Don’t let your eyes fool you.
It looks like just a pick-up game, but it’s not. It’s beyond that. Practice scrimmages at Team USA camp in Las Vegas aren’t just about scoring and dunking. There’s defense. There’s physicality. Just ask the Los Angeles Clippers DeAndre Jordan, whose larynx is now a victim of the Vegas scrimmages.
“The trainers saw me get hit in the throat and they just kind of -- he had to finish his Gatorade,” joked a scratchy-throated Jordan after having to play through an elbow to the neck in a scrimmage held Wednesday on the UNLV campus.
Jordan said his top priority while with Team USA is to improve his defensive game.
“I just want to talk a lot and just communicate. That’s what’s really big,” Jordan said while slouched over on a chair in the corner of a noisy practice gym. “You want to be loud. You want to just communicate to everybody.”
They say change is a good thing.
“They” might be appropriately wise. Jordan’s minutes decreased from 27.2 to 24.5 a night last season. His free-throw percentage dropped from a career-high 52.5 percent two years ago to a historically bad 38.6 percent last year. He often found himself sitting on the bench in the fourth quarters of close games, watching Ryan Hollins, Lamar Odom, or Ronny Turiaf getting burn over him.
Change. It’s marching up the hills to the rescue.
It’s almost like the Clippers are a new organization with former Celtics’ coach Doc Rivers at the helm. Rivers brings instant credibility and a system that has had success for years in Boston. Most of all, he brings confidence in Jordan, something that has been missing over the past few seasons while Jordan has had a seemingly permanent reservation on the bench during crunch time. That means the Clippers’ center will have to improve from liability to reliability.
“I know that I’m going to be the enforcer back there,” Jordan said. “I know I have to be good on pick-and-rolls. That’s why I really want to stress my defense here.”
It might take some time, but players can improve at Team USA practices. They’re going up against some of the best competition in the world everyday, but coaching might affect improvement even more. And at Jordan’s fingertips are two coaches whose defenses are even harder to figure out than their surnames.
Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski is one of the game’s best defensive minds. And to help the defense is Bulls coach and Team USA assistant Tom Thibodeau, a former Rivers assistant and a coach who many would reasonably argue is the game’s best defensive coordinator. Knowing he has those guys in his back pocket, Jordan has furthered a relationship with Duke assistant coach and Team USA assistant Jeff Capel.
“I think Doc will be great for DeAndre with the staff he brings out to Los Angeles,” Capel said. “I think he has a very, very bright future.”
Capel didn’t just burst into Jordan’s life this week. As the coach at Oklahoma, he recruited Jordan when the center was a Houston high schooler. But now they finally have the chance to work together and neither of them is letting that opportunity go to waste.
“We’re really just working on having a go-to post move,” Capel said. “Really, he just needs a go-to, so jump hook and a counter to it. We’re working on his footwork, those things.”
Even with Jordan’s defensive desire, he knows he can’t ignore his struggles on the offensive end. He did actually get some post touches in scrimmages Wednesday. He tried a right-handed up and under. He tried posting up on the left block and working on his righty running hook shot. He is working toward developing a small arsenal. That’s the goal.
We saw the righty hook from the right block as much as any other Jordan post move last season. Wednesday, he tried that same move from the left. It’s Las Vegas, the ultimate place to try new things, and Jordan is doing just that.
But even with a desire to improve as an all-around offensive player, it all comes back to making an impact on the defensive end.
“This is the first time I’ve been around him as a coach,” Capel said of his short time working with Jordan. “Watching him in this environment, watching the way he talks on defense, watching how engaged he is on the defensive and offensive end, it’s been really good to see.”
Katz is a contributor for ClipperBlog.