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Pendergraph displays same qualities in return to desert

SLAM DUNK: Former ASU standout Jeff Pendergraph goes up for a dunk earlier in the season against the Detroit Pistons. Pendergraph was the 31st overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. (Photo Courtesy of NBA Photos/Getty Images)

If there was any doubt that the NBA life would change Jeff Pendergraph, it can be put to rest.

The former ASU basketball star, now a member of the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers is the same fun-loving guy off of the court and the fiery, passionate leader on the court.

Pendergraph showed that familiar attitude on Wednesday night at U.S. Airways Center in his first game back in Arizona since turning pro. He came off the bench to score five points and grab two rebounds in 11 minutes in the Trail Blazers’ 108-101 win over the Suns.

Pendergraph’s road to the NBA was a difficult one. He was selected with the first pick of the second round by the Sacramento Kings.

“When the whole first round went by and my name wasn’t called, I was mad,” Pendergraph said. “Then, the next pick, it was ‘[the] Sacramento Kings select Jeff Pendergraph,’ and everyone around me starting going nuts. Then I look up, and I’m on the screen. It was fun.”

But Pendergraph wasn’t a King for long, as Sacramento immediately dealt his rights to the Trail Blazers for fellow Pac-10 alumnus Jon Brockman (Washington).

“Three minutes later, on the screen it says, ‘Proposed trade between Sacramento and Portland,’” Pendergraph said. “It was nuts, but this has been a good fit.”

Knowing he had to earn his way onto the roster, Pendergraph went to play in the NBA Summer League. But while playing there, it was discovered that he had mechanical disorder in his hip that needed surgery.

“It was a good idea to get it done, because if I [hadn’t], it would have progressively gotten worse,” Pendergraph said. “So we decided, ‘Why not just get it done now?’ I thought it was a good idea, so I went through with it.”

The surgery caused him to miss the Trail Blazers’ first 27 games, which normally would have been a major blow to a second-round rookie.

But Portland guaranteed Pendergraph’s contract for the season and allowed him to work his way back.

“The surgery kind of messed things up for me, but it put things in perspective for me,” Pendergraph said. “It restructured how I approach things, and it makes you appreciate things and not take anything for granted. It amped up my work ethic a little bit.”

A setback to start a career is nothing new to Pendergraph.

Before his freshman season at ASU, he had to have a benign tumor removed from his leg that delayed the start of his collegiate career.

“It was like the same thing,” Pendergraph said. “I had been through it before. I had to just rehab and work hard at it, and then I [would] be back in no time doing what I used to do.”

One of the reasons the Trail Blazers traded for Pendergraph was because of the familiarity between him and coach Nate McMillan, who is the father of ASU junior guard Jamelle McMillan.

“I had seen him enough to know that fundamentally he was sound,” McMillan said. “Having the opportunity to work him out and do the interview and get to know him, we felt it was a good move.”

Like fellow rookie Dante Cunningham, McMillan didn’t expect Pendergraph to have to play much during his rookie season. But injuries decimated the Trail Blazers’ front line, and Pendergraph was called into action.

“He has done a good job,” McMillan said. “We drafted both of our young guys and didn’t know if they would be playing this year for us, but they have had to step in and play.”

Pendergraph has played in 26 games for Portland, including four starts, while averaging 2.7 points per game and 3.2 rebounds per game.

“He worked hard to come back from that injury, and he has given us some good play,” McMillan said. “We need him to defend, screen and rebound the ball, and he has done that.”

Pendergraph said he has brought the same approach to the game as he did during his entire career at ASU by working hard and bringing a rare intensity to the floor — something that was instilled in him by ASU coach Herb Sendek.

“It is the same thing, except I don’t have to score as many points,” Pendergraph said. “That was [Sendek’s] bread and butter — hustle plays [and playing] scrappy, like a sewer rat.”

Pendergraph said he still keeps tabs on ASU, with a lot of his former teammates still on the squad. When he attended ASU’s two games up in Oregon, Pendergraph was denied his normal role of firing up the team before the game.

He was OK with that, knowing that his influence is still in that locker room.

“I’m sure whatever they are doing, it has a little ‘JP’ in it,” Pendergraph said.

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