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NBA AM: Recovering Lost Momentum

In 2014, as Isaiah Canaan was starting to break out, his body betrayed him. Now, he’s bouncing back.

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Anybody who knows anything about the Broadway musical “Hamilton” knows that one of the show’s themes deals with taking advantage of big opportunities when they come our way. Alexander Hamilton, for example, has a song very early on in the show in which he repeats, over and over, “I am not throwin’ away my shot.” And he didn’t, obviously, but plenty of American dreamers in the centuries to follow have seen their own opportunities come and go, particularly in the NBA.

So many players have been given the chance to make an impact in the league and failed, while several others have found their ways to NBA rosters but never have gotten the minutes to contribute to their team in any meaningful way.

Some, like Chicago Bulls guard Isaiah Canaan, do get the opportunity and actually see some success, only to be betrayed by their own bodies at the worst possible times.

“I had started maybe six or seven games (at the start of the 2014-15 season) and I was playing well, averaging around 14 points and five assists,” Canaan told Basketball Insiders. “Then that happened.”

“That” was a severely sprained ankle on November 28, 2014, which came during the second quarter of a game in which he was leading the Houston Rockets with 13 points. Just two days earlier, Canaan scored a career-high 24 points while shooting 9-for-16 from the field in a game that Houston won, so it’s fair to say that he finally had gotten going for the first time in his professional career. He was making the best of his shot.

It was a stark comparison to the year before, when Canaan played in only 22 games as a rookie, scoring only 4.6 PPG in very limited minutes. He spent a lot of time with the D-League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers, toiling in the minors to hone his game and hopefully earn a break at more playing time the following year.

“I had a chance to watch and learn a lot my rookie season,” Canaan said. “So the second year in, I just wanted to establish myself as a rotation player. God forbid, but if the starting point guard got hurt, I was next up. So I just tried to take advantage of the opportunity that was given and just show what I can do.”

A former second-round pick, Canaan felt as though he had a whole lot to prove.

“I played with a chip on my shoulder because I felt like was just as good as the guys that went ahead of me or even better,” he said. “Coming from the second round, you’ve got to do a little extra work to get there. I didn’t really let it affect me. I just tried to let it motivate me throughout my career.”

By the time that sophomore campaign had started, he used that motivation to show Houston what he really could do. Then, he sprained that damn ankle.

“It was tough, but that’s just the game of basketball,” Canaan said. “Injuries happen, and it’s something you just can’t hold your head down about. You have to try to fight back and get back in the flow of things.”

And fight he did. Canaan found himself back in the D-League after healing up from his sprained ankle, something which isn’t particularly common for up-and-coming rotational guys in the NBA. In most cases, once a player heals, they find their way back to their NBA locker room as soon as possible. Instead, Canaan found himself back with the Vipers.

“But I needed that. I needed the game situations,” Canaan said. “I didn’t want to just come back without energy and just be thrown out there with these elite players. I needed some game experience. I used a couple of D-League games to showcase [myself], so it was a good experience for me because I got the feel, I got to get my rhythm back, got to see what my ankle was able to do and what it couldn’t do. It was good for me, and it obviously all worked out.”

Despite all that, it’s easy to wonder how things might have been different had Canaan never hurt himself. Only a few weeks after being recalled from the D-League, Houston traded Canaan to the Philadelphia 76ers for K.J. McDaniels. While that afforded him a much better opportunity for more consistent playing time, it’s not like he had been lacking in that area for Houston prior to the injury.

What if Canaan hadn’t hurt himself? Would he have stayed on that scoring tear and earned himself a permanent role for the Rockets? Could he eventually have taken over the starting point guard position on that team? While he by no means “threw away his shot” with the Rockets, his ankle injury did put his shot on hold, and it’s easy to see a road in which he could already have had a much different NBA career.

“I think about it sometimes,” Canaan admitted. “I’m sure there are a lot of people that would rewind time, but you can’t. You just have to move forward and continue to get better.”

Which is exactly what Canaan is doing now in Chicago. He’s still only 25 years old with plenty of basketball ahead of him. Maybe he missed his full-blown sophomore explosion, but it’s not too late to get it back. The nice thing about the future is that none of us has any idea what greatness lies ahead.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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