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.”

Utah’s Donovan Mitchell wins throwback Dunk Contest with Vince Carter tribute

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LOS ANGELES — The 2018 Dunk Contest went retro.

And it worked.

The throwbacks started with Cleveland’s Larry Nance Jr. going quick-change to pay tribute to his father, the 1984 winner of the Dunk Contest.

Nance later had the best dunk of the night, but it wasn’t enough in the face of Utah’s Donovan Mitchell‘s strong and consistent night highlight by his throwback dunk — donning a Vince Carter Toronto dinosaur jersey and doing VC’s famed 360 dunk — which got Mitchell the 48 points he needed to hold-off Nance and win the contest. It was over.

“Growing up I was a big dunker,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t really much of a basketball player. I just dunked and played defense, and I watched a lot of Vince’s videos. I’ve been seeing what he’s been doing all year at his age, which is incredible.

“So I figured, you know, at my size if I was able to get it, it would be a great dunk and a way to finish it, you know. And actually, funny story is I haven’t made that dunk in like half a year. I tried it in practice the past two days and tried it this morning, didn’t make it. Tried it last night, didn’t make it… But to be able to make it was why I was so excited.”

Earlier in the night, Mitchell had done another tribute worn a Darrell Griffith jersey — Utah’s Dr. Dunkenstien, who went to Louisville like Mitchell — for an off-the-side-of-the-backboard jumping over Kevin Hart dunk.

“You know, just knowing your history, I think, is the biggest thing,” Mitchell said of the throwbacks. “Just understanding where this game originated, I guess the OGs of the game, I guess you would call it. But just understanding. Even if it’s just dunking. Whether it’s dunking in the NBA in general, Darrell Griffith, we went to the same school in college. I know Darrell very well. Both got drafted by the Jazz, and he was an incredible player. To be able to pay homage to him meant a lot to me.”

For my money, Nance had the dunk of the night, his first in the Finals, a double off-the-backboard throwdown that you had to see on replay to get (it wasn’t as evident in the building what he had done until it was re-shown on the big screen).

It was a fun contest all night long.

Mitchell (the leader in the Rookie of the Year race) started it off brilliantly — he brought out a second backboard, and did a self-alley-oop off one to the other.

Larry Nance Jr. did his tribute to his father with his first dunk, and on his second one came from behind the backboard, going around the world, and threw it down hard. That got him into the Finals.

Oladipo missed all three of his dunks in the first round, which almost doomed his night. He, however, did a dunk wearing the Black Panther mask for his second dunk, which impressed.

Mitchell said he wanted to beat Dennis Smith Jr. because the Mavericks’ point guard had beaten him in dunk contests for years. Smith had one monster dunk, when he went between the legs and threw it down hard and got the full 50. It just wasn’t enough to get Smith to the Finals.

Nance started off the final round by bringing out his father again to throw an alley-oop to a windmill. Mitchell responded with a self-alley-oop to a windmill that was flat-out wicked. That got Mitchell a 50-46 lead after one round of the Finals.

Then Mitchell went to Vince Carter and “it was over.”

Larry Nance Jr. throws alley-oop to himself, throws alley-oop to himself (video)

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LOS ANGELES — Cavaliers forward Larry Nance Jr. immediately motioned for the replay to be shown of this dunk. It was necessary to properly appreciate it.

Best dunk of the night.

Donovan Mitchell won the dunk contest, though.

Larry Nance Jr. plays tribute to father — rock-the-cradle dunk in Suns uniform

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LOS ANGELES — Back in 1984, high-flying Larry Nance Sr. won the first NBA All-Star Dunk Contest with this set of dunks — most famously a rock-the-cradle move.

Larry Nance Jr. came into the 2018 Dunk Contest and went nostalgic — all the way back to the Suns’ throwback uniform and the same dunk.

That and a good second dunk got him into the Dunk Contest finals. In that round, Nance Sr. threw an alley-oop to his son for the windmill.

Donovan Mitchell throws alley-oop to himself – off second backboard (video)

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LOS ANGELES – Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell set a high standard with the first slam of the 2018 dunk contest.

Very creative. Very well-executed.

Looks like all that preparation paid off.