Clippers’ Xavier Moon living NBA life to the fullest, 10 days at a time
It was a little before 11 a.m. Sunday when Xavier Moon walked onto Madison Square Garden’s court to begin the same pregame warmup he had followed during his 14 previous NBA games, his eyebrows furrowed with focus.
Before starting, however, he stopped inside the paint, removed one of his white earbuds and locked eyes with Jay Scrubb, a fellow Clippers guard. The pair smiled, looking up at the arena’s instantly recognizable, cable-suspended roof and then the surroundings that Moon had seen only on television.
“This is dope,” he told Scrubb.
A 27-year-old point guard with a slight, 6-foot-1 build and hints of an Alabama drawl, Moon had looked forward to this moment since signing his third 10-day contract with the Clippers this month, then scanned the upcoming schedule. He realized it would expire after a stop in New York, the third city in the team’s eight-game trip.
A 26-point effort by Reggie Jackson couldn’t make up for the Clippers’ struggles at the free-throw line and on the boards in a loss to the Knicks.
“Watching these games on TV, Madison Square Garden, everybody doing what they do and getting a chance to take the court?” he said. “Man, surreal.”
Already this season, 590 players have logged at least one minute in an NBA game — 50 more than played last season and 61 more than appeared in 2019-20 — a record set amid a season that, at times, has bordered on surreal.
With the Omicron wave hitting the NBA in December and sidelining more than 100 players, the NBA allowed teams to sign temporary replacements to 10-day contracts that, in a crucial distinction, would not count against their salary caps. The change led to an influx of formerly obscure players like Moon, an undrafted point guard from Morehead State, whose mere presence helped stave off a rash of postponements.
Among the few dozen signed to hardship deals, even fewer have hung around as long as Moon, the product of both supply and demand. The Clippers struggled to contain COVID throughout December and January, requiring hardship signings to bolster the roster. But Moon’s roster spot also was earned on merit, said teammates and coaches who praised his preparation despite receiving few practice or shootaround reps.
“He picks things up quick,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “If you watch our huddles, he’s always engaged in our huddles. I just know his mind-set of how he works.”
“He’s a Clipper for real, like, his demeanor, his spirit, his will, his want-to, to get better, how much he’s been about the team”
— Reggie Jackson, Clippers guard, on Xavier Moon
Much like his Sunday warmup in New York, Moon said he approached each short-term contract in the NBA focused and confident he deserved to be on such a stage, but not without moments of pinch-me reflection.
He called the Clippers’ 25-point comeback to beat Denver on Jan. 11 “something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.” Taking the court in New York City was “like a movie.” Hearing Clippers assistant Brian Shaw, who has played and coached in the NBA for three decades, say that Moon belonged in the NBA after scoring 13 points on Jan. 3?
“That meant a lot to me,” he said. “It just made me want to work harder to stay here whether that’s with the Clippers or with a different organization.”
Shaw’s sentiment was consistent with what Moon already believed. At no point during his seasons in Europe and Canada had he felt the NBA, where his uncle Jamario played five seasons, was out of reach.
The Clippers’ Marcus Morris Sr. made 2 critical three-pointers during a 24-point comeback over the 76ers while dealing with childhood friend’s death.
“I noticed that if you’re talented, they’ll find you,” Moon said.
The Agua Caliente Clippers, the team’s Ontario-based G League affiliate, found him in late summer when Matt Morales, their general manager, combed through statistics from a Canadian league and saw Moon, the league’s three-time most valuable player. He had gained a following in Edmonton by scoring like crazy, winning two championships and doing things like volunteering at youth basketball and mentoring events.
By that time Moon already had signed to play this season in Italy’s second division, but upon hearing interest from a few G League teams, Moon bought out his rights and took his chance in a league in which the average salary is $37,000 and the number of call-ups for undrafted players, pre-COVID, has been few.
“I was like, I think I’ll hold off from going overseas this year,” Moon said. “And I think that was probably one of the better decisions that I made.”
The Clippers watched Moon’s film, worked him out and by early December he was playing in the G League showcase in Las Vegas. He listened as a new coaching staff asked him to modify his game from primary scorer to conductor, using his strengths to optimize an offense by complementing better players than he’d typically played with during stops in France, England, Israel and Canada.
Then Omicron arrived in the NBA. By Dec. 27, Moon was playing 12 minutes in his NBA debut against another former MVP — Brooklyn’s James Harden. Moon entered protocols himself in early January, but returned before his second 10-day contract ran out and signed a third, each 10-day deal earning about $53,100, the minimum for a player with no NBA experience. He called the experience his greater windfall.
Moon played 83 NBA minutes and said he hoped to show more of his “full repertoire” of skills during future call-ups.
“These are people I watched on TV like for the last couple years and now I’m actually on the road with them,” he said. “Learn from them, and then take what I learn from them wherever my journey may take me.”
“He’s a Clipper for real, like, his demeanor, his spirit, his will, his want-to, to get better, how much he’s been about the team,” point guard Reggie Jackson said. “He’s come in, he’s gotten better every day, hasn’t complained, fears no one, doesn’t back down.”
Moon’s presence had an added effect too. A former first-round pick in his 11th season, Jackson acknowledged growing “numb” to the NBA’s luxury hotels and chartered travel lifestyle. Watching Moon experience it for the first time “reminds you of the joy that it is sometimes,” Jackson said.
One moment stood out in particular: seeing Moon’s “eyes light up” walking into Madison Square Garden. Moon spent his last minutes there with the Clippers sorting out how to deliver a bag he had left in Los Angeles to Ontario, where he was preparing to fly late Monday. He had to prepare for games Monday and Tuesday with the Agua Caliente Clippers.
A boisterous Reggie Jackson led seven Clippers in double-figure scoring with 19 points in a 102-101 comeback win over Philadelphia and Joel Embiid.
There was one last glance before turning away, into a tunnel, into the locker room, to the airport, into a future he felt assured will once again include the NBA.
“Damn, we just played in Madison Square Garden,” Moon said. “It’s surreal. But at the same time, I know I’ll be back here. Sometime soon.”
When: 4 p.m. PST, Tuesday
On the air: TV: Bally Sports SoCal; Radio: 570, 1220
Update: Former Clippers center Montrezl Harrell is scoring 14.2 points per game, the Wizards’ third-highest average, and his 66.9% shooting inside the arc is a career high. He is coming off a season-low seven minutes in a 29-point loss to Boston. Since starting the season 10-3, the Wizards are 13-21.
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