INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Seven years ago at Kentucky, while surrounded by ballyhooed freshmen John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton, Cleveland Cavaliers’ DeAndre Liggins was told by head coach John Calipari that playing defense was his only path to consistent minutes, a mindset Liggins has carried with him ever since.
So instead of modeling his game after the usual stars, Liggins said he started looking at someone who carved out a similar NBA role: Memphis Grizzlies swingman Tony Allen.
“His grit, his toughness,” Liggins said of his admiration for Allen following Monday’s practice ahead of back-to-back games against the Grizzlies. “My thing is to stay ready and my opportunity has presented itself and just come in and bring that tenacity on the defensive end, take open shots and make them.”
Allen, 34, has been in Memphis the last seven years, earning the nickname “Grindfather” while becoming one of the league’s premier defenders. He’s been named to the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team three times. Twice he’s been named to the second team.
Before signing with the Grizzlies, Allen was in Boston for six years, spending one of those seasons with Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue — Doc Rivers’ assistant at the time.
Having been around both players, Lue can see similarities, and it goes beyond the intimidating scowl on their faces.
“Defensively, yeah,” Lue said. “T.A. (Tony Allen) is smaller, but I think he might be stronger — T.A. is a strong guy. Liggs can shoot it better. T.A. actually played point guard for us for 10 games I think and did a great job. He’s a very smart player. It’s crazy to see that you play the 2 or 3 and then move him to the point guard and he knew all the plays, all the positions and it’s crazy. They have similarities for sure. If (Liggins) can keep playing like that then I mean, T.A. won a championship. Tough, gritty player that everybody would love to have on their team.”
Liggins, an NBA journeyman who spent a few years overseas, revived his career in the D-League, being named Defensive Player of the Year twice and winning a title last year in Sioux Falls.
Rebuffing an invite from the Atlanta Hawks, the 28-year-old guard arrived at Cavaliers training camp with an uncertain NBA future. The Cavs felt he had a chance of grabbing the final roster spot, but minutes seemed hard to earn, especially on a championship team.
Now months later, Liggins’ defensive spunk has helped etch his name into Lue’s rotation, starting back-to-back games during J.R. Smith’s recent absence.
“Just every night competing,” Lue said. “Every single night guarding the best player, the 1, 2 or 3, and taking that challenge. It kind of became who T.A. was. He loved it and got up for it every single game. He got up to play and guard the best players and I think Liggs can do the same.”
During last week’s win in Toronto, Liggins took the defensive challenge against DeMar DeRozan, the league’s fourth-leading scorer. A few nights later, he refused to back down when matched up against ultra quick Hornets point guard Kemba Walker, swatting his shot and then forcing a miss on late-quarter possessions.
The position doesn’t matter. Nor does the opponent. Liggins, who grew up in a tough part of Chicago and has dealt with plenty of hardship during his professional career, won’t be intimidated.
His role is simple: set the tone defensively. Just like Allen — Liggins’ idol, a Chicago native and friend.
“Me and T.A. we grew up kind of in the same dirt,” Liggins said. “We always have that competitive edge to us, that chip on our shoulders and teams like that. Every team needs a guy like that on their team to pick up a guy 94 feet and to make a guy rattled a little bit. That’s what I bring to this team.”
The Cavs have plenty of punch on the offensive end with Kyrie Irving, LeBron James and Kevin Love. But Lue and others in the organization stay on Liggins about his jumper, insisting he takes open looks even though that’s been the knock against him since slipping to the second round in 2011.
During his best week as a pro, while showering him with plenty of praise, they singled out a clutch 3-pointer in Toronto and back-to-back triples against New York the next game to keep the defense honest.
Liggins has already resurrected his career and quickly ascended up Cleveland’s depth chart. But that’s his next step. He knows it and that’s why he works tirelessly at it.
“If I can knock down open shots I can add some value to me in this league,” Liggins said. “I’m going to be open. I’m going to be open because I haven’t played that much for guys to be like, ‘Oh Liggins can knock down open shots.’ Guys still think that I’m a mediocre shooter and I have to prove I can make open shots.”