Witherspoon working to salvage an NBA career

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His big night in Houston becoming a blurrier memory by the day, Wesley Witherspoon was back on the practice floor Wednesday, once again spilling sweat at the seemingly impossible task of making the Spurs’ roster.

“Stuff like that lasts until you leave the locker room,” Witherspoon said of Sunday’s breakout preseason performance. “Then it’s back to work.”

The 17 points he scored as the Spurs’ starting small forward against the Rockets aside, Witherspoon remains the longest of long shots still left in camp.

In all likelihood, the undrafted rookie will soon be looking for a new professional home before he ever unpacked at his first one.

This was decidedly not how the script was supposed to go.

At this time two years ago, heading into his junior season at the University of Memphis, Witherspoon was projected as an NBA first-round draft choice, guaranteed money and a guaranteed roster spot there for the taking.

Though not quite in the same talent bracket, Witherspoon was predicted to one day follow in the footsteps of Tyreke Evans, a fellow member of Memphis’ Class of 2008 and a Sacramento lottery pick in 2009.

“I felt like it was the best decision for me to stay,” said Witherspoon, 22. “You can’t listen to all the stuff you hear, about where you’re going to be drafted. I felt like I wasn’t ready to go. So I didn’t leave.”

In retrospect, the decision might have cost the 6-foot-8 forward millions.

His junior season was a disaster almost from the start. Witherspoon played poorly in front of NBA scouts — and a national television audience — in a loss to Kansas in December.

Then came arthroscopic knee surgery.

Six games after he returned, Witherspoon was suspended for mocking an assistant coach on the team bus after a loss to SMU.

By March, Witherspoon was back — but as a reserve. Between injury and suspension, he missed 12 games. His draft stock plunged.

Witherspoon came back as a senior, averaged a respectable 7.2 points and 3.7 rebounds, then was passed over by every team in the NBA draft.

Having never expected to be a four-year college player in the first place, Witherspoon now describes his downfall in Memphis in purely practical terms.

“My time in Memphis was well spent,” Witherspoon said. “It was a great four years. That’s the past. Right now, I’m focused on playing for the San Antonio Spurs.”

Sunday in Houston, Witherspoon was able to flash a bit of that long-ago potential.

Earning the start next to Tim Duncan and Tony Parker in a 117-106 win over the Rockets, Witherspoon knocked down 6 of 9 shots, including a pair of 3-pointers.

He led all players in scoring and showed an impressive burst and explosion in the halfcourt.

“Guys get pretty excited, trying to make a basketball team,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “If you have a bad night, it’s like the end of the world. If you have a good night, you’re feeling pretty good.”

In San Antonio, Witherspoon is tasked with making a roster already more or less set, at a wing position where the Spurs are overstocked.

In a sense, his NBA career is considered day-to-day.

“He probably came back down to Earth a little bit with today’s practice,” Popovich said Wednesday. “We all get back to normal after a while. But he showed he’s got some ability and some potential there.”

For an undrafted rookie trying to make possible the impossible, the highs and lows rarely last long.

His pro career nudged from the fast track and onto a path considerably more treacherous, the longest of long shots aims to make every chance count.

“I came here to get better, and I feel like I’m doing that,” Witherspoon said. “This is a great place to start your career.”


Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

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