Steve Clifford, Cody Zeller, Al Jefferson

The Al Jefferson Effect: Now that the Bobcats are playoff-bound, how they want their big man to help next

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BOSTON – Al Jefferson, then a rookie with the Celtics, arrived to work the day after the 2005 regular season ended. Immediately, he realized the vibe had changed as Boston prepared for its first-round playoff series.

“It was a different film session. It was a different practice. Everything was just different,” Jefferson said. “I was like, ‘What have I got myself into?’”

Two days later, he found out. Jefferson shot 3-for-3 in Game 1 against the Pacers, but he also learned a valuable lesson about postseason basketball.

“If you make a mistake, it was going to come back to get you,” Jefferson said.

Jefferson hasn’t won a playoff game since that series, getting swept with the Jazz in 2012. He spent the rest of his formative NBA years playing for some truly lousy teams.

It’s an experience the Charlotte Bobcats, Jefferson’s current team, don’t want for their developing players. After all, that’s why they signed Jefferson last summer – to ensure their young players get more-meaningful minutes rather than just more minutes.

At the time, the plan was viewed by many, myself included, as foolish. I believed Jefferson wasn’t good enough to lift Charlotte into the playoffs, but boy, was I wrong. Now that the Jefferson-led Bobcats are in the postseason (facing the Heat in the first round), the question becomes: Will his addition, and the winning it produced, help Charlotte’s young players?

“If you want to get into player development, you could argue all day,” Bobcats coach Steve Clifford said. “I think that one of the best things for young players is that they play in a role that they can play well in.”

For Clifford, the rationale is twofold.

1. Players learn best when they’re not overextended. “I’m a big believer that they should get what they’re ready for,” he said. “That teaches them how they have to play.” On bad teams, though, at least some players must take roles larger than they’re qualified for. If everyone could fill a role they were ready for, it’d be a good team.

2. Players getting appropriate roles prevent issues down the road. When teams with bad players add good players, either the current/bad players must accept lesser roles or the new/good players must. Either way, that’s problematic. The current/bad players often don’t want to relinquish responsibility they believe they’ve come to deserve, and new/good players shouldn’t take a backseat despite merit.

And that’s where Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bismack Biyombo and Kemba Walker come in.

Zeller (21 years old, drafted No. 4 in 2013), Kidd-Gilchrist (20 years old, drafted No. 2 in 2012), Biyombo (21 years old, drafted No. 7 in 2011) and Walker (23 years old, drafted No. 9 in 2011) are not only the Bobcats’ youngest players, but they’re also the team’shighest-drafted players.

These four, based on how Jefferson affects them, will dictate Charlotte’s future.

Kemba Walker

Walker, who leads the team with 35.8 minutes per game, is the only one with a huge role already. He’s also the most-advanced and nearest his peak. Walker’s role is not over his head by any means.

The third-year point guard will likely still grow, but it’s difficult to see areas on his game primed for major positive overhaul. Walker entered the NBA relatively polished after three years at UConn, and his between-season growth has shrunk rapidly.  At this point, it’s about fine-tuning – setting up more easy shots for his teammates while still avoiding turnovers, stealing more balls while still playing sound positional defense.

If he tops out as a quality starting point guard, a tier he might have already reached, that would be a praiseworthy accomplishment. But at just 23, Walker probably has not quite plateaued

Bismack Biyombo

Biyombo, who’s especially raw given his lack of high-level basketball experience prior to entering the NBA, is much harder to gauge.

Among the 109 players who defend at least four shots at the rim per game, nobody – not even Roy Hibbert – holds opponents to a lower field-goal percentage on those shots than Biyombo (39.1). Here are the top 25:

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Biyombo is also finishing around the rim at a solid rate, a worrying spot last season.

When he plays, I see breakout potential, but it’s concerning his role has trended the wrong direction – all the way to the back of Clifford’s rotation. Eventually, Biyombo must parlay his inspiring flashes into his coach’s trust.

Also concerning, Biyombo and Jefferson don’t complement each other. As long as Jefferson keeps producing at All-NBA third team levels, Biyombo will have to prove himself in limited minutes. If he does, maybe he’d help the Bobcats most as a trade piece.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

When Charlotte drafted Kidd-Gilchrist, I called him the perfect pick because he’s particularly well-suited to bring out the best in other good players. At the time, Charlotte lacked those, meaning Kidd-Gilchrist wouldn’t prevent the Bobcats from getting a much-needed high pick the next year.

Considering the Bobcats had the NBA’s second-worst record last season, that part of the plan worked.

Kidd-Gilchrist’s defensive development has similarly followed the desired progression. He’s both versatile and effective in the many responsibilities he takes.

Just look at the Bobcats’ roster and defensive ranking (sixth). Clifford has done a marvelous job, but Kidd-Gilchrist is the defensive centerpiece the coach has relied upon.

The success just hasn’t extended to the other end of the floor.

Kidd-Gilchrist’s shooting stroke has always been problematic, but now he’s just stopped trying. The only players who play as often as Kidd-Gilchrist and shoot less frequently outside the restricted areas are centers.

biyombo shot chart

As a result, Kidd-Gilchrist sits during crunch time, freeing the Bobcats’ ball movement. When opponents are forced to guard all five players on the floor – something they often don’t do when Kidd-Gilchrist plays – Charlotte has shown a proclivity for making the extra pass(es).

For Kidd-Gilchrist, who plays just 24.2 minutes per game, there’s no question his evolution requires better shooting. He needn’t be a great jump shooter, but if he can even join the lowest end of his fellow small forwards, that would allow him more playing time – meaning more minutes Charlotte gets its best defender on the floor.

In the meantime, as the Bobcats designed, Kidd-Gilchrist will get valuable growing experience in the playoffs. He’ll become the first top-two pick to make the playoffs within two years of being drafted since Derrick Rose, who was picked No. 1 in 2008.

Cody Zeller

Like Kidd-Gilchrist, Zeller is getting an uncommon learning opportunity. Not many top-four picks reach the playoffs as rookies. (Washington’s No. 3 pick Otto Porter, in a much lesser role, will also do it this year.)

Even before the postseason, Zeller showed how a young player can develop as games become more meaningful.

Zeller admitted, because he had no reference point, he didn’t realize before the year the Bobcats would make the playoffs. But as that goal became more and more evidently attainable, Zeller has steadily improved, especially as a shooter.

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As he’s established himself as a reliable shot-maker, the Bobcats can use him without their offense crumbling

  • Before All-Star break: 38 percent shooting by Zeller, 95.5 points per 100 possessions by Charlotte
  • After All-Star break: 50 percent shooting, 104.3 points per 100 possessions by Charlotte

Clifford said he’s seen Zeller’s defense improve too, but the rookie’s progress on that end is not as evident. Zeller is still prone to getting caught flat-footed and not providing enough physical resistance. There’s unquestionably significant room to grow.

All in all, Zeller doesn’t mind his limited role – for now.

“You always want to make a bigger impact,” Zeller said. “But as a rookie, playing 18 to 20 minutes on a playoff team is a good role for me. I’m going to play the 18 to 20 minutes to the best of my ability, and if more comes, then more comes. But I’m not too worried about it.”

Zeller knows he’s still learning, and he lists Jefferson first among the veterans who’ve helped him.

Jefferson is seizing that leadership opportunity – imparting wisdom to Walker, Biyombo, Kidd-Gilchrist and Zeller as the Bobcats prepare to enter the postseason.

“I hope to show them that, if we believe in ourselves and play together and work together and commit coach’s system, this could the first of many playoff appearances,” Jefferson said, pausing slightly, then adding five words that will determine just how well Charlotte’s experiment will go. “And advancing in the playoffs.”

Ben Simmons rolls ankle in practice, likely out for preseason opener next Tuesday

Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons poses for a photographer during media day at the NBA basketball team's practice facility, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Camden, N.J. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
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If you’ve been impatiently waiting to see No. 1 pick Ben Simmons in a Philadelphia 76ers uniform, you likely will have to wait a little longer.

Simmons rolled his ankle at practice Friday, reports Jessica Camerato of CSNPhilly.com. While not considered serious, the Sixers took Simmons in to have an MRI and get a better look at what happened. They also may rest him next week when the Sixers first take the court, reports Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Cautious is the right move by the Sixers here. Ankles, once sprained and the ligaments are stretched out, are easy to re-injure if not fully healed. The last thing the Sixers want is for this to be a running issue Simmons’ rookie season.

Sorry fans, but maybe you at least get to see Joel Embiid.

Watch the 50 best long-distance shots of last season (video)

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There’s something majestic about the ball floating through the air on a long shot headed toward the rim, especially when it splashes through the net.

Enjoy the top 50 of those baskets from last season.

Kevin Durant doesn’t like Durantula nickname either

Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant (35) poses with an emoji cutout during NBA basketball media day Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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Kevin Durant is long and thin, a combination that has inspired two great nicknames: “Durantula” and “Slim Reaper.”

Durant has already disavowed “Slim Reaper.”

Now, he’s professing his dislike for “Durantula.”

Henry Wofford of CSN Bay Area:

https://twitter.com/HenryWoffordCSN/status/780502572264075264

I see Durant is embracing his role as villain. This is a terrible opinion.

That leaves just loathsomely boring “KD” as a nickname, which is unjustifiable with such better options on the table. Durant might just have to buck up and accept “Durantula” and “Slim Reaper.” At least neither rolls off the tongue easily enough for people to address him that way in person.

Joakim Noah skips Knicks dinner with West Point cadets due to anti-war stance

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 12:  Professional Basketball Player Joakim Noah (C) attends the DKNY Women fashion show during New York Fashion Week: The Shows September 2016 at High Line on September 12, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for New York Fashion Week)
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for New York Fashion Week
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The Knicks have held training camp at West Point the last few years, and last night, the team dined with Army cadets:

But Joakim Noah didn’t participate.

Noah, via Marc Berman of the New York Post:

“It’s hard for me a little bit – I have a lot of respect for the kids here fighting — but it’s hard for me to understand why we go to war and why kids have to kill kids all around the world,’’ Noah said. “I have mixed feeling about being here. I’m very proud of this country. I love America. I don’t understand kids killing kids around the world.’’

Noah received permission from Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek to skip the team function. He was the only member of the team not in attendance. Noah said his decision to skip the dinner and speech was not intended as a form of protest.

“It’s not my way of saying anything – I was not comfortable,’’ Noah said.

Noah has dual citizenship in the United States and France, the home of his father, Yannick Noah, the former tennis star. Noah admitted he’s “not very patriotic,’’ believing people should respect people more than “flags.’’

Noah’s view will be unpopular, but he has every right to hold it. There’s a growing current of people asking for more athlete activism, but people better realize: You might not always like the stance players take. For those who claim to value politically minded players, this is part of what you get.

Personally, I disagree with Noah. The Revolutionary War helped him secure the right to speak out on this. World War II kept his beloved France from being run by a tyrannical Nazi regime. Just because some wars are unjust doesn’t make all wars unjust. I also believe in honoring American soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect our freedoms.

But I also respect Noah’s right to seek a comfortable situation for himself. Some people can be anti-war and easily separate the soldiers as individuals. For others, apparently including Noah, all war machinery is intertwined.

Keep in mind, Noah didn’t actively disparage any soldiers. He’s not seeking supporters for a cause. He just chose not participate in an event he never asked to be apart of.