Never Bored Again: The Ballad of Iso Zo

Never Bored Again returns as Abe Beame traces the parallels between Allonzo Trier and one of the more notable Coen Brothers characters.
By    February 25, 2021

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Abe Beame picked up the posse on 23rd and Jackson.

The Coen Brothers’ 2013 melancholy love letter to the 1960s West Village folk scene, Inside Llewyn Davis, remains one of the most brilliant and ambiguous American films of its ambiguous decade. To this day, it’s open to a wide variety of interpretations. Debates still rage about what the film is “trying” to say. We can agree it’s a portrait of a failed artist, the question largely revolves around why he failed. Did Llewyn lack talent and inspiration? Did he sabotage his own career at every turn through general dickishness and bad decision making? Or was something else at play?

My personal interpretation of the film, perhaps bewitched by the brilliance and charisma of Oscar Isaac’s performance, and a familiarity with the Coen’s brand of black satirical existential despair, is that Llewyn (loosely based on the great Dave Van Ronk) is a victim of circumstance, a great artist who had the misfortune of being a middle child of history. He was a part of an underground folk scene that existed in small corners as a niche market, which was quickly subsumed by the once in a generation talent of Bob Dylan, whose “Farewell” closes the movie on the night a New York Times reporter was in attendance, who would write about Dylan that evening and launch him to a superstardom that devoured the Greenwich Village scene and folk itself. Dylan plays as Llewyn walks out of the Gaslight Cafe to meet the fate we witness out of context at the beginning of the film: Getting his fucking ass kicked.  

A kid from the Bronx once said that the greatest tragedy in life is a waste of talent. The Coen Brothers suggest an alternative. Who speaks for the realized talent that happens to shuffle onto their coil at the exact wrong time? What do we say to a child born too early, or too late, who would’ve found success elsewhere in history?

In 2009, in the same paper Robert Shelton reviewed Dylan at Gerde’s Folk City, Michael Sokolove wrote a profile of another young, prodigious talent. He was a 12 year old sixth grader from Seattle, a top ranked prospect making the rounds on the AAU circuit named Allonzo Trier. The Times piece uses Trier as a window into the culture of AAU, of the machine grooming young talent for the NBA. It’s a portrait that hits familiar beats, the hard luck narrative of a desperate kid in section 8 housing with a single mother, the parasitic industrial basketball complex erected around these kids, the predatory gurus and handlers, selling them dreams of wealth and success it would be impossible not to be seduced by, the corrupting forces of NCAA institutions all fighting for the attention of prospects at increasingly younger ages. But what landed for me was young Zo’s sense of purpose, the hard work he was putting into his game, modeling his whole life around a single thing, from a disturbingly early age.

The piece drives home the long odds of success on the level these kids are trying to achieve. It references another player on the court with Zo, a big “man” also in the sixth grade named “Jesse Pistokache (White Chocolate)” I looked up Pistokache on social media, here’s what he’s up to today:

In the article, a prominent scout refers to Pistokache as a “monster” with the implication that pro ball is a near certainty. I reference White Chocolate not to shoot strays, but to make the point that this level of attention can be traumatic. Who knows what warping effect a sprawling, national feature can have on a sixth grader with dreams of going pro? 

Or perhaps it only amplified a quality that was already there. In the profile, 12 year old Allonzo already has his own brand with a generic slogan printed on all his clothing. His socks are marked with his nickname, Zo, or his Seattle area code. He was receiving shipments of Under Armor gear from then NBA prospect Brandon Jennings, and his private school instruction was paid for by a Seattle lawyer. The piece makes the point that the sole purpose of this AAU structure is to teach these players to look for their shots, to stand out, to gain the attention of elite NCAA institutions who are similarly selling themselves as finishing schools to these prospects with the ultimate goal of becoming lottery picks after a year of college ball, something only 14 human beings on Earth get to be every year. In Allonzo, we have an interesting test case, a kind of 7 Up style project of a kid we got to see at 12, and we can look at now as a grown man, the product of that environment translated to today.

Trier’s game is discussed surprisingly little in the piece, aside from the work he puts into it. A scout assesses him as another can’t miss prospect he just knows is going to make it. The scout discusses Trier’s professionalism and competence, he’s a player who always knows what to do and makes the right play, a kind of necessary standard to separate wheat from chaff at this level. 

In 2015, Zo was a top 20 prospect in his graduating class, and went to Arizona, where he started as an offball guard as a freshman. He played in Arizona for three years, during which all his numbers creeped up incrementally, but in the NBA, after your freshman season, you’re seen by many unimaginative GMs as damaged goods. 

Here’s the cons (after a glowing assessment of his individual scoring abilities) from the DraftExpress report on Trier after his first year at Arizona:  “Still, for all of his talent offensively, it’s hard not to get frustrated with Trier’s ball-stopping tendencies and apparent lack of interest with court spacing. Trier’s usage hit 24.9% last season, one of the highest rates in the Pac-12, but his 1.6 assists per 40 minutes pace adjusted indicates he’s just not enough of a team player at this point. And while he’s not quite a turnover machine, he does turn the ball over more (13.8% turnover rate) than you’d like from a player who offers such little distributing. Trier loves to play isolation ball and earned the moniker Iso Zo from the Wildcats fan base.

While Synergy only tracked 12% of his possessions coming in isolation, it’s fair to say that the percentage was actually significantly higher after accounting for isolation attempts in which he ate up the shot clock before eventually deciding to pass as a last resort. It’s undeniable that Trier’s court vision and ball stopping tendencies will have to improve as he makes the transition to being a role-player at the next level.” 

So, you know, not great. And this probably explains why Trier went undrafted while guys like *checks notes* Issuf Sanon, Alize Johnson, and Arnoldas Kulboka did. Here’s some footage of Trier on draft night.

To extend the Llewyn Davis metaphor, Zo’s Bob Dylan was Steph Curry, who changed the league before Trier ever got there. In 2011-2012, I lived in San Francisco for a year. While I was there, the Golden State Warriors had a difficult decision to make. They had a crowded backcourt, with one star and one potential future star in Monta Ellis (the star), and Stephen Curry. Both players were good, but ball dominant, and it was clear their play together was hurting Monta’s game and Steph’s development. In March of 2012, the Warriors made a fairly stunning move, unceremoniously shipping out Ellis, who had been drafted in the second round by the Dubs and become a star in the Bay, for creaky Australian big man Andrew Bogut. Like many enraged Warriors fans and casual bystanders, it was a confusing move to me. Ellis was a masterful offensive player, a tough as they come workhorse, a high volume scorer, a guaranteed bucket. Curry was scrawny, often hurt, and over reliant on the three point shot, which we all believed couldn’t win championships. And that’s the thing about revolution. Many of us can’t see or understand what’s happening until the moment has passed us by.

The Knicks took a flier on Trier with a two way contract in July of 2018. In December of that year, they signed him to an official NBA contract, becoming the first two way player ever to do so in the first two months of the season. The reason why they elected to do so was obvious. The Knicks were very bad, dead last in the league in offense, coached by an overwhelmed David Fizdale, and turned in a record of 19-63. One of the few bright spots was Trier, who played in 64 games and averaged nearly 11 per, with shooting splits of 45/40/80. The highlight of the season was a brilliant 23 point effort in what was only his ninth professional game, against the Dallas Mavericks. Here’s the highlights:

What quickly became apparent is Zo’s game, flaws and all, translated to the league exactly. He can score on every conceivable level of basketball, with a fairly staggering array of ways to hurt you offensively. His shot falls spot up or off the bounce, he has an entire vocabulary of crosses and dribble moves he can string together with a quick first step to get to the bucket, but the key to his offense is his voracious fight instinct. His very being is relentless attack mode. Zo tests and prods a defense like a velociraptor looking for weak spots on an electrified fence, often finding the dead spot and getting to the hoop with relative ease.

But there were grumblings amongst the vets. The kid featured in the New York Times with branded socks at the age of 12 would wear his ISO ZO merch to practices, openly flaunting NBA rookie humility and showed no regard for at least soft pedaling team concept. He would look off open players as he used clock, and scored most of the time, but pissed off his teammates doing so. The best and worst fears expressed by that draft assessment seemed to be coming true. An embarrassing, ominous article came out after the season that he’d rubbed many of the older players the wrong way. And yet, for reference, here is a side by side comparison of Trier’s per 36 rookie season vs. Monta Ellis’:

I keep coming back to Ellis because he’s who Zo reminded me of more than any other player. Trier is a maestro of the Isolation Play, an antiquated set that is basketball in its most primal and elemental form. The other four men in an offense move to the weak side of the half court, dragging their defenders with them, which leaves the ball handler to take his man one on one. Michael Jordan, for instance, built a career off his iso proficiency. The best players in the league are all great in isolation, but they now also have to be able to fit within a system (With the sole exception of Rockets era James Harden, who was his own system, and the greatest offensive weapon that ever lived, and also a historically great passer). Trier’s achilles seems to be his one dimensionality. For him to be effective as a scorer, he needs the ball, and he needs the time and space to break his man down. 

That he can do this with regularity, as an undrafted player who is currently in the G League, is somewhat miraculous and a testament to his prodigious talent. That it’s seemingly all he can do is his paradoxical tragedy. But there was a time, quite recently, this was a highly coveted ability in the NBA. Monta Ellis for instance, played in the NBA for 12 years, and by the end of the 2021-2022 season will have made over $100 million and I’m not entirely sure if he was 25 today, he wouldn’t be in the G-League. This is because the game has moved on to a leaner, more cooperative model. 

It would be fair to focus on Ellis’ all around improved play, particularly his passing, as he matured as a player. But it would be unfair to say Trier didn’t. In his second season with the Knicks, he only saw minutes in 24 games, in which he improved basically all his per 36 stats as well as his offensive efficiency, but he was DNP’d most nights, unable to crack the rotation or get comfortable in any meaningful way. With a new regime taking over the Knicks front office, one of their first moves in the Covid shortened season of 2020 was waiving Trier for *checks notes* Theo Pinson, who as of the writing of this column has played in nine games for the Knicks, averaging 2.3 minutes per.

When we talk about genius and innovation in basketball we tend to focus on its actors, the pioneers and freaks who move history forward like Steph Curry, and Steve Nash, and Steve Kerr, and Darryl Morrey, and Mike D’Antoni. But you seldom hear a word about the casualties of innovation, the John Henrys of the game. The Monta Ellis’, the Tony Allens, the Roy Hibberts, the Allonzo Triers. Men who, had they been born at any time prior to this moment, would have been gods and kings of the sport. You can call it Darwinism, you can call it progress, you can call it good for the game. I’m not saying it’s a good or bad thing, I’m saying it probably doesn’t matter to Allonzo Trier. 

At the beginning of this season, the league made an announcement that, I’d imagine, made hundreds, if not thousands of hearts around the world skip a beat. The NBA, in respect to Covid related roster complications, would expand their rosters from the standard 12 to 15. This meant exactly nothing to most of us, but for the men living on the fringes of professional basketball, languishing in the small towns that host the G League, or living in the cities abroad they call home for now, grinding in gyms from morning to night on their own, just outside the warm embrace of the NBA, waiting for the phone to ring, 90 jobs were created out of thin air. Maybe, just maybe, the need for security in the face of a literal plague, would present the opportunity that they’d been waiting so long for.

But no one came calling for Zo. He twisted in the wind as a free agent with no country. In January, for the first time in his life, Allonzo Trier was drafted. He was picked fourth by the Iowa Wolves. On February 10th, they started their season in the G-League bubble with a Wednesday afternoon matchup with the Long Island Nets. The tenor of G-League games takes some getting used to. The players are misfit toys, an array of undersized big men, slow guards, and formerly decent to good pros in their mid to late 30s who are hanging on, praying on an ankle twist or Covid scare to grant them one last ten day contract in The Show.

They are some of the greatest basketball players on this planet, but a visible tier below the very best. Play is discordant and choppy, the pace is a step slower, the action less crisp. They have an insane barnstorming/exhibition era flavored free throw rule I can’t decide if I love or hate. It is hard to watch without either sensing or projecting an air of desperation and melancholy disappointment. I once read that the most painful thing about minor league ball is the tragedy of being just good enough to know exactly how much better it would take to play with the best, more than you have to give.

The Wolves were decimated by a Covid protocol violation the day of the game, shorthanded and starting unsigned guys who are just waiting around in the bubble without teams for this very reason. They were picked up by the Wolves to satisfy the body minimum necessary to compete. These players didn’t have names on the backs of their jerseys. Understandably, the team stumbled through the opening minutes and the Nets jumped out to over a twenty point lead.

Trier, despite going undrafted and being signed to a two way contract at the outset of his career, played his first G League game that Wednesday. He stepped on the court a fully grown and filled out 25 year old player with that familiar spike of hair, but retained the babyface of the kid featured in the Times years ago when the future was fathomless and in front of him. 

He started cold, scoreless in the first quarter, missing four awkward pull up heaves from the perimeter, but played hard on both ends, cutting, setting off ball screens, calling out assignments, jumping out to contest shooters, and rotating on defense as his teammates slowly found their footing. Even with a short bench, towards the end of the first quarter he was hooked for Lindell Wigginton, an undrafted 6’1 Canadian 22 year old shooting guard who played for Iowa State.

Then fortune smiled. It began in transition with six minutes left in the second half, Trier loped up the floor with the ball, crossed his man, and streaked to the bucket for an easy lay-up, the type he’s feasted on his entire life. He began to conjure the old magic, attacking Long Island’s transition defense relentlessly, grabbing long rebounds and turnovers and charging hard, using a mixture of force and craft to finish at the rim, over and over again, in the cavernous vacuum of the largely vacant gym outside Disney World. As the scoring elevated from a trickle to a downpour, he started mixing in some poorly chosen deep bombs, reminiscent of Jamal Crawford, another one dimensional Seattle bred microwave scorer. Everything was falling. Here’s a highlight:

Zo was dead last on the floor with a minus 13, but was remarkably efficient in spite of his early woes. He scored 26 points on 9-16 shooting (with one assist). It was the kind of line an NBA GM might’ve looked at 15 or even 10 years ago and thought, there must be room for this kid on my team. The game was shown on ESPN +, and between timeouts occasionally the station would identify itself with its logo, which flashed silently along with a slogan that resonates less each day for cable sports networks, Allonzo Trier, and this country: 

Trier played with the glow around him, the supreme unwavering confidence in yourself and your talent it requires to score 30 points in an NBA game, to keep shooting on the world’s largest stage with everything on the line when nothing is falling, to make the NBA, to become a professional athlete, subjecting yourself to years and years of intense practice, honing your skills and dedicating every waking moment to your conditioning because you believe in the impossible dream that one day it will all pay off, that you can be one of the few, special, greatest athletes on the planet, a dream that comes with impossible glory and the kind of generational wealth that can alter the fate of families, entire communities. 

And in the end, for most basketball players, it comes down to a practical joke played by the Gods, a crapshoot, a lucky shot. The wrong opportunity, the snap of an Achilles’ tendon, and in some very rare cases, a revolution that occurs at the exact wrong time in history that changes the perception of the game itself, what it values and rewards, one that lifts the fates of what might have been a marginal player in other eras, and fucks the Allonzo Triers of the game, of the world. 

And perhaps someday Trier will be back in the NBA, he’ll find the team and circumstances he deserves, get that contract, and find a place where he belongs. Zo grew up in Seattle but he was born in Tulsa Oklahoma, the birthplace of another streaky two guard with a game that may or may not have translated to today’s league (that I grew up worshipping), John Starks, an eventual all star who had a much rockier path to success than Zo will face. Zo’s would be far, far from the least likely journey to an NBA career we’ve seen, and I’m supposed to be impartial I guess, but I truly hope that it happens for him somewhere, someday.

The G league is more prone to wild swings, surges and dips, than even the always volatile NBA. The Nets were unconscious from deep most of the game, so the second half was a cycle of the Nets pulling away and the Wolves pulling close, without ever quite getting there. Until the end of the game, when Trier tied it from the stripe with 33 seconds to play. With their final possession, French Long Island Nets combo guard Elie Okobo (the 2018 first pick of the second round in the draft Trier wasn’t selected in) fired a deep, wild rainbow heave with 13 seconds left that caught high glass and miraculously banked in. Okobo looked surprised, then mildly disappointed with the wild pull, in spite of the result. It was a ridiculous, lucky shot.

The final inbound possession was designed for Trier, who cut a typically assured, unstoppable path to the bucket, went up with a finish he’s converted hundreds of thousands of times on countless defenders, and watched his attempt get pinned to the glass. The Wolves got the resulting loose ball, and a final decent look at an equalizer three that resulted in contact from a reckless leaping defender on a close out. It should’ve been called a foul, but the ref ate the whistle. And the game clock ran out, and the horn sounded, and in spite of heroic effort, the Iowa Wolves fell just short.

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