What if it were possible to take a fully formed basketball player, one given to crazy drives and all the other hallmarks of the SportsCenter era, and turn him into another John Stockton, a throwback player? That's the sort of dream that coaches have these days: Put a point guard on the operating table and, with lightning crashing overhead, surgically create a savvy floor leader--Stocktonstein.
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan has been playing the mad scientist in Utah, and behold his creation: Carlos Arroyo. This season the 6'2", 202-pound Arroyo is expected to lead a team that, with the addition of forward Carlos Boozer and center Mehmet Okur, should contend for a playoff spot. He will not, of course, be looking to score--something that comes naturally to him--but instead to perform all the selfless duties of a true point guard. "It's all about adjusting to the system," he says. "I need to control the tempo and make the right decision at the right time. Every possession counts."
To understand how Arroyo, 25, has been transformed from a flashy, take-it-to-the-hole scorer to point guard in the Utah mind-set, it helps to know his background. He learned the game on the hillside courts of Fajardo, Puerto Rico, a small town 30 miles east of San Juan, and grew up idolizing Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas. Wanting to put his game on display for college recruiters in the States, he moved to Thomasville, Ga., and lived with a host family for his junior year of high school. He averaged nearly 30 points and 10 assists for Brookwood high school and earned a scholarship to Florida International University, where he arrived full of brio. "He was really self-confident," says Jazz guard Raja Bell, who was two years ahead of Arroyo at FIU. "At first his cockiness and aggressiveness rubbed a lot of us the wrong way, but we came around."
Arroyo averaged 16.0 points and 4.6 assists over four seasons but went undrafted in 2001. He latched on briefly with Toronto, appearing in 17 games, then played in Spain before returning to the NBA for a 37-game stint with Denver. When no team offered him a contract after the season, he was disappointed but undeterred. "I kept telling myself, You haven't worked so hard since you were a kid to get here and say, This is not for me," says Arroyo.
His heady performance for Puerto Rico in the FIBA World Championships in the summer of 2002 caught the eye of the Jazz, who were in the market for a point guard because of Stockton's impending retirement. And when Arroyo arrived at Jazz camp, he was the perfect candidate for a makeover. "Rather than feeling entitled, he had something to prove," says Utah assistant Gordie Chiesa. "He was a good kid who really wanted to play. It was perfect."
In 2002-03 Arroyo apprenticed under Stockton and Mark Jackson, who are Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, on the league's alltime assists list, and played only 287 minutes (the equivalent of less than six games). But every practice was a class in Point Guard 101. "John is a quiet type of guy, but just watching him, I learned how to be professional," says Arroyo. "Mark was more vocal, helping me with little things."
Still, he needed more playing time to master the Jazz's system, which is simple to understand and hard to execute. "It's a mind-set," says Chiesa. "You come down the floor thinking team. Then, if the ball comes back to you in a short-clock situation [five or fewer seconds in which to shoot], you're thinking, Make a play. That's why Stockton was the best of all time."
Last season, following Stockton's retirement and Mark Jackson's departure (he went to the Rockets as a free agent), Arroyo got his on-the-job training: 71 starts and 28.3 minutes per game. He didn't make anyone forget Stockton, but he didn't disappoint anyone either, averaging 12.6 points and 5.0 assists as the Jazz fell just short of the playoffs. Arroyo had his moments--scoring 30 points once and winning a couple of games with clutch shots--but other times he was criticized by his teammates and Sloan for looking for his shot or for inconsistent effort on defense.
Each time, though, he responded as directed, delighting a coach not given to delight. "His general approach is what you look for in every player trying to get better," says Sloan. "He's made tremendous strides."
Over the summer Arroyo became a hero in his native country after he led the Puerto Rican national team to a 92-73 upset of the U.S. in the Athens Olympics. He scored 24 points, handed out seven assists and showcased his all-around game: pull-up jumpers, off-the-glass runners, crisp playmaking. At least 20 people left congratulatory messages on his cellphone. Everyone loved him. Except Sloan. "He had the one great game everybody talked about," the Utah coach says with a frown, "but he struggled in some of the other games. I'm interested in day-to-day productivity."
So is Arroyo, who says he is "very, very eager" for the season to start. This is a guy who called Jazz G.M. Kevin O'Connor this summer, not the other way around, to make it clear he wanted to stay in Utah. He's not only accessible to the media, but he also offers to drive over to a reporter's hotel for an interview. He's so pumped to be the face of the Jazz that he got his hair trimmed the afternoon before media day so he'd look more presentable. Fittingly, for a player who's been converted into a throwback, it was a neat-and-clean buzz cut.