Shawn Long playing angry on court but making big strides off it

Shawn Long is an easy athlete to misunderstand, especially if you judge him by his body language.

When the former NBA big man is at his most unstoppable best, when he's a "beast", he's screaming, shouting and lifting his Melbourne United teammates.

Few big men can give you highlight plays at the basket then step out and knock down three-pointers.

Shawn Long.Credit:Getty Images

But when he's being beaten up or struggling with his defensive reads that anger turns inwards.

This was something Melbourne's coaches and players have learned to deal with and something fans and observers are coming to understand.

"People mistake me a lot because I kind of play angry," Long told The Age this week.

"But that's just how I play, you know what I mean? When I'm angry, that's when I play my best. Sometimes I'll make myself mad.

"Anytime I'm laughing too much on the court, I'm not worth anything. I'm not a happy guy on the court, that's how I compete."

Long has been at the forefront of Melbourne's four-game winning streak.

Long is leading the NBL in scoring with 21.8 points per game, sits equal with Andrew Bogut with 10.4 rebounds per game and is top five in both blocks (1.3 per game) and field goal percentage (49 per cent).

But Long wasn't the only man angry when Melbourne United, slumping with a 0-3 record, walked into the locker rooms at half time against his former side New Zealand Breakers on October 26.

Melbourne coach Dean Vickerman had some home truths about their defensive shortcomings. He set his sights on Long who was being out-played by Breakers big man Brandon Ashley.

Vickerman challenged Long to stand up to the physical play and start making his shots and pulling in his rebounds.

Some players will take a spray like that personally. Long responded with 17 of his 27 points in a match-winning performance. Melbourne have won four games out of five since.

If they beat South East Melbourne Phoenix at Melbourne Arena on Saturday their record will improve to 6-4.

"The home game? Yeah I remember that," Long said.

"I had a rough first half. Playing my old team I was a little too excited. I had to calm down and once he gave me that talk I was like 'OK'. I tell him all the time that stuff like that helps me, so challenge me.

"Sometimes I over-think things, sometimes I just have to my job. Be a beast, that's pretty much what he said. My job is being a beast, at both ends."

When Melbourne began recruiting Long in the off-season, their question was on his defence.

Long dominated the NBL last season but his Breakers had a lot of losses.

"He's never been reluctant about learning, he's been outstanding like that,” Vickerman said.

What Long wants is to be challenged after getting by on his athleticism for too long.

Shawn Long.Credit:Getty Images

"I scored the ball so well, that's pretty much what the coaches wanted me to do," Long said.

"I feel like now Dean demands both and I'm open to the challenge. That's the biggest adjustment for me, learning the defensive end better. I can block shots just with my athleticism but actually learning positioning is different."

Perhaps the biggest struggle for Long is with switching defences and when to leave or stay with his man.

The NBL and NBA use a lot of pick and roll plays to create that sort of indecision.

"My dream is to get back to the NBA and I know I will have to guard the pick and roll at a high level because that's what the game is," Long said.

"I work on it everyday. I know I'm not perfect at it but it's all about my effort."

When Melbourne were recruiting Long, Vickerman directly challenged him about his defence and his answer surprised the coach.

"I said 'there is a deficiency in your on-ball defence, the numbers say it, so what's the best thing for us to do'?" Vickerman said.

"His answer was 'make me aggressive'.

"It's on him and it's on us as coaches to make sure stays on that aggressive mind-frame because when he's locked into something he's really good."

Melbourne's defence has improved in the process, trust is a big part of that progression.

Long is not only working on his mind, he’s improved his diet and his lifted his leadership too.

He didn't realise how much his teammates, even older ones, rise and fall on his emotional energy.

Last game he finished with a "busted eye and lip" but didn't argue about the missed calls. He just got on with the job.

"I was laughing, like 'damn we was in a bar fight' but we won so I was happy," Long said. "My teammates were feeling bad for me, like 'they messing you up'."

Long plays angry but he is also fuelled by the love from his teammates during the game and even in mid-week video sessions.

"Even when we watch film, there is a dunk and they are like 'ohhh'. It's cool. I love it," Long said with a smile.

"I love dunking but it's even better when you have the support of your teammates. It hypes them up."

Melbourne United play South East Melbourne Phoenix at Melbourne Arena on Saturday at 5.30pm.

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