After Going Overseas, Shane Larkin Is Here To Stay

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Once upon a time, Shane Larkin was a wanted man.

In fact, through his first three NBA seasons, Larkin had improved with each successive effort, excelling in doses as a high-energy player both as a starter and off the bench. Following a solid year with the New York Knicks in 2014-15, Larkin was even called at midnight on the day free agency opened by Billy King, the Brooklyn Nets’ former general manager.

With the Nets, Larkin averaged 7.3 points, 4.4 assists and 1.2 steals per game and started the final 12 contests of the season under interim head coach Tony Brown. In a late-season defeat to the Washington Wizards, Larkin poured in 20 points, six rebounds and seven assists, one of his best-ever single-game performances to date. Objectively speaking, Larkin was on the rise.

So, after a career year in 2015-16, Larkin did what most do with a player option and an upward trajectory: He opted out.

All summer, Larkin waited for a new deal, one that he thought he had definitively earned with his improved play and increased role with Brooklyn. Even for a poor Nets team, Larkin figured that his positive development would almost certainly get him another contract. But as the summer crept toward its conclusion, no franchise had offered him a deal better than a low-commitment training camp invite.

“It was tough having that type of season and just going into the summer thinking: ‘Yeah, I’m gonna sign a deal for x amount of money and [all that] and then it just doesn’t happen,” Larkin said as he recalled the toughest offseason of his young career.

Larkin mulled over the training camp invites, but balked at the rough realities of trying to earn a team’s final roster spot. As he put it at the Celtics’ media day: “You can be there one day and gone the next.” It was then that Larkin made the decision to jump overseas for a year in hopes of proving himself once again. On Monday, Larkin, who signed a fully guaranteed contract with the Boston Celtics in late July, discussed how difficult the reality check was to handle.

“I thought – both me and my agents – [going] into that summer, I averaged [7.3] points, [4.4] assists off the bench in 20 minutes, so we were very confident thinking: ‘Oh, we’re gonna get a good deal somewhere,’” Larkin said. “Then I was sitting there in August and I still hadn’t signed and it was kinda like: ‘OK, now where do I go from here?’”

The answer was Baskonia, one of Spain’s top franchises and frequent dark horse contenders in EuroLeague competition. On a roster full of former NBA players that, at one point or another, featured Ricky Ledo, Andrea Bargnani and Chase Budinger, it was Larkin that emerged as the team’s No. 1 option, a role he openly relished.

“When you go over there, it’s your job as the American guy to be the point scorer, ‘the man,’ [and] I hadn’t been that guy since college,” Larkin said. “To be able to go over there, play 30 minutes a night and just have that responsibility again, it gives you that confidence again.“

During ACB league play, Larkin led Baskonia in points (14.2), assists (4.9), steals (1.4) and the team finished with the second-best record before bowing out to the eventual champions, Valencia, in the postseason semifinals. In EuroLeague, a competition that pits the best professional teams across the continent against each other, Larkin thrived there as well and averaged 13.1 points and 5.7 assists to go along with 1.5 three-pointers over 33 games.

Athletic as ever, Larkin made a name for himself in Spain by taking defenders off the dribble and using his speed to finish effectively around the rim. But while that’s always been a skill of Larkin’s, his confident, improved shooting should have Boston eager to utilize the crafty point guard in head coach Brad Stevens’ nuanced offense. Whether his points came via step-back jumpers or sneaky back-door cuts, the Larkin that carved up Spain en route to an All-Liga ACB Second Team berth is a much different player than he was during his last NBA stint.

“I’m a competitive guy, I’m a competitive player. I believe when I went overseas last year, I came back and I’m much better player than I was my first couple years in the league,” Larkin said. “You just got to come in every day ready to work and when your opportunity is there, you’ve got to take advantage.”

For Larkin, his opportunities have come and gone in spurts, but they’ve always motivated him to evolve as a player. From a broken ankle that disrupted his rookie season with the Dallas Mavericks in 2013-14 to former Knicks’ president Phil Jackson stating that Larkin’s “tiny hands” made it tough for him to control the ball, the point guard’s journey to where he stands today hasn’t been easy.

However, those early bruises can bring out the best in a player and his past disappointments and one-year pit stops have fueled Larkin time and time again.

“Like I said, all of that whole transition, going overseas, playing all those minutes, not getting that contract, having those teams not believe in you, it’s definitely a wake-up call and it changes your mindset,” Larkin said.

With the Celtics, Larkin will continue to grow under Stevens, an opportunity the 5-foot-11 playmaker is looking forward to immensely. Although he’s behind both Kyrie Irving and Terry Rozier – as well as Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown if the Celtics want to continue their development as ball handlers – on the depth chart, Larkin could flourish after his successful season overseas.

Of course, Larkin will not be his team’s go-to scorer anymore, but his matured game, improved shooting and renewed confidence make him an exciting addition to the Celtics’ bench unit. Whether he plays five minutes or 15, Larkin is up for the challenge of contributing to one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams.

“Obviously, we have a lot of guys on our team that are very talented, done a lot in their careers thus far,” Larkin said. “But I’m not gonna sit here and say anybody is better than me – that’s just who I am as a player.”

While we’ll have to wait and see if Larkin can carve out a consistent role with Boston, he’s just thankful to be back in the NBA at all. After playing for three teams in three years, Larkin took the road less traveled and went to Spain to prove that he still belonged at the game’s highest level.

“[It sets you] back and you really got to dig deep – if you love basketball, you really got to fight for it.”

And that’s exactly what he did.