LAS VEGAS -- Though he just turned 22, Jeremy Tyler is aware of the stakes, cognizant that the life he imagined is slipping away, if it’s not already gone. There has been a recent urgency to his play and demeanor. Rarely physical in the past, Tyler, playing for the New York Knicks’ summer-league team, twice elbows the Wizards’ Chris Singleton during a game in which he claims 13 points and 8 rebounds in 13 minutes of play. Against the Bobcats, Tyler reacts to every shot, screaming “Go in!” on one that just lips out.
He’s been flying all over the court in the Charlotte game, at least until his ankle bends, sending the young big man tumbling. Perhaps it’s just bad luck, but it seems as though Tyler just played too hard for his body to handle. The jumpers weren’t falling, so Tyler kept pressing until he fell. But he gets back up, and after a session with the trainer, trundles back the court for some more frenetic action.
I spied Jeremy Tyler packing his gym bag after the Charlotte game. He was under the bleachers of Cox Pavilion, in the dark, assisted by little more than whatever his eyes could glean in the dank area where sunflower seeds fall. Tyler’s clothes were crumpled around his feet because his cave-like makeshift locker room lacked an actual locker. I call into the cave, and he waves me in. It’s been a while since we last talked, back when he trying to hang on with the Golden State Warriors by way of Japan.
Perhaps you know the details of this backstory. Tyler was a hyped high-schooler in San Diego who made a splash by electing to skip his senior year and play professionally in Israel. He, along with Brandon Jennings, was the harbinger of change, of a bold future where talented high school preps turn away from an outdated NCAA system that refuses to pay its labor. Tyler lasted 10 games.
The next stop was Tokyo, where Tyler played better, for a team that’s since been disbanded. The Warriors finally brought him into the NBA fold in 2011, acquiring Tyler as a 39th pick from the Bobcats. From there, the road didn't exactly smooth out. Tyler thrilled Warriors fans with powerful pre-game dunks, but never accessed that athleticism on the court. It was as though his talent was as astounding as it was latent and locked away. So Jeremy did D-League duty in frozen North Dakota and sandy Santa Cruz. Last season, he was traded to the Hawks for a second-round pick, before getting promptly waived.
I ask him if he's bringing a wholly new intensity to his play:
"Got to," he says. "I guess, as hard as I was going before didn't work. Got me back down to the D-League. Got me down in some bad situations. What I thought was working hard wasn’t enough. So you gotta step it up. Take it to the next level."
The kid I remember for his constant smile isn’t smiling right now. Maybe it left him when he left the Warriors.
"It's a 'Go get it at any means necessary' mentality," says Tyler, who averaged 12.8 points and 6.4 rebounds in five games with the Knicks' summer team. "Whatever it takes. Because, you never want to leave like I left Golden State. You never want to leave any situation knowing you could have did more. I want to know, to myself, for my own satisfaction. If it (had not) worked out, I gave it my all."
Though Tyler feels he could have worked harder, he's not plagued with regret over the path itself. He’s not haunted by his bold choice to play internationally over going the college route.
"There are guys in college that didn't experience what I experienced," he says. "There are certain ways of life that I lived. There are certain views that I see the importance in that people don't see the importance in. That part of life that I got a chance to experience has definitely worked out for me. I know people who never been out of San Diego."
Further expanding on his travels, he says, "You’re not going to play this game forever. I used basketball to get me (traveling). It’s probably not the most money in the world right now. It ain't supposed to be ideal for everybody."
When I ask about why it didn't work out with Golden State, Tyler mulls for a moment.
"I think I needed ... I think about this every day. I think the situation was weird, being behind so many bigs, having a small window of opportunity. But I can’t say I didn't have opportunity.
"I had opportunity to play a lot. You know, some people grow out of mentalities. Like I said, I don't want to walk out of situations knowing I should have worked harder."
I ask when the moment of realization came, when he learned that he had to work harder to preserve this career.
"When I was sitting at home," he says. "Watching my team playing that I busted my ass for every day playing in the playoffs. That's when I realized."
Ethan Sherwood Strauss is a part of the TrueHoop Network. Follow him @SherwoodStrauss.