TORONTO — Sunday, as he sat at the end of the Toronto Raptors bench during a lazy afternoon game at Scotiabank Arena, 31-year-old guard Jodie Meeks heard something he’d been waiting on for 320 long days. Something he’s heard more times than he can count over a decade spent in the NBA. But something that was a lot more memorable this time around.
An NBA head coach looked down the bench and called his number.
“Man, it felt good. This is something that you set out for to be your dream,” Meeks said. “And here I am in my 10th year and it just felt like old times. It’s really good to be back in uniform and contributing.”
The last time he touched the floor during an NBA game was 10 months, two organizations, and a suspension ago. It was last April when Meeks — then playing 15 minutes a night for the Washington Wizards and preparing to face the Raptors in the first round of the NBA playoffs — was suspended without pay for 25 games after testing positive for a pair of growth hormones banned under NBA and NBPA’s anti-drug program.
Meeks strongly denied having knowingly ingested any prohibited substances, saying at the time, “I have never taken anything whatsoever for a performance-enhancing reason. I respect the game of basketball too much.” But a positive test is a positive test, and the first six games of Meeks’ suspension were served as the Wizards were bounced from the playoffs by the Raptors.
In September, he officially appealed his suspension with the league. In October, the Wizards traded him to the Milwaukee Bucks for salary relief. In November, the Bucks waived him a day after he’d finished serving his suspension. He spent his next three months waiting for another team to call. Last week, the Raptors did.
“The only thing I could do is work hard and keep looking at the light at the end of the tunnel — even though you can’t see it at times,” he said. “It’s been tough, but I’m a strong person. I have people around me that support me. And I know that I’ve always carried myself as a stand-up person — a stand-up man. I just try to put everything in my past and keep it in my past.
“When I got the call this past week, I was really excited and knew that I was ready for the opportunity. I’m just looking at it as a chance to prove myself again. I’m trying not to look at it as a 10-day. Don’t put any pressure on yourself — just go out there and play hard. Just come in ready when your number’s called, like any other player on this team. They’ve treated me very well here. I know I’ve only been here a few days, but it’s a first-class organization. I hope to stay.”
And credit Meeks for shooting his shot when he finally returned to an NBA floor. He hoisted from distance on three consecutive possessions not long after he checked in midway through Sunday’s second quarter, damn near hitting them all. His second attempt agonizingly bounced in-and-out, which meant he finished the first half merely tied for Toronto’s team-high in points with 10 in 8 minutes.
Kyle Lowry, who was a rare source of energy for the Raptors on a difficult afternoon, was obviously happy to have someone else playing at his level. Not long before halftime, Lowry bombed one of his long, to-the-corner-of-the-end-zone passes out over the court, the kind that usually finds a streaking Pascal Siakam. But this time it was Meeks on the receiving end, and he took it straight to the rim where he finished a lay-up off the high glass, crashing to the court between a pair of Orlando defenders.
“I just tried to not overthink things. Don’t psyche yourself out — just go out like old times,” he said. “You know, just take a deep breath, go out there and shoot, and trust the work that you put in to let you prevail.”
Unfortunately for those who enjoy a tidy narrative, Meeks’ second-half stint wasn’t as successful as his first. He missed the three shots he took, including a pair that rimmed-out from beyond the arc. But he ultimately finished a team-high plus-7, and Raptors head coach Nick Nurse came away impressed.
“That was almost like a magical performance, right? If he’d have hit those two in the second half. I mean, his first half was unbelievable,” Nurse said. “There’s a bit of an art when you’re a shooter to get open, or be open, and some guys don’t do it as well as others. But he seems to be one of those guys. He touched the ball a lot. I think that’s a good sign. He finds the open spaces on the weak side, he’ll slide into the right areas, relocating to the right areas, comes off the screens, gets into the paint.”
This is what Meeks does. He’s played a variety of roles for six NBA franchises, and found ways to assimilate and produce at every stop. He’s a 37 per cent shooter from beyond the arc over his career, and was up at 41 per cent as recently as the 2016-17 season, when he averaged more than 20 minutes per night over 36 games with the Magic.
“Clearly, that’s my skill level. And when I’m open, I feel like I’m going to knock them down all the time,” he said. “I know I had a couple miscues today, but I’m going to still shoot them with confidence, keep putting the work in, and hopefully I can make them more often than not.”
The Raptors could use a steady three-point shooter on their bench, particularly after the departure of CJ Miles. And, in a way, Meeks provides an interesting complement to 23-year-old Patrick McCaw, a long, twitchy defensive specialist who can be frustratingly hesitant to shoot. Want a shooting threat and floor-spacer to help spark a slumping lineup offensively? Go to Meeks. Want to inject some defensive energy into a rotation that needs a stop? Call on McCaw.
That is, if Meeks sticks around. Sunday was the midway point of his 10-day contract, a pact that will run through Friday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers. NBA roster spots are a finite thing, and the Raptors could choose to go in a different direction come March. Or they could re-up Meeks to another 10-day and extend his audition.
If Meeks has his way, he’ll remain with the Raptors for the remainder for the season. After he was waived, he spent a long time waiting for a call. He was pleasantly surprised that when it finally came it was from a contender. Now that he’s back on an NBA floor, he’d love nothing more than to enjoy a little certainty.
“I’m hoping to stay here and help contribute. I know this organization…” Meeks said, before stopping and correcting himself. “I guess I should say ‘we’ now, right? We’re trying to win a championship. And I want to be a part of that.”