When Earl Boykins was little...on second thought, because wise guys will surely ask, "When wasn't Earl Boykins little?" let's rephrase that. When Earl Boykins was an infant, his father, Willie Williams, sometimes brought him along to pickup basketball games. On cold nights Williams, a Cleveland police officer, often stood talking to friends in the parking lot afterward. To keep little Earl warm, he'd bundle him up and tuck him inside his gym bag.
Boykins, the Golden State Warriors' dynamic backup point guard, hasn't grown that much since—at 5'5", 133 pounds, he's the smallest player in the league—but he's far more difficult to contain. Four weeks into the season the Warriors were languishing at 4-10 and were desperate for depth at the point. They signed the 26-year-old journeyman, who had been with four teams plus the CBA in four seasons. Since then Boykins, SI's midseason pick for the NBA's best sixth man, has been darting and dashing through the NBA, flummoxing taller opponents. It's no mere coincidence that Golden State is suddenly competitive. Through Sunday the Warriors were 16-16 since Boykins added a double shot of espresso to their offense. While Yao Ming has been the biggest story in the league this season, Boykins has been the biggest—and smallest—surprise.
"We were looking for someone to come in for 12, 15 minutes a game and hold down the fort at point guard," says general manager Garry St. Jean. "What we got is a guy who does much more than that, who not only gives us a lift in the second quarter but also makes big plays in the fourth. He's given us a jump start."
Boykins has done the same to his career. "Everywhere I've been in this league, I've eventually been the odd man out," says Boykins, who wasn't drafted despite averaging 25.7 points as a senior at Eastern Michigan. At each stop in the NBA—with the New Jersey Nets, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Orlando Magic, the Cavs again and then the Los Angeles Clippers—someone was always in front of him on the depth chart. Last off-season, after two years as a backup in L.A., he saw the writing on the wall when the Clippers traded for Utah's Andre Miller and signed Yugoslav star Marko Jaric. Los Angeles invited Boykins to training camp in October, but he declined. "I'd done the third-point-guard thing for four years, and my career wasn't going anywhere," he says. "I wanted to contribute and play meaningful minutes. So I decided to sit out and wait until some team really needed me and I could play right away."
That team turned out to be the Warriors, who had tried a succession of players behind starter Gilbert Arenas. In Boykins's second game he had 20 points and seven steals in 24 minutes to help the Warriors wipe out a 21-point deficit and win at Denver. "He's a guy we just picked up off waivers," Warriors coach Eric Musselman told reporters. "We're not getting carried away."
But Boykins has become a fourth-quarter marvel, with clutch shots down the stretch in victories over the Washington Wizards, Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timber-wolves, scorching the last for 20 points in the final period of a 107-98 win on Jan. 17. Boykins is an exceptionally good improviser, creative and quick enough to slip into the lane and strong enough—he bench-presses 300 pounds—to finish. He's also unafraid to pull up for jumpers against taller defenders. "He knows exactly how much space he needs to get his shot off," says St. Jean. "The instant he gets a defender back on his heels, he's up for the shot."
Boykins's quick release can make even athletic defenders look awkward. In the final minute of a game against Washington, he heard Wizards coach Doug Collins tell 6'5" Larry Hughes to back off a step to keep Boykins from penetrating. When Hughes did so, Boykins dropped in an 11-foot jumper before Hughes had time to put a hand up, sealing a 104-99 win. Boykins has also developed a remarkable repertoire of shots on the move, which makes him dangerous when the 24-second clock is running down. Against the New Orleans Hornets in December, he drove the baseline and flipped in a 12-footer over a flat-footed Baron Davis to beat the shot clock.
There may be subs with more impressive stats than Boykins, who was averaging 10.5 points and 4.0 assists in 21.8 minutes, but few have been as important at crunch time. Much of the credit for that goes to Musselman, who has given Boykins a freedom he never had at previous stops. Other coaches wanted him to be purely a distributor, overlooking his fine shooting form and three-point range (42.5% from beyond the arc for Golden State) and telling him to shoot only as a last resort. "At first you think he can't keep this up, but then he keeps hitting shots that close out games," says Musselman. "After a while you're telling him, 'Do whatever you want—just keep the ball in your hands.' "
Boykins's fourth-quarter playing time has come at the expense of Arenas and the other starting guard, Jason Richardson, raising concerns about team chemistry. They both missed a recent practice without properly informing the team, which was interpreted by some observers as a protest. Although the matter was quickly smoothed over, minutes will continue to be a delicate matter for Musselman. Even as he praises Boykins, the coach stresses that the Warriors want Arenas, who's expected to be a restricted free agent after this season, to be their long-term answer at the point.
But Boykins seems to have found a home as a supersub. The Warriors are a perfect fit for him, and not just because they run the kind of free-flowing passing game that suits his talents. St. Jean coached 5'7" Spud Webb in Sacramento and had 5'3" Muggsy Bogues with the Warriors, and Musselman, who was a Magic assistant when Boykins passed through Orlando, is particularly familiar with Boykins's game. In fact, the 5'6" Musselman literally sees eye to eye with him. "I never have to worry about the team having practice uniforms to fit me," Boykins says. "I can just wear Coach's gear."