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The first attempt ricochets off the back iron. Perturbed, Jordan tries again from the same spot. Another miss. Now clearly irritated, Jordan softly floats a shot but watches in dismay as the ball dances around the rim before bouncing out.Jordan incredulously stares at the hoop, almost as if it has offended him. He makes no effort to conceal his frustration. His massive shoulders slump, his gigantic hands flail at his sides and his eyes fixate on the ground in a manner that would make Charlie Brown look optimistic by comparison. "I just really get into it," Jordan said. "I get on myself because I know I can do better." It's painfully obvious that Jordan is afflicted with a problem that has little to do with the proficiency of his right-handed hook shot. He loses confidence in himself far too easily.
It wasn't long before Jordan slipped into survival mode, simply trying not to make mistakes. As a result, most of his time at A&M was spent in quicksand: the harder he tried not to screw up, the deeper he sank."I was more anxious than nervous," Jordan said. "Seeing all those people out there with signs and pictures of you, it was just overwhelming. I had butterflies just like anyone else would." Jordan's lack of emotional maturity frustrated A&M coach Mark Turgeon to the point he once proclaimed Jordan was "18 years old going on 12." By the end of Jordan's freshman campaign at College Station, he rarely saw the floor. With his confidence and pride shattered, Jordan watched his draft stock plummet. The burden of fulfilling the expectations had simply been too much. A man amongst boys physically, Jordan was deemed too immature to succeed in the NBA. He became a victim of his potential. Never one to shy away from a reclamation project, Mike Dunleavy kept Jordan high on his draft board. The Clippers nabbed him with the 35th overall selection in the 2008 draft, a far cry from the top-10 pick he was projected to be months earlier. After more than a year and a half playing for Dunleavy, the DeAndre Jordan experiment has been transferred to Hughes, who has tried to temper some of those high expectations. "I don't expect him to play at a certain level all the time," Hughes said of Jordan. "He's going to have games where he makes silly plays. I'm willing to accept that because I want to see the growth of him. The only way he's going to get better is to play."
Jordan's moment of reemergence arrived when Dunleavy traded Marcus Camby to clear a path for playing time. Jordan has averaged more than 20 minutes a game since the roster shakeup.
"He's a 21-year-old kid and he's going to be up and down," Hughes said. "I fully expect DeAndre's progress to be not in a straight line up. He'll have peaks and valleys, and you've got to live with that."
The early returns have varied. In a 99-89 win last week against Sacramento, Jordan fumbled multiple passes, air-balled a few easy looks and seemed lost offensively. But Hughes went out of his way to praise Jordan, despite his 2-for-7 shooting performance, two turnovers and five fouls.
"Kim's a defensive-minded coach," Jordan said. "If I miss a shot, that's OK. As long as I don't lag back up the court, it doesn't matter what I do on the offensive end. If I play good defense, I'll be OK. The offense will come."
For the time being, Jordan's offense will almost exclusively come right at the rim, usually in spectacular fashion. Newcomer Steve Blake has already found Jordan on a few alley-oops in their limited time on the court together.
"I knew he was athletic because he's blocked a couple of my shots before I got here," Blake said. "Seven-footers don't jump like that. But he really does. He's very fun to play with."
In a 98-94 win last week against Charlotte, Jordan was a force on both ends of the court and earned the "SportsCenter" top play of the night for his vicious dunk over Theo Ratliff.
"When I get a big dunk or a block or something that makes the crowd go crazy, I just black out," Jordan said. "It makes you feel free. It feels like a big weight off your shoulders."
The praise from coaches and teammates coupled with consistent playing time should do wonders for Jordan's confidence and ability to become a regular contributor. He works every day to get more comfortable with the shakier aspects of his game.Like those midrange jumpers and right-handed hooks. And, yes, even those dreaded free throws. "Sometimes it takes about 400 or 500 shots, but I get my free throws up," Jordan said, laughing. "It doesn't matter how many you miss. It's just all about muscle memory and getting reps up. Eventually it will start to get easier and I'll feel more comfortable in the game." D.J. Foster is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.