Isiah Thomas (Bad Boy Piston, not IT Cavalier), who knows a thing or two about making it in the NBA, had this to say about Kendall Marshall: "He needs one 'I love you.'" It was late July of this year during an NBA Summer League Game. The Clippers were playing the Lakers and my all-time favorite Tar Heel Kendall Marshall was giving Lonzo Ball the business.
Every time Lonzo touched the ball, Marshall was pressed up on him. He hunted him around screens and he snatched at the ball every time he tried to put it on the deck. Keep in mind, Kendall is acclaimed for what he does when he has the ball, not when he doesn't. When he did have the ball, Marshall was in his element, scanning the floor, making brilliant passes, and (ahem) marshaling the attack.
Thomas, who was calling the game, was impressed. When it was noted that Marshall was one of the oldest players playing in Summer League and had struggled to make a roster, Thomas offered his 'I love you' line. What that meant, he explained, was that Marshall needed just one guy, a coach or GM ideally, who believed in his game and would give him a chance to flourish.
Take Jonathan Simmons or Hassan Whiteside, both former no-names who are now NBA starters and, in the case of Whiteside, a star. They were languishing in the D (Now G) League and then got their I love yous, from Greg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra. Marshall never got his. Despite his strong play in the Summer League, he didn't get an NBA contract, merely a training camp contract and later a stint in the G League. On Thursday the news came out that he had retired from the G League for good.
No Carolina fan needs to be reminded that Kendall Marshall is hurting in the luck department. The last searing image of Marshall as a Tar Heel comes from the end of the Elite Eight loss to Kansas in 2012. The Jayhawks were just under a minute away from the Final Four, with a wounded Carolina finally out of energy and ideas. The Tar Heels' heads were beginning to hang, recognizing the inevitable. But Marshall, clad in street clothes, was on his feet, clapping his hands and urging his team on. You could read his lips: "Keep playing!"
There has never been a less fitting end to a Carolina player's career. For a season and a half, Kendall Marshall was the beating heart of the Tar Heels. He single-handedly turned the 2011 season from a massive letdown to a success. His Cousy Award-winning 2012 season cemented him as one of the elite UNC point guards. No Tar Heel has ever passed the ball better than Marshall. He wasn't a passer, he was a savant. And, despite being an underclassman, he was the vocal leader of the team.
For five seasons, Marshall's playmaking brilliance kept him in the hunt for a regular role on an NBA squad. Moments stand out, particularly his 54-game stretch with the Lakers where he averaged nine assists a game. But the simple truth is that the NBA has changed: Point guards are expected to be explosive, dribble-drive scoring threats first and foremost. Coaches want guards who can get into the lane using their handle. That isn't Kendall Marshall. Twenty years ago? He'd be on a team. But he had the bad luck of being born in the ‘90s, not playing in them.
Who knows where Kendall Marshall's twisting road will take him next; maybe he'll try his hand in Europe, maybe he'll join a coaching staff somewhere. But one thing is absolutely certain—his road has not come to an end. Not a chance. Because there's no teaching what he's got, there's only being born with it. And there's always a place for that. Maybe not in the NBA, maybe not even on the court, but there's a place.
And another thing is absolutely certain: Kendall Marshall will heed his own advice of "keep playing." He knows that he has not yet given basketball all he has to offer, not by a long shot. And, who knows? Maybe the 2012 Elite Eight wasn't the last time a suit-clad Kendall Marshall urges on a Tar Heels team from the bench.