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In acknowledging his anxiety, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope displayed his humanity

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Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s early struggles are a reminder of the mental side of the NBA, and how there is so much fans don’t know about the athletes they root for

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NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

At the midpoint of the season, it’s hard to say the Lakers have done anything but exceed expectations. Their superstar pairing of Anthony Davis and LeBron James has seamlessly coalesced, numerous role players have stepped up when their numbers have been called, and even Dwight Howard has become a fan favorite and indispensable to what the Lakers are trying to accomplish.

The team is atop the Western Conference and has had four separate winning streaks of at least seven games. From the outside, it would appear as if there have only been good vibes all year long.

Of course, things are never that simple.

One player who has been a lightning rod for criticism this year, despite having arguably the best season of his career, has been Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. On an episode of Danny Green’s podcast “Inside the Green Room”, Caldwell-Pope admitted that he was at a real low point at the start of the season, despite the Lakers winning 17 of their first 19 games.

That’s because individually, the Lakers guard had a tough start. He shot 35.8% from the field over the first 11 games, including 5-of-22 on 3-pointers. After putting in tireless work over the summer — KCP’s trainer Chris Matthews (Lethal Shooter) confirmed on the podcast that Caldwell-Pope was in the gym the day after the regular season ended — it was especially disappointing not to see his effort lead to results.

“This year I gave it my all as far as summer workouts,” Caldwell-Pope said on the podcast. “For my season to start out how it did, that took a toll on me. It took me to a real low place. I [didn’t] know how to get out of it.”

Los Angeles Lakers vs Oklahoma City Thunder
The Lakers might have been winning, but Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s rough start to the season — and the rampant criticism it came with — made it tougher for him to enjoy it.
Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s rare to hear athletes acknowledge their vulnerability so openly, especially ones who generally aren’t that verbose to begin with. Caldwell-Pope is one of the quieter players on the Lakers, and holding on to that emotion could take a toll on anyone who is struggling.

We think of athletes as separate entities, invincible to the types of normal problems that affect us. But KCP was struggling at his job, a rabid fanbase that already saw him more as a Klutch Sports tax than a player had finally had enough, and the stress got to him. It was visible in the way he air-balled a floater against Dallas, or turned a layup against Golden State into a wedgie. Those aren’t everyday mistakes.

Caldwell-Pope acknowledged that playing in Los Angeles adds an extra level of strain, especially when things aren’t going well. Combine that with the initial expectations that were placed on him when he first arrived on the team — not just anyone is a “manna from heaven” — and it’s understandable that he could be overwhelmed by the pressure.

“I’m still not used to [LA],” Caldwell-Pope admitted. “It comes in waves, it comes in waves. There’s been times when I’ve been here (motions up), and there’s been times when they’ve put me here (motions down), so it’s been waves.”

When KCP was at his lowest, he didn’t have to make any basketball adjustments to get back to having success on the court. It was a matter of regaining his confidence, which can be even more challenging.

“I sat down and talked to a good friend of mine. I feel like he was just preaching to me about outside noise and what to do,” Caldwell-Pope said. “Just telling me you work hard for it, the work is going to show.

“He even took me back to like last year, I started off the same way. The same thing we did to get out of that, we did it again. This time it came full circle fast, I was in a slump for maybe the first 11 games and then after that I haven’t looked back.”

As Matthews put it, “Sometimes we do get the anxiety. The best shooters know how to control the anxiety.”

Over the last 30 games, Caldwell-Pope has been an entirely changed offensive player. His 35.8% field-goal percentage has spiked to 49.6%; more importantly, he is shooting 46.6% (54-of-116) on 3-pointers. He has proven to his trainer, to himself and to the league that he is in that elite class of shooters.

Caldwell-Pope credited a friend of his for helping him through a tough time, but he also got an assist from his teammate Dwight Howard, who defended KCP on Instagram after the team’s 11th game. Even though it was probably a matter of time before Caldwell-Pope figured his way out of his slump, it certainly didn’t hurt that he had the backing of Howard and other Lakers. Like Matthews said, it wasn’t a basketball issue — KCP had a crisis of belief.

Los Angeles Lakers v Brooklyn Nets - NBA China Games 2019
Dwight Howard and other Lakers teammates came to Caldwell-Pope’s aid while he was struggling, support that epitomizes the incredible chemistry of the team’s locker room this year.
Photo by Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

The Lakers obviously have a confident locker room; it’s filled with some of the best players in the world, and one of the best in the history of the game. That doesn’t mean that they don’t struggle or doubt themselves. Everyone does. DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love both spoke out about their mental health last season, and how it affects their play.

In a season that has been so rewarding watch from a wins and losses perspective, it’s simultaneously refreshing and heartening to see the Lakers admit to dealing with internal issues that people in all walks of life deal with. The pressure to perform at any job, but especially one so public, causes anxiety, and stress begets more stress. Learning how to break out of that loop is a very relatable experience.

No one wants to win more than the players themselves. When they miss shots or make mistakes, they feel it most profoundly. As fans, we add a lot of pressure for the athletes we root for. Sometimes it sustains them, and sometimes it crushes them.

“Fans are gonna have their opinion, they’re going to say what they want,” Caldwell-Pope said. “I couldn’t let it get to me, because once it does turn around, it’s gonna be the same people that are cheering me on.

“That was my mindset in trying to get back on the right track,” Caldwell-Pope continued. “Let them say what they want, you focus on getting back to where you need to be.”

Caldwell-Pope has managed to regain his spirit, and he has found a way to maintain his faith in himself, shut out the outside noise, and continue playing freely. KCP may not be the best Laker or the most popular, but he just might be the most human.

All quotes via “Inside the Green Room,” which you can find here. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts.