It is a thankless job. He is the Knicks' top draft pick, a lottery pick, and rather than being welcomed with open arms, he finds himself behind the second-round pick in adulation from the fans and behind about a half-dozen players on the depth chart.
For this, Michael Sweetney left Georgetown early.
He has heard it already. Still far removed from his first regular season game, the expectations already are laced with more, “You’d better produce,” than “Good luck.” He is working to prepare for it all, but it is hard work.
“I sit there and just smile,” Sweetney said. “There’s nothing I can say. I haven’t touched the floor yet. I haven’t done nothing yet. I sit there and smile and brush it off.”
It is the words of the Knicks fans, who might know players better than some scouts. Maybe it’s the beatings he performed on the Big East Conference for the last three seasons or simply his burly 6-foot-8 frame, but he has been unable to slip unnoticed through his first summer of preparation for the NBA. In restaurants, walking down the street, the fans know who he is and they know well what they want.
“I first heard it and it was like, ‘Whoa, this is a pretty hostile town,’” Sweetney said. “But I just laugh it off; I know it's not in my hands. I have to wait for the coaches to give me a chance. There are a lot of fours and big men, so what can I do?”
He can work, so that is what he does. Sweetney played in both the Boston Summer League and the Rocky Mountain Revue, and he has remained mostly in New York since then, working on his game with Knicks coaches. He has been joined intermittently by almost every one of his new teammates, with fellow rookies Maciej Lampe and Slavko Vranes working out at the team’s Greenburgh practice facility, and even Antonio McDyess joining him at times.
But the work does little to ease the expectations.
“We need you,” Sweetney says, repeating what he has been asked by the fans he encounters in New York. “You better produce this year. We need you. You better perform. Things like that.”
It’s easier to laugh it off now, but even Sweetney realizes that the cries might turn more vocal and vicious if he doesn’t produce. And the odds are stacked against him. Since drafting him with the ninth overall pick in the draft, the Knicks followed that up by taking Lampe in the second round, and then trading for Keith Van Horn.
Not one of the countless power forwards on the roster before him has been moved, so he counts the players in between him and the court time he desires and he knows his work is cut out for him.
“Yeah, they’re asking a lot of us,” he said, referring to the expectations saddled upon himself and Lampe, who both put up solid numbers in the summer leagues. “But I need the coaches to put me in the game and give me that chance to do that. It’s not like I have a guaranteed spot on the floor.”
Not with more money invested in power forwards than some teams invest in their entire payroll.
“It's a lot,” Sweetney said. “It's going to be a battle between everyone for playing time. It's going to be a battle between everyone. People tell me I need to produce. My position is not guaranteed. I have to go out there and work in order to produce. I have to be confident in myself and hopefully just wait for my turn.”
His first turn at the Garden came last week in the Wheelchair Classic. With almost no defense being played and the score soaring to 149-131, Sweetney wound up with four points. You could have sat in the upper deck as a fan that night and scored four points. Of course, Vranes scored zero, but that’s another story for another day - pick any day over the next three or four years while the 7-foot-6 center learns to play the game.
“It’s the same thing as at Georgetown and my high school,” Sweetney said. “People expect a lot of me. I try not to think about what people think about me. I think about myself, what I can do to make my teammates better.”
At Georgetown, the Hoyas never won like some people thought they should have, but Sweetney produced and played hard every night. He averaged 22.8 points per game as a junior - a far cry better than the 12.8 he averaged in his first year there. He worked every night and every summer to get better. And he believes he’ll do the same here if he is given a chance.
“At the first summer league, I learned a lot,” he said. “As the second summer league went on, I learned more and more, stuff I didn't learn in the first. I think it's a good thing for me. I learned about style of play. The players are a lot smarter and quicker than in college. College is an up-and-down game. This right here is a lot slower and a lot more mental.
“I feel welcome; feel good, in rhythm now. When I first started training camp, I was nervous. Now it’s cool.”
At least until you see him on the street.
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