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.”

Brandon Jennings no fan of the NBA’s new Awards Ceremony event

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Come June 26, Drake will be on stage in New York City, handing out the NBA’s awards — Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year, and so on. (We need to set an under/over on the number of players Drake hugs that night.)

The NFL does it. The NHL does it. And the NBA has decided to follow suit with a broadcast awards ceremony where everything — except the All-NBA Team — will be announced that night. It’s happening because the broadcast partners want it.

Brandon Jennings is not a fan. Here is what the Wizards’ point guard Tweeted:

Jennings took down a Tweet that said if he had won the award he would have wanted to get it with the organization and his teammates around him. (And no, he knows he’s not winning the award. If you were going to put that in the comments be more creative.)

There’s something to what Jennings is saying. The NBA award roll out was awkward at times in previous years, but it gave the fans a chance to celebrate the awards with their favorite player. Now, everyone will watch it unfold on television from a ballroom in NYC. That feels a little colder. Also, we will get to see the reaction of those who don’t win (particularly this season, where several players can make a strong case for MVP).

It will be interesting to see how this first year goes, and how the league tweaks it going forward. The more than two month gap between the end of the regular season and the awards could feel a bit awkward. But we’re not going to knock the idea until we’ve seen it in action.

Portland GM makes it official, Festus Ezeli will not be back with team next season

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This season the Portland Trail Blazers found their center of the future (and the present) in Jusuf Nurkic.

Which makes the next step fairly obvious: Portland will not pick up the option on Festus Ezeli for next season, GM Neil Olshay confirmed at the team exit meetings Tuesday.

Portland signed Ezeli on what they thought was a great contract (one-year, $7.4 million, with a team option for the second year) because he was coming off knee surgery last summer. However, Ezeli was never healthy, needed a second surgery, and never got on the court. After taking it slow over last summer he practiced with the team twice in mid-October, there was more swelling, so he pulled back.

This summer Ezeli will not draw any guaranteed money from teams, but some teams may take a look at him. Athletic bigs get a lot of chances in the NBA.

Gordon Hayward will play for Jazz in Game 5 without minutes restriction

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Gordon Hayward has averaged 20.5 points a game in these playoffs — and that includes a 40 point outburst in Game 3 — but what has been more impressive is he has done it efficiently, with a true shooting percentage of 61.1. While Joe Johnson and others have stepped up, Utah will need Hayward’s shot creation if they are going to win this series.

They will have it Tuesday night in Game 5.

After missing the second half of Game 4 due to food poisoning (he tried to play but was ineffective in the first half), he is back and ready to go this time around.

So is Rudy Gobert. The Jazz will be at full health, while the Clippers remain without Blake Griffin for the remainder of the playoffs.

Having those two back is a boost for the Jazz, they need to score more consistently against the Clippers, but the bigger key will be defensively trying to deal with Chris Paul on the pick-and-roll. He has been masterful this series, and the Jazz need to keep him in check to give their offense a chance.

When NBA switches to Nike uniforms next season, Hornets will move to Jordan Brand

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There are not going to be dramatic changes to the look of the NBA when Nike takes over the apparel contract for next season, replacing Adidas. Instead of the Adidas logo, there will be a swoosh, sleeved jerseys will fade away, and some teams will modify their alternate jerseys, but the league is not getting a total uniform makeover next season. Things will look basically the same.

Except in Charlotte — they will not have a swoosh, they will have the Jordan Jumpman logo.

The why is obvious — Michael Jordan is the primary owner of the Hornets and, obviously, the guy the Jordan brand was named after. The Jordan Brand is part of Nike. The Hornets made the announcement this week buried in a press release about moving the fan shop at the arena, hat tip to Sole Collector for finding this. Here is what the release says:

The re-opening of the Hornets Fan Shop will coincide with the launch of the team’s new Jordan Brand uniforms as Nike becomes the NBA’s uniform provider beginning this season.  The Hornets will be the only team in the NBA wearing Jordan Brand uniforms, and with the agreement taking effect, the Hornets Fan Shop will have even more of the popular Jordan Brand Hornets merchandise than it has had previously.

While it’s not like the Lakers or Celtics are going to be changing up their traditional uniforms, even teams like the Hornets will keep a similar look under Nike.

What should be interesting to see is what the Christmas Day and All-Star uniforms look like under a Nike touch.