With Anthony Parker on the bench with back spasms and JJ Hickson riding pine for missing practice, Cavaliers rookie Christian Eyenga tallied 28 minutes on Wednesday night. He hit 7-of-10 field goals, leading to a career-high 16 points, to go with two rebounds, and one blocked shot in the 120-105 loss to the Toronto Raptors.
For good measure, Eyenga – playing above the rim as often as possible – was called for goaltending on a blocked shot attempt, sending the basketball roughly three rows into the crowd – his second goaltend under similar circumstances in as many games.
“I thought Christian was good,” said Cavaliers head coach Byron Scott. ”I thought he took the challenge defensively.”
In his debut earlier in the week, Scott said that he had asked Eyenga for a bit of a self-assessment. Eyenga replied to his head coach by saying he felt he may have missed ”five or six” defensive assignments, mostly all during rotations. Due to his length, Eyenga’s defense on the ball has been superb, especially for a rookie with all of 40 minutes of NBA experience. However, once teams start to use screens or they swing passes to the weak side, Eyenga has had a few lapses.
“[Tuesday] was his first full practice in a while with us, so trying to get him reacquainted with some of out terminology and some of the things we do on both ends of the floor, and that’s going to be ongoing,” said Scott. “His athleticism and the way he guarded last game, that’s going to help us.”
When asked if there is any language barrier with the Colgolese wing, the Cavaliers head coach admitted that there is a small one. Eyenga, who spent a year in Spain with DKV Joventut in 2009-10, has a very thick French accent and has been nicknamed “No English” by his teammates. However, the rookie has come a long way in his attempts to speak English since being drafted by the Cavaliers, with noticeable improvement in the last few months alone.
Enter Jordi Fernandez, Cavaliers assistant for player development. Fernandez is a Spanish-born member of the Cavaliers, and has been an immense help in translating certain terms to Eyenga in any time of need.
“Jordi is a guy that we have with us that can speak to him a little better than I can, relay things better than I can, but it’s not that bad,” said Scott. ”He seems to understand. The only thing about foreign players is that they say that they understand when they really don’t. Jordi is here to help us and he’s done a fantastic job of letting Christian know where we’re coming from on offense or defense, so that’s been a big help.”
Thankfully, when WFNY caught up with Eyenga for an exclusive interview, Fernandez was not needed as the rookie swingman knew just what to say when asked about his first minutes of NBA playing time.
“The first 15 minutes were good,” Eyenga said. ”I never stress as I know what I need to do: play defense, rebound the ball, run, and – if I have an open shot – shoot it. I know it was my first game and as a rookie there were a couple mistakes, but it was good. Coach told me that I did good, he was happy.”
Eyenga was not given much playing time as a 20-year old in Spain last season, averaging modest totals. However, once signed by the Cavaliers to a two-year, $2 million deal, the team wanted to make sure that he was receiving not only NBA-caliber training, but playing time against NBA-caliber opponents. Alas, he was sent to the NBDL and suited up for the Erie Bayhawks, the Cavalier affiliate.
In Erie, Eyenga’s playing time increased week-to-week, as did his numbers. Over the course of his final three games prior to being called up this past weekend, Eyenga averaged 17.0 points on .537 shooting, to go with 7.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals in 31.7 minutes.
“[The Bayhawks] wanted me to do the same things there as they want me to do here,” Eyenga said. ”It was good for me to play in the D-League as I want to get better. Last year I didn’t get to play a lot. [This year, Byron Scott] and [Chris Grant] wanted me to play a lot so that’s why they sent me there for a couple of games, to get to understand everything like the defensive rotation.”
Eyenga credits Bayahaws coach Jay Larranaga for helping his game progress to the point where it is now even though everyone in the Cavs organization feels that this is only the tip of the iceberg.
When asked about the blocked shot against the Dallas Mavericks that was deemed goaltending despite being a brief souvenir for a courtside bystander, Eyenga says that he felt it was clean.
“[I thought] it was good,” said Eyenga. “But after the foul, [the referee] said it wasn’t. That’s my game - the blocked shots and playing defense.”
While Eyenga would be placed on Toronto Raptors guard Jose Calderon for a period of time, even a one-man defensive show may not have been enough to slow down the team from across the boarder as they racked up 120 points – 40 of which came in the second quarter alone. Thankfully, for Eyenga, the Cavaliers coaching staff is willing to stick with the athletic shooting guard, knowing full well what someone of his skill set can do if given time and development.
“He’s still young and makes a couple mistakes,” said Byron Scott, following the loss. “But like I said, the more experience he gets and the more playing time he gets, the better he’s going to get. I’m very happy with Christian. His progression has come a long way and he continues to work his butt off. He’s going to be a good player.”