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Buffalo sports' greatest what-ifs: What if Jonny Flynn's NBA career didn't get derailed

That’s not how it was supposed to go.

When Jonny Flynn was drafted sixth overall in the 2009 NBA draft, no one envisioned a scenario where his career would last a total of 163 games, getting derailed just as it was getting started by a torn hip labrum that required surgery and ultimately robbed him of the athletic gifts that enabled him to reach the best league in the world.

The joy and excitement he provided to folks for years on courts in his hometown of Niagara Falls, across Western New York and in Syracuse were supposed to be experienced by those watching him play for the Minnesota Timberwolves. He was supposed to have a lengthy career in the Association like Bob Lanier, Christian Laettner and Clifford Robinson – just a few of the 716’s finest basketball talents who made it to the big time.

But life is not always fair – even for lottery picks. Especially in the NBA where it's first and foremost a business, where misses are magnified and sometimes patience is lacking for those waiting for young, unproven players to recover from injuries.

And thus, we have Jonny Flynn’s "what=if" tale.

What if Flynn didn’t suffer a hip injury similar to the one that derailed Bo Jackson’s career as a two-sport professional athlete? What if he remained healthy after a solid debut season that resulted in him earning All-NBA Rookie Second Team honors and averaging double figures in points while playing for a terrible 15-win team?

It’s a "what-if" that bears quick examination because it’s not often a Western New Yorker gets drafted by an NBA team let alone as a lottery pick.

“It was a shame that that happened because everybody thought he had such a high ceiling,” said Niagara County Community College women’s basketball coach Nate Beutel, who covered Flynn during his scholastic career at Niagara Falls High for the Niagara Gazette. “The trajectory of his career was heading up.”

Flynn played three seasons with Minnesota, Houston and Portland. He also played overseas in Australia (earning All-Star honors), China and Italy. He tried to show folks he wasn’t damaged goods, as a reserve that hardly played during the 2013 NBA Summer League season. He parted ways with Orlandina of the Italian League after two games due to injury on Nov. 24, 2014.

According to Sal Constantino, former Niagara Falls High School boys basketball coach, Flynn now lives in Florida – although he hasn’t had much recent contact with the talented athlete who was part of the Wolverines’ 2004-05 Federation Tournament championship team.

“I remember when he got hurt, you almost didn’t see him as much,” Beutel said. “You didn’t hear from him as much. He almost went quiet. I almost wonder out loud how did that affect him mentally. He was such a bright, vibrant figure in the basketball community. To have it derailed by injury kind of stunk.”

The pro career began with promise after he left Syracuse following a sophomore campaign in which he earned Big East Tournament MVP honors.

Flynn started 81 games as a rookie before sitting out the finale with the ailing hip that changed his career forever. He appeared in just 53 more games with the Timberwolves, who seemed to rush him back from surgery for the injury instead of waiting for him to become fully recovered. The Timberwolves traded Flynn to Houston during a 2011-draft-day deal.

History shows Flynn did not have a NBA career on par with Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan, Ty Lawson or Brandon Jennings – players selected after him during that 2009 draft in which the Timberwolves stunned many by drafting four point guards – including Ricky Rubio and Flynn with back-to-back picks lottery picks at No. 5 and 6 overall.

Flynn started each of his team’s games as a rookie while running an offense he was learning on the fly (the triangle). He averaged 13.5 points and 4.4 assists per game. His rookie numbers were better than Lawson’s, who was drafted by Minnesota and traded to Denver; and DeRozan, a future all-star and Olympian. He averaged more points and assists than the No. 3 overall pick that season, future all-star and league MVP James Harden.

That’s not to suggest he would have continued having better seasons than those players, as Flynn still had room for improvement – especially on defense, according to those who closely follow the NBA. Also, Harden and Lawson came off the bench more than they started their first years.

But Flynn could have been a solid pro, longtime Toronto Raptors game analyst and former Niagara coach Jack Armstrong said.

“So much in pro sports comes down to what coach you play for, style of play and role and fit,” Armstrong said. “To me based on where he was in his pro career if he had stayed healthy, he could’ve been a guy who helped a team’s second unit (coming off the bench), provided energy. A lot of it comes down to getting in the right system.”

Armstrong believes Flynn would have figured out the NBA game if not for the injury.

“I think he was a bright guy and dedicated guy,” Armstrong said. “I feel if he had stayed healthy, that transition, that growth that a lot of times young players go through in the league I think he would’ve figured it out. … He still had challenges getting adjusted to the pro league. Based on his intelligence, toughness and dedication, I think he would’ve figured it out.”

He’s not alone.

“That explosiveness. That was a huge part of his game,” Beutel said. “That was the part that stuck out and made him a lottery pick. … When you have such a debilitating injury like that that’s crushing for a guy who relies on those quick bursts.”

The hip injury compromised Flynn’s ability to get into the lane, create and slash his way to the basket.

“I feel more that injury set him back and cost him precious years as a pro,” Armstrong said. “He’d be a guy who’s difficult to guard and on the other side put pressure on the ball and set tempo for the team. When one of the major strengths of the game is taken away like that it really compromises your ability to be the player you once were.”

Constantino remembers the Flynn who always had a smile on his face, who loved being on the court competing. Enjoying the game just for the love of the game. The Flynn who came back to help tutor 2019 All-Western New York pick and ex-Wolverines star Willie Lightfoot.

“Did they bring him back too soon? Yeah, that’s my personal opinion,” Constantino said. “At the end of the day I’m sure he wanted it to go a different way, but at the end of the day he’ll be fine. He’s the same Jonny.”

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