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Building an American Comeback: Shane Larkin

The last season featured a handful of professional basketball players born in the USA play abroad after having being part of the NBA or the G League in the prior two seasons. We review their 2019-20 seasons in the Chinese CBA and/or Euroleague in this series of articles, to know what they did and the chances they have to making it back to America.

Anadolu Efes Istanbul v Zalgiris Kaunas - Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Photo by Aykut Akici/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

There is no room at the top-tier of American professional basketball—the NBA and the G League, by extension—for everyone to be part of it. Every year we have a plethora of undrafted free agents luckily signed to contracts from NBA/G League franchises to become part of their squads. Every year, too, we see a lot of kids and veterans finding no place in the best hoop leagues in the world, thus looking for chances abroad.

That is not the most common path to building a sustainable career in the NBA, for sure, but for athletes that have worked their whole lives around basketball, it surely is one way to try to reach the pinnacle of the sport in the country where the best hoopers happen to play in.

In this series, we will explore the 2019-20 season of some American players that played basketball either in the CBA (top Asian league, and a place for ex-NBA veterans and young undrafted players) or the EuroLeague (the best-combined league in Europe and the consensus second-best league in the world only behind the NBA). All of these players also played in the NBA or the G League during the 2017-18 or 2018-19 seasons, so they are not too separated from their playing days in American soil and could still be re-called by an NBA franchise soon if they keep their level of play up.

Shane Larkin - Anadolu Efes (Turkey - EuroLeague)

CSKA Moscow v Anadolu Efes Istanbul - Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Photo by Mikhail Serbin/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

If it feels like Shane Larkin’s NBA days are a long time away from us already, that’s mostly because they are—at least in the sense that Larkin became an NBA player all the way back in 2013! The reality, though, is that Larkin’s last run in America happened no longer than two years ago, when the guard was part of a 2018 Celtics team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals and only lost to Cleveland after seven games. While Larkin didn’t play against the Cavs, he logged minutes (14 on average) in all of Boston’s games versus Milwaukee in the first round and four of five against the Sixers in the Eastern Semifinals. Not bad for a then 25-year-old, second-unit player.

But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves here. Larkin was drafted with the 18th overall pick in 2013 by the Hawks but was insta-traded to Dallas. His top-100 pedigree as a high schooler and a two-year college career in Miami (FL) was enough to turn him into a near-lottery player seven years ago. He struggled a bit as a freshman, sure, but in his sophomore year playing for the Canes Larkins became a 14-4-4 rounded guard who was hitting 40%+ of his three-point attempts.

While that number didn’t lead the nation, Larkin was one of only 54 college players to reach it while throwing more than 170 treys, and one of just eight players with 47/40/77 shooting splits. He led Miami to the ACC title in 2013 and reached the third round of the National Tournament as a no. 2 seed while racking up college accolades (ACC Player of the Year among them).

Larkin’s pro-career in America wasn’t as bright, though. He played 48 games for the Mavs as a rookie and spent time in their G League squad (he played four games for the Texas Legends) where he looked too good to stay at, thus coming back to the big leagues in no time. Just one year before his landing in Texas, Larkin was already catching a plane to New York via trade, which actually benefited him as he appeared in 76 games starting 22 of them for the Knicks in 2015. Another year, another move, though. This time he only had to catch a taxi, as Larkin signed a deal with Brooklyn and stayed there until the 2016 offseason playing 54 games.

Now, here is the turning point in Larkin’s career as I see it: the Cincinnati native opted to ditch the NBA pastures and looked for greener ones in Europe landing with Spanish team Baskonia to play in the Liga ACB and EuroLeague 2016-17 season. This would, in due time, turn into Larkin’s real mojo. He was close to signing with Barcelona at the end of that year, but Baskonia retained him... not for long, as the Boston Celtics came calling and he obliged, returning to America.

The most important move from Larkin was, once more, the one he did at the end of the 2018 season when he, again, flew to Europe to join Efes in Turkey. The deal was for just one year, but oh boy what a season for the ages that was. To kick off his second European tenure, Larkin led Efes to the EuroLeague Final Four, leading his team then to the actual final where they lost to CSKA Moscow. His numbers were no joke: 12.5 ppg, 3.1 apg, and 2.2 rpg. Oh, and did I mention that he came back to his trophy-winning days? Check the list: All-Europe POY, Turkish League Finals MVP, Turkish League champ, and EuroLeague Finals top scorer. Talk about a flex.

No wonder he re-signed with Efes for this last season, although his efforts would be futile thanks to COVID forcing EuroLeague to cancel its season without crowning a champ. That being said, though, Larkin straight balled. Shane Larkin played 25 of the potential maximum of 28 regular-season games in this year’s competition. Not only did Larkin play, though, but he got extended runs on a game-to-game basis (29.9 mpg, the fifth-highest mark in the EuroLeague) while averaging a monster 22-3-4 line met only by... no one. That’s insane. The best league in the world other than the NBA featured no better player than Larkin in 2019-20. You read that right. The closest players to Larkin’s average performance were Alexey Shved (21-2-6) and Mike James (21-3-4), also two former NBA players.

The most interesting thing about Larkin, though, is that he has already been in this position in the past. He moved to Europe, had a nice year there, and earned himself a chance back in the NBA with Boston—and he played great helping the team in its postseason run. Larkin is not that old. He’ll be playing the 2020-21 season as a 28-year-old player, so the appeal is still there for good.

Larkin signed a two-year deal with Efes three months ago, and earned a Turkish citizenship in time for next season. He seems to be comfortable in his current surroundings, sure, but as is often the case with former NBA players Larkin included an NBA-out clause in his deal for the upcoming 2021 season. It happened with Boston back in 2018, and I would say chances are someone comes calling again this winter. Hey, you lose nothing for asking—the franchise calling, or Larkin answering.

The terms were made clear by the guard: 18-to-25 minutes per game, and an important role in whichever team wants to land him for next season and going forward, establishing his position in the league as a real asset and guaranteed contributor. In his own words, “I won’t go back to the NBA as a third point guard. So if any team asks about that, we’re not even gonna answer the phone.”

As the best player of the last edition of the EuroLeague, it is not that Larkin doesn’t have the leverage to demand his own terms. Let’s hope some NBA teams find value in him, sees him at the level he puts himself at, and offers a deal that lures him back.