What is up with Danilo Gallinari? The one thing we've come to expect from Gallo, whether or not his shots are falling, is that he play with a palpable edge and a fiery competitive spirit. No matter the circumstances, Danilo's defining characteristic has consistently been a set of giant rooster balls. Not only does he take and make big shots and wheel into the lane for ferocious finishes, he does it with a flourish and a scowl. That unwavering confidence and flair for the dramatic is Danilo's ideal modus operandi and what endeared us to Gallinari in the first place, but it's gone missing.
Last night's 2-6, 7 point performance against the Bucks was the most recent in a run of games in which Gallo's been nearly invisible for long stretches of his court time. On defense, he's had trouble keeping his man in front of him and challenging shots. This was perhaps best exemplified last night, when the 6'1'', 120-pound Brandon Jennings simply shoved him to the floor en route to the game-clinching basket. Forgive me for being unscientific, but I'm almost certain that Gallo with a full tank would never back down or try and sneak a charge against a whippet like Jennings. Gallinari is an offensive player, though, and that's where his poor condition is most noticeable. It's not uncommon for Danilo to start the game attacking, then fade away if his first few attempts don't fall. For the most part, he's aiming and falling away on his shots, driving without conviction or direction, and passing up open opportunities. That last part is perhaps the most bewildering. There was a moment last night when Gallinari-- he of the 40% three-point percentage and league-leading 127 threes made-- lost his man with a fake, eyed the clear skies between himself and the rim...and swung the ball to Jared Jeffries. I'm no doctor, but I'd guess that offensive deference to Jared Jeffries, by any measure, qualifies as a symptom of something.
The smart people are noticing. Mike Breen called Danilo "sluggish" and "a step slow" during last night's broadcast. BK saw it, too:
Gallo looked slow, almost leaden, and overly deferential when the Bucks crowded him on his shot, and he missed 4 of 6 free throws. D'Antoni in the post game conference indicated Gallo needed to create more opportunities for himself, and not pass up the ones that were there when he shook his defender. Whether he's hit a wall, his back is acting up, or he's simply navigating slowly to the next step in his evolution as an NBA player, his struggles are painfully apparent right now, and it may require the all-star break for him to clear his head and go back to playing more instinctively.
And that takes me to my best diagnosis. With 49 games played, Gallinari and the Knicks are just past the midway point of the season. Given the timing and the aforementioned symptoms, I'm calling this one a case of the rookie wall.
When you are a 19 to 22-year-old rookie, you are basically multiplying your college schedule by three. Eventually, those bodies and minds start to break a little and that’s when the "rookie wall" comes in. Most guys hit the infamous wall at some point in their inaugural NBA season.
"I think everybody hits [the wall]," says Knicks guard Larry Hughes, who was a rookie during the ‘99 lockout season. "Everything is devoted to basketball and traveling, so you expect that. Probably now, a lot of rookies are probably feeling it, if they’re playing a lot of minutes. The thing is how fast you come out of it."
Click through for more of that excellent Dime article. The upshot is that the rookie wall is a mythical entity that can be overcome with basic focus and conditioning, but it afflicts players until they reach that point. Now, there are some caveats in Gallinari's case. One is that he's not a rookie. Danilo is playing in his second season, but with back surgery limiting him to just 28 games played last year, I think it's reasonable to call '08-'09 a false start. This season has been something of a do-over, and in all respects except the one that actually counts, Gallo's rookie year. The second potential caveat is that Gallinari did not come to the Knicks from college. He played almost four years of professional ball in Italy before coming to the States, but even then, was playing a shorter schedule against arguably weaker competition. His experience notwithstanding, all signs point to Danilo Gallinari having hit the wall at full speed. Over 30 minutes a game for 48 games over three or four months is a massive burden for a 21 year-old. The plane trips and foreign cities are probably blurring together. The back probably feels like shit every morning. The losing record and constant spotlight have to be a headache.
Luckily, there might be some R&R on the horizon. BK guesses that the All-Star break might be time to recuperate, and that seems like a possibility. One hopes that Danilo's forthcoming experience in the Three-Point Shootout and Rookie-Sophomore game might instill some confidence in the youngster, all while providing respite from the constant grind of competing for a losing team. I have no doubt in my mind that this is a phase and that Danilo Gallinari will surmount the rookie wall. It's just a matter of how and when. Hopefully, Gallo is gaining an understanding of his own struggles, and will return to form sooner rather than later with some rest and refocusing. The Knicks as a team have hit a wall of sorts, playing sloppy, sleepy basketball for much of the last month. Now more than ever, New York needs a full-grown Rooster to get things done.