Just four years ago, Flynn captivated the country. He guided Syracuse over Connecticut in a thrilling six-overtime victory in the Big East tournament. "When we were down and out, he made plays to get us ahead," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said about that night. "That was one of the finest games I've seen from a point guard against a really good defensive team." If you were a basketball fan and missed the start of that game, chances are you were glued to your television by its end. "I'm not sure that he goes into the draft if that game doesn't happen and I know for sure he doesn't go as high as sixth if that game doesn't take place," said Mike Waters, the longtime Syracuse basketball beat reporter for the Post-Standard. "The fact that it was at Madison Square Garden in a tournament format, against somebody like Connecticut on national TV with NBA scouts attending the tournament, a game like that happens and all of a sudden you're the focus of the nation."
That night, one could measure Flynn's playing time by the hour — he logged one hour and seven minutes against Connecticut. In that Clippers summer league game, his play could be measured by the second — 78, to be exact, against the Hawks. Flynn had shown up hoping to prove his health. Players, executives, and coaches who had not seen Flynn as he languished in professional basketball's periphery, first as trade fodder, and then all the way down in Australia, asked the same question in Vegas: Was his hip healthy? He says yes. But in NBA circles, it's show-and-prove. Flynn is still young, only 24, and determined to regain the dynamite-in-a-bottle point guard form he flashed during his rookie season. Showing all that in a measly 78 seconds isn't easy.
The final moments of that game slipped away, inconsequential and quickly forgotten. In Vegas, these games are mostly meaningless, unless you're playing in them. The participants are the NBA's dutiful dreamers: draft picks, journeymen, and roster flotsam who will remember this time fondly. It's the closest many of them will ever come to the NBA. So how did a lottery pick who started 81 games as a rookie end up here?
Flynn became a victim of an unlikely injury and then a casualty of unfortunate circumstance. It would be nearly impossible to replicate the scenario that derailed his career. NBA teams spend millions annually to globally scout, unearth, and project potential draft picks. Still, Flynn flamed out. Now he's trying to right his career.
He told a reporter after the game about his summer goal. "Once in the NBA you get marked as damaged goods, it's like a big X is on your forehead and nobody wants to deal with you," Flynn said from a corner of the Cox Pavilion shortly before the national anthem signaled the beginning of another game. "Just to get up and down the court and show people that I can still play the game and that I'm healthy and that I've been healthy for years."
He wouldn't get his chance in Vegas. Flynn departed the Clippers before their next game, leaving summer league behind. There isn't much a player can prove in 78 seconds.
In 2007, the Timberwolves started from the bottom. After trading Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics, the team began a serious rebuilding effort. They traded for Kevin Love the following season and appeared to have two cornerstone big men, Love and Al Jefferson, to build upon. Minnesota appointed David Kahn president of basketball operations in 2009. Kahn, a former sportswriter and Indiana Pacers executive, had been out of the league for five years. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that Kahn had been rated as low as the organization's fourth choice before his hiring. Kahn promised up-tempo basketball. The organization adopted a short-lived slogan: "United We Run."
Kahn arrived just weeks before a pivotal draft. Minnesota possessed three of the draft's first 18 selections after picking up the fifth overall pick in a trade with Washington. Flynn was chosen sixth overall that night by the Timberwolves, right after Rubio.
"So many times, people told me about basketball being a business," Flynn said. "That hit me right on draft night. I was happy and then I was uncertain at the same time. It was the weirdest emotion because I'm supposed to be at this high, getting drafted sixth. But then you get drafted after a guy who says he doesn't want to play for the team that he's coming to. So you know that you're on, like, a two-year lease, or whenever he says he's ready to come over. You know your time is limited there."
Kahn took Ty Lawson with the 18th pick. "What are we doing?????" Love tweeted before Minnesota rerouted Lawson to the Denver Nuggets for a first-round pick. The Warriors selected Stephen Curry with the seventh pick. "I was sitting there going, 'What's the plan here?'" said Sal Constantino, an assistant coach for Flynn's team at Niagara Falls High School. "My concern was they didn't have a coach hired yet, too, so I guess I was befuddled. I didn't understand it."
Many around the league were baffled by the selections as well. "I've been at this a long, long time," said an Eastern Conference executive, who requested anonymity while discussing another organization's dealings. "That was one of the oddest selections I've ever seen. It was like he was trying to outthink everyone else and he ended up outthinking himself."
It soon became apparent that Rubio would not arrive from Spain immediately. At first, Flynn would grab the reins. But Kahn insisted that his newly drafted point guards could share the same backcourt. "Great players like playing with great players," he told the Star-Tribune after the draft. "Jonny is only six-feet, but he carries himself like he's 6-4. He has a 40-inch vertical leap. I've never seen a kid six-feet look and feel like he's 6-3 or 6-4 like this kid does. I think he could be very special."
After a protracted search, Kahn hired Kurt Rambis to coach the Timberwolves. Rambis brought a championship pedigree from his days on the Showtime Lakers, where he learned under Pat Riley. He had also apprenticed on the Lakers bench beside Phil Jackson. Dave Wohl, Minnesota's lead assistant, remembers arriving in Minnesota and Kahn asking him whether Rubio and Flynn could prosper playing together. Wohl described Flynn as a good, ambitious kid. He also said that Rubio and Curry would have made a better pairing. He didn't believe either Flynn or Rubio could perform at shooting guard. "He said, 'No, no. I want to play Jonny and Rubio. They remind me of [Walt] Frazier and [Earl] Monroe,'" Wohl said.
"When he said that, I didn't know what to say. I actually played during the '70s against Earl and Clyde and there's just no comparison." Wohl told Kahn that he did not think it was an accurate comparison. "He said, 'Yeah, it is. They are two guys who can handle the ball,'" Wohl recalled Kahn saying. "When he started going in that direction, I knew that Kurt was going to have a struggle in him trying to figure out what to do with both those guys when they came because Ricky was clearly a guy who was a great passer and was going to be able to do some things offensively with his passing that Jonny, at that point, wasn't able to do," Wohl said.
At Syracuse, Flynn played in Boeheim's pick-and-roll offense and zone-heavy defense. "From a point guard standpoint, it's the most difficult [position] in the NBA to come in and learn," Rambis said. "It's not only what you have to do for yourself. It's what you have to do for the team. You have to get used to defending different players because what works against player A doesn't work against player B. Just being young has its own issues and also just being a rookie has its own issues."
Rambis demanded commitment and improvement from his players in the same way that Riley pushed his teams decades earlier. But his young roster struggled to acclimate. Rambis's offense featured aspects of the triangle, the equal-opportunity strategy predicated on floor space, passing, and cutting that Jackson used with Jordan's Bulls and Kobe's Lakers. But instead of Jordan or Kobe, Rambis had Corey Brewer and Ryan Gomes.
The triangle flummoxed Flynn. The system does not benefit point guards who are at their best with the ball in their hands. While players like Derek Fisher and Ron Harper have thrived in the system, more talented players like Jason Kidd and Gary Payton have struggled. "It was like a second language," Flynn said. "You know how some people can pick up on Spanish and can communicate a little bit, but [they're] not fluent in it? That's how I was in the triangle. I'm coming from a system in college and my whole life where I'm playing pick-and-rolls, where I'm able to freelance and do what I want."
Al Jefferson played under Rambis during Flynn's rookie season before being traded to Utah. He recalled the triangle being difficult to run because Minnesota lacked the outside shooters to make it work.
"When Kurt took the job, he said he was only going to use a little of the triangle," Jefferson said. "But once he got in and took over that's all he used. It was tough for me because we didn't have 3-point shooters … We had the right type of players for another system like a pick-and-roll system. Jonny Flynn could have been one of the best pick-and-roll point guards in the league. He was so deadly in the pick-and-roll, but as far as the offense we were trying to run, I didn't think it was the right system for us."
Rambis said all the chatter about the triangle was overblown, and estimated that it accounted for less than 20 percent of his offense. He wanted fluidity, an attacking style that wouldn't sputter if the first option — scoring in transition — failed.
"You know what?" he said. "One of the things that I should have never done, I never should have mentioned that word [triangle]. I never intended to run that and everybody, as soon as I said we were going to run aspects of the triangle, all anybody ever heard was 'triangle.' I always wanted to run a one-guard front and we wanted to push the ball with Jonny's speed, his game-changing capabilities."
As a rookie, Flynn had no competition for the starting point guard job. After Ramon Sessions struggled to learn the offense's nuances, the job became Flynn's by default. But NBA minutes shouldn't come that easily. At times, Flynn defied Rambis's system. "He was really stubborn about, 'I want to play my way. I want to run a lot of pick-and-rolls,'" Wohl said. "But the way he was running pick-and-rolls wasn't efficient. He was just pounding the ball, and he wouldn't make the simple pass like if a guy got open because they doubled him. He would try and break the double-team rather than get rid of the ball."
Rambis wanted Flynn to make the play the defense gave him. Often, Wohl said, Flynn would miss an open Love or Nikola Pekovic as one of them rolled toward the basket. "I thought Jonny fought it more and more," Wohl said. "He would do little rebellious things at times. Like he would see Kurt send a sub to come in off the bench for him and in that next possession, he'd come down and shoot it because it would be his last possession in and he'd be like, 'I'll show you.'"
"Even during the season, having Kahn flying overseas to see Rubio during the season, while Jonny's playing well, it kind of makes you wonder Is it ever going to be enough?" said Demondi Johnson, a friend from Niagara Falls who moved with Flynn to Minnesota.
Minnesota sputtered to a 15-67 record in Flynn's first season. He closed out his up-and-down rookie year by sitting out the season finale. His hip had been bothering him. But the coaching staff still saw potential and hoped he'd continue to develop the following season. "We'd be sitting at a coaches' meeting and Kurt would say, 'You know what? Jonny's really played well this week. Maybe he's starting to get it,'" Wohl said. "And then sometimes he'd regress. But the injury really hurt him. That set him back."
That summer, Flynn traveled to The Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colorado, where Dr. Marc Philippon performed surgery on a tear of the labrum in his left hip, shaving some of the hip bone. "It's a hip injury that is darn close to what Bo Jackson had," Waters said. "The hip is not something God created that is going to be easily fixed."
Jake Presutti, a teammate at Syracuse, visited Flynn while he was in Vail. The two purchased an Xbox, playing NBA2K to pass the time. But Flynn was largely immobile and in constant pain. "He was helpless," Presutti said. "With the hip, he just couldn't do much. I just knew it was going to be a long road." Johnson visited soon after. The rehabilitation in Vail continued smoothly, Johnson said. It was not until Flynn returned to Minnesota that the trouble really started. "It was horrible," Johnson said. "It was the absolute worst when he got back to letting the Timberwolves handle it. Everything was just wrong. And I'm not sure why. Even to this day, I still don't understand why."
Doctors cleared Flynn to play in December, despite the coaching staff's reluctance. "We couldn't think of a basketball player who had ever torn his hip labrum," Wohl said.1 "So we didn't have anything to go on. You don't even have anything to compare it to." Flynn missed the first 24 games of the season. "He almost had a hip-hop in his step," Wohl said. This wasn't the same Jonny Flynn.
"In my opinion, he came back way too soon," Rambis said. "I could see that he wasn't ready to explode off that leg. He hadn't fully recovered from it. Management was pushing him to come back, to start playing. I didn't think he was ready to play. The surgeon felt that he had recovered from the surgery and was ready to play, but just watching him out there, he wasn't able to do the things that he was doing prior to the surgery. I didn't think he was ready to play, and as a result, he didn't play anywhere near his level that he ended his first season with. He lost a lot of confidence. Fans were booing him. We weren't playing well as a team."
This is the kind of thing that happens in a disconnected organization. The coaches tug one way and management the other. Young players get caught in the middle. Flynn's game is built on his speed and ability to blow past opponents. He had neither, but Kahn continued to push for Flynn to play. "Jonny's a second-year point guard who's 21 and he needs to play," Kahn told the Star-Tribune in January 2011. "Everybody can see it's obvious he's not himself yet: his rhythm, his timing, his explosiveness. However, our medical staff has been very clear. In order for him to regain that, he needs to play. So it's a little bit of a tricky situation."
The Timberwolves closed the 2010-11 season with a loss to Houston, their 15th straight defeat. Their record stood at a dismal 17-65. Flynn was not with the team for the finale, absent for what the organization described as "personal reasons." He appeared in only 53 games in his sophomore season, starting eight, with averages of 5.3 points and 3.4 assists. In May, Minnesota finally arranged for Rubio to make his long-awaited entrance into the NBA. With a replacement en route, the Timberwolves traded Flynn to Houston with Donatas Motiejunas for Brad Miller and a handful of draft picks.
"I think it was a situation where they just wanted him to play so they could move him," Johnson said. "That's what I was thinking at the time. Why rush him back when he's not ready? It never made sense. We never really knew why they did it, but they definitely rushed him back too early."
Flynn said that the time in Minnesota, while confusing, made him stronger. "It was the wrong time for both of us," he said. "I'm not going to try to absolve myself of all the responsibilities and things that happened to me during Minnesota. I was a young kid going through certain things there."
Kahn fired Rambis in July 2011. The hire, like most everything Kahn tried in Minnesota, never worked.
"Rambis got a lot of shit," Wohl said. "People really just dumped on him. I don't think they understood how little support he got from David Kahn, how poor a draft David did."
Kahn did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story. The Timberwolves relieved him of his management duties this offseason. He attempted to rationalize drafting Flynn in an interview with the Star-Tribune after his dismissal. Kahn said that scouts had complained about their voice not being heard in recent drafts and that they voted strongly for drafting Flynn. "In drafts, you can make a mistake or you can make a mistake you'll never recover from," Kahn told the paper. "One can argue that the Trail Blazers in certain ways didn't recover from the Jordan draft [in 1984]. Our decision to take Jonny Flynn is not a decision we couldn't recover from."
Wohl is an NBA lifer born in Queens. He played several seasons in the NBA and has served as an assistant coach, head coach, and assistant general manager. He played with John Lucas, whose substance abuse problems derailed his career, and coached Darryl Dawkins, a player of sizable personality and prowess but little work ethic. Wohl worried about Flynn early in his career. "One of the things that coaches always talk about is the willingness for a guy to be coached," Wohl said. "You hear [Gregg] Popovich talk about [Tim] Duncan. He always talks about, 'Duncan lets me coach him.' A lot of rookies come in and they're not ready to do that yet. Jonny was at that stage.
"My concern with Jonny was that if Jonny didn't figure out a way to change and adapt and didn't open himself up to coaching and take learning better, that I thought he'd be out of the league in two or three years," Wohl continued. "And that's where he went."
They would. Flynn combined with Paul Harris, another Syracuse recruit, to provide one of the greatest shows upstate New York high school basketball has ever seen. Harris was the mega-prospect back then. Flynn was small and overlooked, the kid who always wanted to prove himself against the bigger, higher-rated competition. He did so again and again. "You had better get a ticket to the JV game and be in your seat by the second quarter, just to be able to see these guys play," said Bob Stone, a volunteer assistant coach on that Niagara Falls team. "It was the Los Angeles Lakers every night when we were playing at home. They would turn people away at the doors."
In upstate New York, Flynn's love for the game was pure, unburdened by salary caps, positional battles, and uncommon pain. Flynn found the opposite in Minnesota.
"That second year was my toughest year because I never went through something like that, where basketball is your main problem in life," Flynn said. "Usually it's your safe haven. Usually, you play basketball and you get away from everything else. But basketball being the biggest problem of my life, being a young kid, I couldn't handle that. That was a really, really low time in my life, which it shouldn't have been. You hear people say, 'You're in the NBA. You're getting a check. You're doing this. You can get your parents a house. Your sister's good. Your family's good.' But when you love basketball, you just want to be able to play. The money is great. Once you get everything out of the way, once you take care of your family, once everything happens, it's about basketball. During that time, it was tough."
Flynn had gone from a player many believed Syracuse had recruited just to land Harris to a lottery selection — on the heels of a historic college game — in what felt like a flash. Mike Hopkins, the Syracuse assistant who recruited Flynn, wondered if it all happened too fast.
"Jonny was a kid who nobody even really knew and then all of a sudden he becomes a McDonald's All-American, which is an amazing accomplishment," Hopkins said. "Next thing you know, you've got LeBron James calling you. Next thing you know, you're the sixth pick in the NBA draft. It's all of a sudden, 'What do I do? How do I respond? Who am I?' It just comes at you so fast.
"We see it in college all the time. They really realize that you had played your whole life for fun. It's the game you grow up and play in the park when you want to be around your friends, and you work hard, you're playing, you're playing, and all of a sudden, it's a business. It's the business of basketball. And then, you blow up and you're in the NBA and you're supposed to be the savior and when you're not, people can be cruel."
Flynn's friends noticed a change in him after his prolonged return from injury and carrying the burden of playing in a discombobulated organization. "To have the business kick him in the behind the way it was, it's tough mentally," Johnson said. "When basketball is your main outlet and that's taken away from you, what do you do?"
Presutti and Flynn had built their friendship on basketball. But their connection faltered when Flynn struggled on the court. "We didn't text as much," Presutti said. "We lost that basketball bond that we always had. It was because he was so fed up with it, really. He didn't want to talk basketball. He didn't want to talk about college basketball or NBA basketball or who's ranked in the top whatever. He didn't want to talk about it, so he really kind of shut me out."
Constantino could hear the frustration in Flynn's voice when they talked. "It's the reality of what professional sports becomes," Constantino said. "At a certain point, it's just dollar signs hanging over everybody. It's not that pure essence of the game anymore. Myself here, I don't have a really high-paying job, but I love what I do. Every day I love to work. I look at Jonny and there were days he didn't want to go to a basketball court — that was probably the first time in his life [that was the case]. High school, AAU, traveling along the East, then in college, and really loving what you're doing, and now, all of a sudden, what you love has become a grind and it's not fun anymore."
Then he disappeared from the NBA's radar, saddled with a label that's almost always career-ending: damaged goods. "When you're as good as he was and had such high expectations, when you're not able to get there, it's very frustrating," Boeheim said. "I think if you haven't made it in two or three cities, the negativity tends to surround you and you have to somehow play your way out of it."
Flynn spent last season with the Australian National Basketball League's Melbourne Tigers. "I really wanted to play in a place that was English-speaking," Flynn said. "That was really my main focus. I want to know what's going on around me." He showcased his burst, stood up against physical players who wanted to prove their worth against a former NBA lottery pick, and was selected as a reserve for the league's all-star game. "They don't call fouls down there," Flynn said. "In the league, you can't touch guys. Down there, you can have the ball and a guy will be almost forearm-shivering you in your side and they won't call a foul. I just think getting beat up and coming from the NBA, I had that target on me."
Flynn shared an agent, Leon Rose, with Melbourne's coach, Chris Anstey. "He would have benefited from the continuous playing time over the course of a season, and the ability to run a team for extended minutes," Anstey wrote in an e-mail. "International defensive rules were new to him, whether playing it or attacking it, and he got better as the season went on.
"His offensive skillset is NBA-caliber, but he needs to continue to work on his defensive game. As great as Syracuse is as a basketball program, it certainly doesn't create the best defensive man-to-man habits in its players for when they become pros."
Not many NBA players go down under. Fewer return to carve out a sustainable NBA career. Flynn, despite the summer league setback, is attempting to do just that.
His friend Johnson called it "beating the business."
"A lot of people just ignore that rookie season," he said. "Ever since then, everything just snowballed from the injury. It's all about opportunity. Jeremy Lin was always decent. He got an opportunity and he made the best of it. Nate Robinson's always been solid. He got an opportunity. I think that's what Jonny needs. Not four minutes, six minutes, but really get out there and have a chance to run a team. If he gets that opportunity, he'll be back."
Constantino wonders if Flynn will receive that opportunity he needs to jump-start his career. "I hate to say it, I almost wonder if it's not in his hands," he said. "I know who he is and I know when he gets on the court, I know his need to compete will come out. But I also know there's a business side to it where you look at how much will Jonny cost?"
Al Jefferson, his former teammate, said Flynn's play his rookie season justified his lofty draft selection — only he was chosen by the wrong team. "He was drafted to replace another point guard until he was ready to come over, and then he came into a triangle offense, really an offense not meant for a point guard with his type of skill," Jefferson said. "He came in against all odds and I think my man really handled it very well. He was the only rookie I've ever been around — even Kevin Love — that came in and tried to take that leadership role, and I let him do that. I didn't mind him doing that because you could tell that he was that type of guy."
Flynn wants back into the NBA. But getting back in is often harder than getting in in the first place. Impressions are made. Reputations stick. They can be nearly impossible to shake.
"Even when I talk to NBA guys here that I haven't seen for a while, [they all ask] 'How's the hip doing?'" Flynn said. "That's two, three years ago. I'm fine now. [But] they still have that on their minds."
Jason Hart, another Syracuse product, mentored Flynn during his rookie season. Hart was a second-round draft pick and an underdog throughout a respectable nine-year NBA career. He established himself as a dependable journeyman and is now an assistant coach at USC. Flynn, Hart said, needs to forget his draft slot and any injustices suffered at the beginning of his career.
"The only one who can get him back into the league is himself, and he's got to believe in himself," Hart said. "He's got to fight, fight, fight. You can't look at it as a raw deal."
Hart was always one of Hopkins's favorite players at Syracuse. "Like anything, when you lose the love or when the pressure hits you, you're not going to play your best," Hopkins said. "You're not going to be that kid like Ken Griffey Jr. I used to love watching him hit batting practice with his baseball cap backward. It was like this kid playing a game. That's when you play your best, when you're in the backyard with your dad or your brother and your friends are coming over and there's no pressure. You're just playing."
It's what Flynn — and every professional athlete — needs in order to be successful, Hopkins added. "I know Jonny has that competitiveness," he said. "He has the talent. He has the work ethic. But you've got to have the love. You can have all that stuff, but if you don't have that devotion where you just love it, love it, love it, it's hard. Otherwise it just becomes a hard job."
For now, Flynn is plotting his next step. He said he may look to play in China or Spain if he doesn't make it out of an NBA training camp. But he's not ready to quit. Can you really be washed-up at 24 years old? Or could Flynn improbably morph into a late-blooming lottery star, the same way Chauncey Billups did once upon a time? "When you go through things like I have, it takes a little bit of the joy away," Flynn said after his cameo against the Hawks. "But I still love the game."
A few other players have experienced a similar injury. Wilson Chandler missed most of the final two months of the 2012 season upon his return from playing in China because of a torn labrum in his left hip. The injury limited Chandler to only 43 games during the 2012-13 season. Philippon also performed surgery to repair a torn labrum in the left hip of Charlotte's Gerald Henderson in May 2011. Henderson resumed playing in December of that year.