By: Bill Ingram
For Ovinton J'Anthony "OJ" Mayo, the pressure to perform at the highest level began in seventh grade. That's when Sports Illustrated started talking about him as one of the top high school recruits in the country.
Yes, when he was in seventh grade!
Long before the nation's sports world began to pay attention, however, Mayo was driven to pursue his dream of playing in the NBA. The SI mention merely stoked the fire.
"It really did," Mayo told HOOPSWORLD recently. "It set really high expectations and you always want to meet expectations. You want to play hard and keep fighting to make your dream come true and play in the NBA."
While in high school and college Mayo has an opportunity to compete against Team USA, and was a part of the 2008 USA Basketball Men's Select Team that helped prepare the eventual gold medalists for the Beijing Olympics.
"I just think that helped get me ready. Those guys really work hard, really compete hard and at a really, really high level. It definitely makes you understand what it takes to compete at that level."
Not long ago Mayo would have jumped directly from high school to the NBA, as players like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James have done in the past. The recent rules change, however, meant that Mayo had to spend at least one year in college. For the USC Trojans he averaged 20.7 points per game and was a freshman finalist for the Naismith Trophy and the John Wooden Award.
"I think it definitely showed me discipline," Mayo says of his year in the NCAA. "Coach (Tim) Floyd really teaches discipline and the college game is a much more disciplined game and it was definitely a help to me."
His dream of playing in the NBA became basically an appointment with destiny, and this summer he was the third overall pick in the NBA Draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves. Later that night he was traded in a blockbuster that landed him in Memphis, where the Grizzlies are thrilled to have him.
"He's been fantastic," says Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley. "He's been willing to learn from day one, willing to work hard and do things that guys have to do to be great in this league. He's done a great job so far of complementing our team and making us better."
"I knew he'd be good," adds a confident Marc Iavaroni, head coach of the Grizzlies. "Our scouts were really, really high on him. I had seen him on tape and I liked him a lot. You know, the intangibles on him are almost as important as his skill level. He's very competitive, very motivated every time he takes the court, and not just for games. He's a gamer, but he also works very hard in the gym. When you see him in person he really makes an impression. I can see why our scouts were so high on him."
Mayo struggled with turnover in the Las Vegas Summer League, but showed he could score the ball basically at will. Between mid-July and the start of training camp he worked relentlessly on his ball-handling and got some help with his decision-making and is now playing like a seasoned veteran in the Grizzlies' backcourt.
"It was only a matter of time," says Conley, who played with him in Vegas. "He learns quickly as a player and that's what makes him great. He adapts his game. He saw what he did in summer league; he looked at the tape repeatedly and saw the things he needed to do to be able to play at this level. He saw how he needed to adjust to be able to dribble and handle the ball and limit his turnovers. He and I talked about it quite a bit and he's become a lot better at being handle the ball in pressure situations."
"He's really been shooting the ball well," agrees Hakim Warrick, smiling. "I know how tough it is coming out, being a rookie. For him to go out there and average 20 says a lot about him. He fits in well off the court, as well. That's one thing that's a real positive for our team. We've got a whole bunch of young guys that really get along. That really is hard to find. All the different personalities, guys coming from different areas, things like that, and for us to all get along I think that's been a real positive for us."
"He's been able to come out and be effective early," adds Rudy Gay. "You don't see a lot of people who can do that. He worked really hard over the summer to be ready for us and he plays his heart out every night. He's been productive. As a rookie you don't really have a choice but to buy into what's already happening on a team, from my experience, but he's definitely one of those personalities that we can hang around with and that can be an important part of this team."
Hard work has never been an issue for Mayo, who told us his mother's work ethic rubbed off on him from an early age.
"My mother was always my role model. I saw how hard she works and I want to work as hard as she does at my job, being a basketball player. She helped me to fulfill my dream, just telling me to keep working, keep working hard and take it seriously."
And when he wasn't listening to his mother, he was watching the Los Angeles Lakers' Magic Johnson win championships. It's in honor of Magic that OJ wears #32 for the Grizzlies, and now that he has achieved his dream of playing in the NBA he's hoping to realize another one . . .to meet the retired star.
"I haven't gotten a chance to meet Magic yet, but hopefully when we're through LA I'll get a chance to finally meet him."
So far OJ Mayo has been able to achieve every goal he's set forth for himself. You can bet he'll soon get to meet Magic, as well. In fact, as well as he's playing, the Lakers star will probably seek him out. And who better to help Mayo take his game to the next level than Magic Johnson?
There are plenty of good rookies in this year's draft class, but if there's one thing Mayo has shown over the course of his young career it's that he loves a challenge. Don't be surprised if he rises to the top of the rookie ranks by season's end and adds the Rookie of the Year trophy to his ever-growing collection.