Amityville's Price has new lease

A.J. Price, a former Amityville H.S. standout, is

A.J. Price, a former Amityville H.S. standout, is playing well as a backup guard for the Indiana Pacers. (Feb. 4, 2011) (Credit: AP)

INDIANAPOLIS -- A.J. Price knew he made a mistake as soon as he hit the ground.

While playing in a charity basketball game in New York last May, the Indiana Pacers guard and Long Island native thought he had an opportunity for a fancy layup.

Price got out on a fast break and attempted to step past a defender. But when another player hit him from the side, Price went down in pain. The result was a fractured left patella, an injury that brought with it a recovery period of four to six months.

Price admits he shouldn't even have been playing in the game. It wasn't fair to the Pacers, and it wasn't fair to his family.

Price, a second-round pick in 2009 (52nd overall), suddenly faced the possibility of being cut and left with nothing.

"Doubt immediately set in my mind," said Price, whose contract would have been non-guaranteed if he had been waived before Aug. 1. "It was so devastating when it first happened. For the first day or two after it happened, I was really upset."

Price had been here before.

The former Amityville High School and University of Connecticut star missed his first year of college basketball when doctors found an abnormal blood vessel in his brain that caused massive bleeding. Had Price waited a day or two longer before going to the hospital, doctors said he might have died.

Given that he already had overcome such a huge obstacle -- Price had to relearn how to walk after the surgery -- he was confident he could come back from the knee injury.

"My family told me, 'Look at what you've bounced back from before,' " Price said. "They told me everything happens for a reason.

"I wasn't afraid of getting cut, and I don't mean that in a cocky way at all. I don't think you can be here and be afraid of being cut because this league is so demanding."

But even when Price, 24, finally was healthy, he couldn't find his way onto the court. The 6-2, 181-pound point guard didn't fit into Pacers coach Jim O'Brien's system. He played in only three of the first 21 games this season.

But when Frank Vogel took over for O'Brien on Jan. 30, Price's role changed. Vogel went with a longer rotation and Price joined the second unit -- the self-titled Goon Squad for the way its members do the dirty work -- and began to get consistent minutes.

"He's developed a lot since he got here, and I think that has a lot to do with his mental toughness," said Pacers forward Josh McRoberts, also a former second-round pick. "If anybody was going to make it through all this, my money would be on him. He's a tough guy, and he brings that toughness with him on the floor."

Even though Price said his knee still is only about 90 percent healthy, he has flourished in his expanded role. He has scored in double figures five times this season, three since the coaching change, including an 18-point outburst against the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 27. Price hit four of his six three-point attempts in that game and had five rebounds in 25 minutes.

Vogel went with Price instead of starter Darren Collison for the final 20 minutes against the Suns.

"A.J. is good enough to be a starter in this league," Vogel told reporters after the game. "He gave us a lift and I'll always stay with a guy who's red-hot."

Price said he doesn't feel as though he needs to be a starter, but he's working to become one. Part of that includes watching Knicks guard Chauncey Billups, a player after whom Price has always tried to model his game.

If Billups can return from his thigh bruise after missing six straight games, Price likely will go head-to-head with him when the Pacers play the Knicks Sunday night at Madison Square Garden. It figures to be a unique experience for a kid who grew up cheering for "all things New York."

"I loved the Allan Houston, Larry Johnson teams," said Price, who is averaging 6.6 points in 34 games this season after averaging 7.3 points in 56 games as a rookie last season. "They were so undermanned, undersized, not supposed to be there. They were underdogs, but they always found a way to get it done."

Like Price.

"Just being in this league itself is a blessing to me," he said. "That already made me feel like everything I went through was worth it. I've come full circle for a reason.

"To go home now and get a win at the Garden, that would just be extra special."

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