As the NCAA tournament draws near, The Farm Club focuses “What the Hell Happened To…?“, to the legends of tournaments past, specifically those whose NBA careers were not reflective of their college glory.
Our first examination is that of the 2002 NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, Juan Dixon.
Dixon’s legend began with a very dark preface. Growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, his parents were both addicted to heroin. Within the span of a year-and-a-half he lost his mother and father to AIDS-related illness.
The support system provided by his family allowed for Juan to not dwell on his past and pursue a successful future.
Most notable was his older brother Phil who played Division III basketball at Shenandoah College, and graduated with a degree in mass communications. He inspired Juan to seek a better life for himself.
“Sometimes, we’d just go out and shoot the ball and talk about accomplishing my dreams of going to college, like my parents always wanted. My brother went on and got his degree, and I would think about being a good role model to my little brother and sister.” (The Baltimore Sun)
After the deaths of his parents, Juan and his siblings moved in with his grandparents who raised him during his playing days at Calvert Hall College High School in Towson, Maryland.
At Calvert Hall Dixon was coached by Mark Amatucci, who grew very fond of him. Not only was Juan a 6-foot-3 scoring machine, but a resilient boy who did not let his past affect him on the court. Still the issues that would later haunt Dixon, his size and maturity, were apparent to Amatucci.
“I get attached to the kids I coach, but this one’s kind of special,” said Amatucci, who has at times questioned Dixon’s physical strength for the next level — even his focus for games — but never his character. “Anyone who gets to know Juan Dixon has to respect what he’s been through and the decisions he’s managed to make, in spite of those experiences.”
The name of the game for Juan was the three-point shot, at Calvert he was a 50% 3pt shooter. This grew the attention of University of Maryland head coach Gary Williams. Who believed he could mold him into all-around great basketball player.
“He’s a pure shooter,” observes Maryland’s Gary Williams, whom Dixon expects to be his coach next season. “But to me, Juan is more than that. I don’t want him to come in here known as a three-point shooter but as a guy who can do a lot more.”
In fact Williams knew Dixon could do more, after all his first experience with Dixon was watching him play hard-nosed, and team-oriented basketball in summer tournaments where selfish basketball usually shined.
That “throwback style” mixed with his natural talent, made Gary Williams instantly attached to the guard.
“A guy has to have a certain talent level, but once they have that, a big part of it is liking the way a guy plays. Juan Dixon, I knew it would be fun coaching him” (Good Enough to Be Great)
In 1998 the Terrapins signed the Dixon, keeping him in the state where he had lived his entire life to that point. At Maryland he was full of life, but also immature, and as is the case with many 19-year-old’s, not focused.
As Josh Barr’s “Good Enough to Be Great” recalls, Williams recognized this, making sure his staff kept a close eye on Juan especially before road trips.
“Assign one of the managers to make sure Juan-Don isn’t late”
Dixon’s freshman year was nothing spectacular, this was due in part to the arrival of Junior College transfer, and future NBA star, Steve Francis.
As Francis’ back-up Dixon played in 34 games and averaged 7.4 points per game.
With Francis heading to the NBA, the 1999-00 season is when Dixon really began to flourish under Williams. In his sophomore year he averaged 18.o ppg, and named to the All-ACC team.
His first spell with championship level college basketball came in 2000-01 season where the Terrapins made it all the way to the Final Four, their first appearance in school history. The Terrapins were eliminated by none other than Duke, who would later go on to win the tournament against Arizona.
The 2001-02 season however belonged to Juan Dixon and the Maryland Terrapins.
Juan increased his average to 20.4 ppg, and brought his career total to 2269 points, which broke the late Len Bias’ record for most career points scored in Terrapin history. Other records of Dixon’s include all-time three-pointers made, and attempted.
As for the team, they boasted a 32-4 record with six of those wins coming from the NCAA Tournament. Win number 32 came against Indiana University in the National Championship game. It would be the game that cemented Dixon’s legacy at Maryland, the guard put up 18 points, and shot 6-for-9 that night in Atlanta.
Juan’s three-point shot, which was his staple at Calvert, and at Maryland, is what put the nail in Indiana’s coffin. Dixon hit a three pointer with 9:43 remaining in the game, and from there the Terrapins never looked back, winning their first and only men’s basketball championship in School History.
To no one’s surprise Juan was named the Most Outstanding Player (MOP) of the tournament. The MOP award was one of many accolades that season, which included: NCAA consensus First Team All-American, All-ACC team (3x), ACC Men’s Player of the year, and ACC Athlete of the year.
This all from a player who some considered too small to play at a high level in Division I. Looking back to Williams’ recruitment of Dixon, he knew the 6-foot-3 guard had it in him all along.
“He could always get the ball in the basket. That was never a problem. The obvious problem was whether he was big enough. But (I) coached Michael Adams and Jay Burson (at Ohio State), and (Allen) Iverson is a second guard. So why can’t Juan be big enough?” (Good Enough to Be Great)
Having no more years of eligibility, and accomplishing basically everything one could at Maryland, it was time for Juan to enter to the NBA draft. Coming into the 2002 NBA Draft, Juan Dixon was by no means a top-prospect. His size as it always had been was the most glaring issue. However with the 17th pick, the Washington Wizards selected the 6-foot-3, 165 lb shooting guard.
Dixon was one of Washington’s two first round picks, the first being 11th pick Jared Jeffries, a power forward from Indiana University. Critics loved the pick of Jeffries, but were quick to slam Washington for their pick of the guard.
“Juan Dixon is a real stretch at No. 17. They wanted Jiri Welsch and may have panicked a bit. He isn’t the answer to their point-guard woes. Rod Grizzard was a steal in the second round and Juan Navarro has some upside down the road. All in all, an inconsistent draft.” (Chad Ford)
“Juan Dixon has heart, but his lack of size might keep him from making it.” (Marty Burns)
Who could blame the critics though? At 6-foot-3, on any given night he would be guarding, and guarded by, a player at least 3 inches taller than him. Add that to his lack of skill at the point guard position, and it made for a less than appetizing prospect.
However Juan was no stranger to adversity, having grown up the way he did, being told he was too small, and losing in the Final Four only to return and win it all the next year. If there was anyone who could defy the critics it was Dixon.
At 24-years-old, Juan began his rookie campaign with the Wizards. The transition from the NCAA three-point line to the NBA line is often a struggle for rookies, especially before the line change in 2009. Dixon was no exception, his average during his senior year at Maryland was 39.7%. His percentage during his rookie year in Washington, 29.8%.
Granted, he only appeared in 42 games that season due to injury, that dismal percentage did not increase in his next season with the Wizards, in which he played in 71 of 82 games. The Wizards were a sub-.500 team during Juan’s first two seasons, both of which had Dixon as primarily a bench player. He only started in 19 of the 113 games those two years.
Juan’s first spell with Washington ended in 04-05, in which he only started in 4 games. From there Juan became a free agent and was signed to the Portland Trailblazers.
This began the journeyman portion of his career. Which was not a common theme for the man who spent his entire life in Maryland prior to joining the NBA.
The Blazers were awful, but he was reunited with Steve Blake, who was his right hand man at point guard during the glory days at Maryland. There his numbers drastically improved, 38.2% from three and 41% from the field. He also started in 42 of the Blazers’ games.
Entering his 5th year in the NBA it was clear though that Juan was not in the Blazers’ future. Portland traded him half way through the 06-07 season to Toronto for Fred Jones. The trade was essentially one of back-up guards, as one paper described it.
Within the next 4 seasons Dixon would find himself in Toronto, Detroit, back in Washington (signed for veteran’s minimum), and finally Atlanta in 2009 where he was released before the start of the regular season.
Juan Dixon, became a victim of the prophecy set by the critics. The under sized guard would only average 8.4 points and 19.5 minutes per game. A far cry from the prolific scorer who broke records at Maryland.
At 30-years-old and no NBA teams knocking on his door, Juan Dixon headed to Europe. He began 2009-10 in Greece, but it was his transfer to the Spanish squad Unicaja Malaga which found him in the headlines, this time for all the wrong reasons.
His time with Malaga started off great, Dixon averaged double-digits with the squad and had an apartment with a view of the Mediterranean Sea. This soon came to a screeching halt.
Before his departure from Greece, Dixon was given a drug test. The test results came back positive for the steroid nandrolone. FIBA, the ruling commission of basketball in Europe, suspended him for a year. Juan returned to his home state of Maryland, dumbfounded by the positive test.
“The only possible answer his (Dixon’s) mind could fathom was that one of the vitamins or over-the-counter muscle supplements he was taking contained an ingredient that showed up on the test.” (Westminster Patch)
With no option of playing in Europe, he attempted to enter in the NBDL. He made himself eligible for the NBDL draft in 2010. The media around Dixon, were quick to interpret his decision.
“Local favorite Dixon, who will celebrate his 32nd birthday next Saturday, may not have much of a playing future in the Association. However, if his experience in the D-League pays off, the ex-Washington Wizard could get back in shape, shop around, and if all else fails pursue a career as an assistant coach.” (Examiner)
The same reporter also noted that Dixon’s pride may have been the fuel for his unlikely return to the NBA
“For Dixon, the D-League may be a wading pool, but after allegations of steroid use in Spain sent the veteran guard back home, Dixon may feel as if the D-League is his last chance to repair an otherwise forgettable NBA legacy.” (Examiner)
NBDL Draft Day 2010 came and went without him being selected to a team. This did not keep Juan out of professional basketball as he headed back to Europe after the suspension was lifted in 2011. Dixon signed with a Turkish club, which turned out to be a “nightmare” as he recalled it.
He lived in Turkey with his girlfriend Chris Sanchez, but even with her support it was clear that Turkey was not the place for the former MOP.
“This is not where I’m supposed to be in my career,” Dixon told Sanchez as tears streamed down his face. “This is not where I belong.” (Westminster Patch)
During his tenure in Turkey, he sustained another injury, which was a common theme in his post-NCAA career. Lost in translation, and injured, Dixon returned to Maryland yet again.
Enter 2012, and Juan Dixon according to reports is training every weekday at Comcast Arena, the new home of Terrapin Basketball, which opened the year after the 2002 championship.
The year 2012 also marked ten years since Juan Dixon led Maryland to the National Championship. He was inducted to the Maryland Hall of Fame in October of 2012. That induction gave Juan Dixon a moment of self-reflection. He found that he had changed drastically from the immature boy who Williams recruited years ago.
“A lot has happened,” he said. “Everybody wants to know what Juan Dixon is doing. Juan Dixon is learning how to become a man.” (The Diamondback)
One thing hasn’t changed though, his resilience which was clear to Amatucci and Williams years ago. Which he hopes at age 34, will earn him a return to the NBA.
“I have a lot of hard work to do,” Dixon said. “Basketball’s my passion, and I believe I have a lot of basketball left in me. It’s a matter of getting out there and performing when I get the opportunity.”
With Europe seemingly out of the question, the next logical choice would be the NBDL, the league that did not draft him in 2010. Recently a few former NBA players have used the developmental league to revamp their careers, Dallas guard Mike James being prime example. To this point however Juan Dixon has yet to sign with any NBDL squad.
Now the question arises, what keeps Juan Dixon chasing the NBA dream? Is it that dogged determination that he highlighted to Gary Williams those summers long ago?
Or maybe it was the same immaturity that Gary Williams witnessed from “Juan-Don” that’s preventing him from the realization that he will never play in the NBA again.
Read more of our “What the Hell Happened to…?” series.