Print and Go Back ESPN.com: ESPNLosAngeles [Print without images]

Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Clippers' Jordan a work in progress

By D.J. Foster
For ESPNLosAngeles.com

It's DeAndre Jordan's lucky day. Typically after practice concludes, Jordan continues his painful daily ritual of making 200 free throws. For a guy like Steve Nash that's no big deal. Maybe an hour, tops. But for Jordan, a 36 percent career free throw shooter, that's a pretty big chunk of the day.

This day, though, perhaps because interim Clippers coach Kim Hughes was a career 39 percent free throw shooter and empathizes with Jordan's pain, they work on post moves. Bullet temporarily dodged.

As Hughes observes on the baseline, Jordan drops in a variety of left-handed baby hooks. When the natural southpaw switches to his right in an effort to be what Charles Shackleford would call "amphibious," the results aren't good.

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.

Promise not kept

Coming into his freshman season at Texas A&M, Jordan had scouts everywhere salivating. He was 7-foot and 250 pounds with a 30-inch vertical and freakish athletic ability, and was immediately dubbed the "next big thing." He quickly ascended the draft boards, landing in most scouts' top 10 before he ever played a collegiate game.

"I just didn't want to get too caught up in the media, the rankings and the projections," Jordan said.

But as the new big man on campus, every move Jordan made was hyper-analyzed.

"I didn't start my first game," Jordan said. "But when I first went to check in I got a standing ovation. My eyes got huge when I stepped in the game."

The expectations from fans and coaches were lofty for a still-developing 18-year-old, and Jordan seemed to take them to heart. With every eye in the gym focused on him, Jordan sometimes struggled to make the easiest of plays.

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."

Reclaiming his chance

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.