DES MOINES — Two men from Cedar Rapids-Marion briefly guarded each other Thursday night on a basketball court where they battled as preps six years ago.
In 2011, Marcus Paige’s Linn-Mar team beat Wes Washpun’s Cedar Rapids Washington Warriors in Wells Fargo Arena, and went on to win the state 4A championship two games later. The two had been teammates on teams from second-grade all the way to AAU ball.
They enjoyed college glories after that. Paige at North Carolina and Washpun at Northern Iowa. Now, they are trying to do as well as they can and find out how far they can go in professional ball.
Thursday, they played in an NBA Development League game at Wells Fargo that was mostly ignored by the public (the announced crowd was 3,895, a very good weeknight gathering by D-League standards) and Des Moines media.
The Salt Lake City Stars defeated the Iowa Energy, 120-110. Paige played 35 minutes for Salt Lake City, scoring his season-average of 13 points. Washpun played 19 minutes for Iowa. He played point guard. He didn’t score, but did have two assists and a blocked shot.
Both are the shortest players on their teams and easily weigh less than any of their teammates. Gaining weight hasn’t really been doable since they’ve either been playing or working out for teams almost non-stop since their college careers ended last spring.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Washpun said. “After I played in the NBA Summer League in Orlando I had a really good offer to play in Germany, and I left in August.”
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He called it a “really good experience,” and played in 15 games there. He returned to the U.S. in December and soon signed with the Energy. Through 20 games, he has averaged 25 minutes and 5 points.
“My role is fairly constant,” Washpun said. “I’m a playmaker. I try to get everybody to share the ball. I feel I’ve done a good job with that.”
Where he’ll go from here, he says, “just depends how the summer goes. After the season, I’m a free agent again. I could go to Europe or stay over here. It’s a matter of what comes up.”
Paige also will be a free agent once this season ends. The Utah Jazz drafted him in the second round last year. They waived him near the end of training camp. NBA teams are allowed to retain up to four players they waive under the “affiliate player rule,” and Utah did so with Paige.
That meant the Jazz clearly wanted to see what Paige could do over a 50-game D-League season. Though he’s slight by pro standards at 6-feet and 164 pounds (according to the Stars’ media notes), he has averaged 34 minutes and has missed just one of his team’s 34 games.
“The pro game has a lot more pick-and-roll and spacing,” Paige said. “I think it suits my skill set a lot better.
“One thing I’ve gotten better at, at least what Jazz management has talked to me a lot about, is defending. I’ve gotten a lot better defensively both on and off the ball, and playing with better pace and force.”
On Thursday, Paige did a good job defending Iowa guard Wade Baldwin, the Memphis Grizzlies’ 2016 first-round draft pick who is on assignment to Iowa. Paige disrupted a few passes, and didn’t get lost on defense.
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On offense, he was used as the No. 2 guard and didn’t handle the ball anywhere near as much as he did at Linn-Mar or North Carolina.
Paige has averaged 17 points over his last three games. He had a deceptive baseline drive for a basket Thursday that was one of the game’s highlights.
Whether he has the physique to be effective in an 82-game NBA season is something he must prove.
“The first year out of college is tough because you have to go to draft workouts, the summer leagues,” Paige said. “This offseason I’ll have a chance to work on my body a little better. I’m pretty close to getting where I want to be.
“Ideally, it would be nice to be back with the Jazz. But if better opportunities open up where maybe there aren’t as many point guards on the roster or somewhere where I have a chance to make a roster, then that’s the opportunity I’m going to take.”
After Thursday’s game, the Energy set up a table for old friends Washpun and Paige to sign autographs and pose for photos with fans. Both players had parents in attendance.
In this pro basketball life, it was as close to home as it gets.