He refused to flex his muscles. He declined to blow kisses to the crowd. He said little about his game afterward.
Replacing a suspended Metta World Peace as the Lakers starting small forward, Devin Ebanks hardly provided the dramatics the player formerly known as Ron Artest usually exhibits. Instead, in the Lakers’ 103-88 Game 1 victory Sunday over the Denver Nuggets, Ebanks posted 12 points (on five-of-six shooting) and five rebounds off subtle play.
As he gushed about Ebanks’ playoff debut in just his second year in the NBA, Lakers Coach Mike Brown marveled at how the 6-9 swingman took an otherwise routine 18-foot jumper in the second quarter. Just as he caught Kobe Bryant’s pass, Ebanks stood a few steps below the three-point line. Instead of stepping back, though, Ebanks simply nailed the jumper.
“That’s a small thing,” Brown said, “but that’s part of being solid.”
Ebanks’ 12 points all came in the first half and at one point led in the team in scoring. Yet his performance encapsulated how Ebanks has treated playing time as less of an audition and more as a way to prove his fundamentally steady growth.
Ebanks primarily focused on getting back in defensive transition. He got to the free throw line —and converted — after driving on the first possession. Two second-quarter dunks happened because of effective off-ball movement. He nailed three open jumpers after working this past month on improving the lift in his shot.
“I don’t try to over-think things,” Ebanks said. “It’s still just basketball. You have to play hard and try to win some games.”
The performance tapped into concerns Nuggets Coach George Karl shared beforehand that the Lakers could present what he called a “wild card” beyond Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. It sounded as if Karl hardly suspected that role would fall to Ebanks; the Denver coach even admitted he struggled pronouncing his name correctly.
Karl will receive lots more glimpses of Ebanks while World Peace has five games remaining on his suspension for elbowing Oklahoma City guard James Harden in the head. It’s part of a memorable month in which Ebanks has suddenly seen an elevated role.
Ebanks started at small forward for seven games this month while Bryant nursed a sore left shin, averaging 6.14 points per game on 48.7% shooting in 25.2 minutes. World Peace’s ejection and Matt Barnes’ sprained right ankle gave Ebanks another shot on April 22, and he held Kevin Durant to five-of-19 shooting in the fourth quarter and subsequent overtimes and made two late-game steals that helped seal the win over Oklahoma City. And in the Game 1 victory against Denver, Ebanks provided some comfort that the Lakers can at least temporarily absorb World Peace’s absence.
“He has a lot of talent and belief in himself but he also puts the work and time in,” Bryant said of Ebanks. “He’s willing to study the mental side of the game. It’s not just the physical [side] with the running, shooting and ball-handling. He’s really willing to do the work.”
Ebanks didn’t always have that opportunity.
After Ebanks started the season’s first four games, Brown contended he “didn’t have enough minutes” to grant him because of Barnes’ consistency and World Peace’s defense. So Ebanks “got lost in the shuffle,” as Brown put it, as a seldom-used reserve. He even toiled last month for three games in the Development League.
Ebanks becomes a restricted free agent after this season, and although his agent, David Bauman, had told The Times he may shop Ebanks around if no playing time is available, the 22-year-old hasn’t publicly griped about having a small role. Brown and teammates alike noticed how Ebanks quietly worked on his craft.
“I knew I wouldn’t be down there [on the bench] forever. That’s why I try to motivate myself to work hard every day,” Ebanks said. “I couldn’t always picture it. But I’m just happy for the opportunity right now and that the coaches have confidence in me to be out there.”