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Christmas day 2016: you have finally finished stuffing your face with Grandma’s cooking and it’s time for some NBA action. Not just any NBA game, but a rematch of the previous two NBA Finals. Cavs vs. Warriors. LeBron vs. Steph.  The King and Kyrie vs the Splash Brothers. Okay, you get it.

With so many stars on the court, it’s easy to overlook the role players. Having seen this matchup for the previous two NBA Finals, we are familiar with the supporting casts from both squads. JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson, Andre Iguadola, Shaun Livingston just to name a few of them. While Golden State shook things up this summer by adding Kevin Durant and a few different role players (West, Pachulia, etc.), Cleveland largely remained the same team as a season ago. One addition Cleveland made this season caught no one’s eye except a VERY select few.

Let’s go back in time to 2008. The Celtics were in their championship season with the original big three. Kansas and Memphis played in a NCAA championship game that became an instant classic. The future of college basketball and the NBA looked bright with the crop of future phenoms in the class of ’08. Led by obvious players such as: Byron Mullens (lol), Brandon Jennings, Tyreke Evans, Demar DeRozen, Greg Monroe, Kemba Walker… and down at #28 on the list, a player by the name of DeAndre Liggins.

Standing 6’6, weighing 215 pounds, a wingspan of 6’11; Liggins looked the part of a perfect basketball player. A native of Chicago, he transferred to the famed Findlay Prep in Nevada to boost his career. Power college programs and NBA scouts had their eye on Liggins and loved what they saw. The kid could do it all. Ball handling, passing, a decent shot, the ability to get to the rim, a stifling defender, Liggins looked to be a future star in the making.

His list of colleges came down to four: Illinois, Memphis, Kansas, and Kentucky. Keep in mind we are in 2008. Kansas is an absolute power with players like Mario Chalmers, Darrell Arthur, Brandon Rush, Cole Aldridge. Memphis is led by John Calipari and players like Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Joey Dorsey. Illinois and Bruce Weber are a solid team not far removed from a Final Four run. And then there’s Kentucky. The all time leader in wins, NCAA tournament appearances, second in national championships, but the program had gotten stale. Tubby Smith had resigned as head coach and new era was beginning. Billy Gillispie took over in 2007, and looked to make a splash with his second recruiting class. His highest recruit? DeAndre Liggins.

The Wildcats had one of their worst seasons of all time. Finishing with a record of 22-14, the Cats missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since probation in 1991. Reports of wild stories about Gillispie and players not getting along spread as the season went on. Liggins was no exception. Despite being one of the most talented players on the team, he didn’t receive the type of playing time anticipated by many. Averaging just 16 minutes a game, and 4.2 points, the NBA wasn’t going to come calling anytime soon.

Gillispie was fired following the 08-09 season. Kentucky then proceeded to hire John Calipari, who completely transformed the program overnight. Bringing in a freshmen class of John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Kentucky was instantly a powerhouse. While upper classmen left over from the Gillispie squad found their roles with the new look Wildcats, Liggins struggled. His minutes dropped as well as points, and it seemed there was no hope for the former star guard.

Entering his junior season in 2010-11, Liggins found a new role. He wasn’t going to try to be the dynamic playmaker on offense anymore, but rather a lockdown defender. The change affected his entire game, and his entire life. Liggins averaged almost triple the amount of minutes from the season before, as well as his scoring. But the real change came on the other side of the floor: his defense. He doubled his amount of steals, tripled his blocks, and nearly tripled his rebounds. Liggins played a vital role on a team that snuck into the Final Four. After the season, Liggins declared for the NBA Draft.

Orlando took Liggins with the 53rd pick in the second round. He would play one season for the Magic, before being released. Then he was picked up by the Thunder. The Thunder assigned him to their D-League affiliate the Tulsa 66ers. Liggins kept bouncing around, but he continued to play hard, and keep teams interested. He played in Germany and Russia during the 2014-15 season, but then came back to play for the Sioux Falls Skyforce D-League squad. Liggins just kept improving and being a stifling defensive presence. The D-League awarded Liggins with the Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2015-16, as well as named an All-Star.

This past September the hard work paid off for Liggins. He signed with the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers. While others thought nothing of him being on the roster, Liggins patiently waited, as he always has, for an opportunity. That opportunity came on December 23rd. JR Smith injured his thumb and was expected to be out a few weeks. Liggins got the call.

In his second game, he found himself matched up against the two time defending MVP, Steph Curry… on Christmas Day. Liggins did was Liggins does: play stifling defense. He bothered Curry all game long. Exerting every ounce of energy to do so. Curry would end up with only 14 points, on 4/11 shooting, in 37 minutes. After the game, LeBron said Liggins gave them that “pitbull we were missing”, and compared his impact to Delly’s from the past few seasons.

If Cleveland goes on to repeat as champs and Liggins plays a vital role, it will be nothing short of amazing. We can all learn from his determination and perseverance. Even though he plays for the Cavs, DeAndre Liggins is an ultimate warrior.

 

Written by: Logan Ross