ And I’ll be like, ‘I don’t read the paper.’ Because most of the time, the paper is for bad news more than good news.

“So, I’ve never really been into it. But you just happen to hear things that people say through friends. And my mom might be like, ‘I was walking; I was listening to the radio and they said this.’ ”

The former Texas standout initially turned to family members and his high school basketball coach for guidance. In return, he was told to keep a cool, even head and pray.

But while the drama left a mark on Aldridge, he did not become bitter. He did not start a “media ruckus.” He simply stood his ground and played his game, knowing that when the time came, he would be ready.

New roles

The time arrived sooner than anyone expected.

Oden disappeared with a season-ending knee injury Dec. 5. Backup center Joel Przybilla was then lost for the season Dec. 22.

Suddenly, Aldridge was the only player on Portland’s roster who could legitimately fill the void in the middle. And despite having the body of a power forward and running the court like a new-age player, Aldridge did more than just fill in — he stepped up.

He played with pain, managing to shake off a nagging ankle injury, among other ailments. And when Roy was lost for 14 out of 15 games from Jan. 15-Feb. 16, Aldridge played some of the best basketball of his young career.

Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan said Aldridge has already been forced to play the equivalent of three seasons this year. To McMillan, it is still too early to evaluate Aldridge’s progression as a player. But there is no doubt that Aldridge has developed the capability to dominate opponents when given the opportunity.

“I thought when Brandon was out, he took on that role,” McMillan said. “I saw some good things from him. … He became the go-to guy for us late in ball games.”

Aldridge said the need for him to play different parts for a Portland team that has balanced severe bad luck with optimism all season has made him a stronger, tougher player. And while the extra weight has taken a toll, it has also pushed his overall game
to a new level.

Nowhere was that clearer than Sunday evening, when Aldridge poured in 16 points and collected 10 rebounds during the first half alone against Toronto at the Rose Garden. Mixing long-range jump shots with power moves, dunks and putbacks, Aldridge’s wide array of skills shined through.

“I’ve definitely grown a lot, as far as understanding the game,” Aldridge said.

New traits

Aldridge acknowledged that his game is still evolving, though.

While his defense has improved and he has strengthened his low-post attack on the offensive end, issues such as shotblocking are still a work in progress. In addition, the jump shot-heavy Aldridge hopes to improve his ability to drive to the basket — preventing opposing defenses from playing him straight up — as well as develop the capability to turn his left-hand dribble into an asset.

“I want to be able to do more to make teams not be able to take me out on the post,” Aldridge said. “Then I can just go out on the elbow and get the ball, and then make teams pay from there.”

Blazer coaches said everything will come in time. Aldridge has shown steady, constant progress since entering the league in 2006. And if his maturation was displayed in chart form, a gradual climb would be seen. In addition, his remaining weaknesses should smooth out in coming years, lead assistant coach Dean Demopoulos said.

“I’m really pleased with LaMarcus and how he’s gone about growing into being a go-to player, which he is,” Demopoulos said. “He’s one of the great runners in the game. He’s one of the great big shooters in the game. He’s now learning how to play out of schemes that are set up to limit him as a go-to player, specifically double teams.”

With Aldridge’s evolution has come a thicker skin. One that allows him to maintain his focus, while still staying true to his core values as a person and player.

“In our profession, that’s part of it. And sometimes you can deal with it and sometimes you can’t. We all are sensitive to what people think about us,” McMillan said. “And in this day and time, it’s even more common to have people — I mean, it’s everywhere. It’s talk radio, it’s on the news, it’s the internet, everybody’s blogging. Everybody’s talking about you.”

Aldridge has also gained perspective from the birth of his first son, Jaylen, who will turn 1 in April. As Jaylen grows from a baby to a child, Aldridge has been reminded that life is bigger than a game, and that some things are best left on the court. Before, a poor performance would stick with Aldridge for days. Now, he learns from his shortcomings and immediately moves on.

“When I had my son, it really made me (think), ‘OK. This is basketball,’ ” Aldridge said. “Even if I’m having a bad week or a bad game, I play with him and it makes it all, like, ‘That’s basketball. Go work hard and find your rhythm, but don’t get down about it.’ ”

Quiet, simple things such as going to late-night movies alone have also offered Aldridge respite. Inside an empty, pitch-dark theater, Aldridge finds a seat and gets “really, really comfortable.”

“I think those are things I can do that just help free my mind up, where I’m not focused on basketball for that second,” Aldridge said. “And I can kind of come back to basketball, and it can be kind of fresh to me.”

When he does return to the court, Aldridge knows that criticism about his game still remains. But he is adamant that the Blazers have many more positive supporters than negative critics. He is aware that there is a much more welcoming light that surrounds the resiliency and fight that has characterized his play — and that of his teammates — this season.

A future in black and red looks bright to Aldridge. This season has not gone as planned, but the thought that a core Blazer group that includes him, Roy, Oden and Nicolas Batum could one day bring Portland another NBA championship is not far from his mind.

“I’m excited about it,” Aldridge said. “I don’t think I’m going to find another city that’s going to embrace us like this.”

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