It's been nearly 19 days into July, and over the course of roughly 4 weeks, the Bobcats have seen an incredible amount of change. Coaches have changed, Al Jefferson signed a pretty big deal here, and there was a lot of confusion/uneasy/downright anger surrounding the pick of Cody Zeller. So it only makes sense that fans should be looking at the Las Vegas Summer League with a sense of eagerness and anxiety.
We are now 4 games in to Summer League play, and the Bobcats (HORNETS!!!!! can't wait until I can say that without parentheses!) have been able to amass a 3-1 record--their only loss coming to a Spurs squad that seriously took advantage of the youth and inexperience in the remaining seconds of the game. Pretty good for a team that has failed to win 30 regular season games over the last two years, right? Heck, we’re in the thick of things with a tournament win as a 5th seed and scheduled to face the D-League team tomorrow.
Now, before I go into my breakdown/reaction to how our young core of the future looks in play, let me re-state that real quick: THE CHARLOTTE BOBCATS ARE NOT SETTING THE WORLD ON FIRE…yet. This is crucial for when you watch and look for progress with our players. Already, across different and numerous blogs and websites, I've seen a true array of reactions about our beloved team.
THE BOBCATS ARE NOT ABOUT TO DETHRONE THE HEAT THIS YEAR.
YOUNG PLAYERS TAKE TIME TO DEVELOP.
Simply stated, cool your jets people of the internet. Given that our entire starting five (assuming Gerald Henderson will be back, which I think he will be; that qualifying offer is still in play) will be under the age of 30. Of the five, Al Jefferson will be the oldest at 28.
Here’s a breakdown:
Kemba Walker, 23
Gerald Henderson, 25
Cody Zeller, 20
Bismack Biyombo, 20
Al Jefferson, 28
This means that our team is incredibly young, and it will be a matter of time before we can seriously qualify anybody as "worthless" or as a "bust". Gerald Henderson just had the best year of his career, and he had been in the league for nearly 4 years. The best part: He'll only get better. And that goes for the other starters as well (granted, Al Jefferson is most likely in his prime). Our players won't be in their collective prime until 5 or 6 years from now, and until then, we all just have to wait and see how they pan out.
Biz missed a layup once? That’s fine. He has 7 more years to get it right. Cody Zeller didn't finish through contact a bit? He'll just have to figure it out over the next 5 years. Kemba threw a bad pass that one time? Let’s see how he handles it over the next 4 years.
Let’s just not assume that these guys, all in their very early 20s, are stuck playing the exact same way for the rest of their careers. Time has a way of maturing things--cheese, wine, mint condition X-Men comics--and it's the same way with basketball players.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's get on to business. I'll be focusing on our four "core" players-players that we know will be on the roster and are expected to make an impact on the court. Bismack, Cody, Jeff Taylor, and MKG would be the targets to discuss. From 3 games of Summer League play, I've decided to breakdown the core's performance as so:
The Crowd Pleasers: Jeff Taylor, Cody Zeller.
I don't know if there's a website out there to re-watch Summer League games, but if there is, it's definitely worth the time re-watching the first game against the Spurs. Because that's when our second round pick, Jeff Taylor, made a statement to the world. Taylor played a tremendous game, and even hit a SUPER clutch 3 that would have won the game in the last seconds. He also showed off his utterly ridiculous athleticism by posterizing a poor Spurs prospect that definitely didn't see it coming. Taylor finished the game against the Spurs with 24pts off of 9-17 shooting. What was most impressive was the level of confidence that he was playing with. Multiple reports came out during the week that Taylor put on some weight during this offseason to get back to his Vanderbilt-playing weight. It definitely showed. Taylor was slashing to the rim, flying high, and was very aggressive on defense. He has done this throughout the last 3 games of the Summer League. Taylor, being easily the most experienced player on the Bobcats Summer League roster, asserted himself as a force to be reckoned with, and has really made a case for getting more minutes during the regular season. Look for him to make a serious impact in defensive situations, and also be on the lookout for him from behind the 3pt line. Dude can shoot. All in all, I'd say that Taylor has been the 2nd biggest surprise of the Summer League.
When Cody was picked on draft night, the only thing I could say was: "WOW". I seriously had no idea what to expect, and I was shocked that we didn't go for more sexy names like Ben McLemore, Nerlens Noel, or Alex Len. I thought for sure that this was going to be just another moment in my Bobcats fandom where I just throw my hands up and accept my fate as a member of the most tormented NBA fan bases of all time...but then I watched him play. Cody Zeller is the epitome of everything I'd want in a teammate; he does a lot of little things that a lot of players take for granted. He boxes out, he hustles, he sets screens--he's just simply everywhere on the court. His motor doesn't stop. He legitimately will be the first one down the court in transition, and that alone will give opposing teams problems throughout the year. While his first shot was an air ball that fell short, Cody's breakout game was in his second game against the Mavs, where he nearly had a double-double in the first half. I was watching our first-round pick dominate the boards and effectively work from the high-post area, and all I could do was smile. Cody ended that game with 21pts and 13 rebounds, which will definitely be welcomed in the regular season should he keep it up. So far, he has been able to show an uncanny knack for finishing at the rim, and although he's not going to out-muscle any NBA center/forward, he's surely going to out-smart them. He has a basketball IQ that is off the charts. Not to mention that he seriously is the most athletic 7footer I've seen in my life. He's quick, nimble, and just a very crafty player. Be excited, Charlotte. Cody Zeller is a real NBA player. And you're going to love it.
Just About Where He Should Be: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Here's the thing: everybody and their mom knows that MKG is not what an NBA scout would call an "offensive threat". That's not surprising. The lack of a consistent jump shot can seriously limit a player's game, and it's very apparent in MKG's case. While he hasn't been able to dominate a game like Jeff Taylor or Cody Zeller has (yet), you can still tell that he has the potential to be really, REALLY good one day. And for that, I'm not too impressed or upset with his performance in the Summer League so far. He's playing at a level that is consistent with how he performed in the regular season, except, with the playing time he deserves. His shot is still ugly to look at, and I don't know when it will get better visually, but so far, you can tell that he's shooting with a lot more confidence. And if you've ever played basketball before, you know that confidence in your jump shot is half the battle. While he's not shooting often, he takes the shots that are given to him, and for the most part, they've been falling in his favor. It’s certainly an interesting development to keep an eye on this year, and it's great to see him taking these shots regardless. Expanding his game will take some time, but as far as shooting goes, he might actually be a reliable mid-range shooter by the end of the season… even if his form is just terrible to look at. We also all know that when MKG puts the ball on the floor, good things happen. He drives to the rim a lot, and when he does, he's been a very solid finisher. When he's not making contested lay-ups, he's showing off a better free-throw shot that will certainly get him some points. So far, it's progress that I welcome, and as long as he continues to build on it, he should be just fine. Defensively, MKG is a monster. He and Jeff Taylor have been able to disrupt offenses by playing the passing lanes, and they both have some quick hands. MKG has brought the energy on both sides of the ball, and that's what he should look to do night-in, and night-out. He might not average 15ppg this season, but he's going to fill out the stat sheet in nearly every area. Mark my words.
Schrodinger's Cat: Bismack Biyombo
This has been the most perplexing part of the Summer League for most of the Bobcats faithful: Is Biz good, or is he bad? I say he's Schrodinger's cat; he is, and he is not. (Schrodinger's Cat was an experiment done by Erwin Schrodinger, where a cat was said to be placed in a covered box with a vial of poison that would be released at any given time. If the observer did not know when the vial was released, then it implied that the cat was both dead and alive at the same time. The only real way to know if the cat was alive was to open the box. Thus, curiosity killed the cat. In the words of Bill Nye: “SCIENCE!”
What I mean is this: Bismack is only as bad as you think he is. Some people expected him to be an unstoppable force in the paint by now, and others (like myself) thought of him as a project. So there are multiple ways to look at Biz's Summer League play. He's still a good-but-not-great defender, but when it comes to protecting the rim, he's a straight monster. Biz has had an immeasurable influence on how teams attack the basket, and even though it's not quantifiable, he certainly influences the game on the defensive side of the ball. He swallows defensive rebounds like Nibbler swallows anything that moves (Futurama anybody?). Well, he does as long as Cody Zeller or MKG isn’t flying in to out-rebound him.
Offensively, Biz still has a ways to go. He still fumbles passes. He still hesitates when he has the ball. He still travels from time to time. It's all just classic Biz. I don't know how long it will take for him to become a consistent and solid offensive player, but for now, he has been able to clean the boards and get some easy dunks and tip-ins.
Out of all the players that will be affected by Cody Zeller's arrival the most, it's definitely Biz. Where Zeller is polished on the offensive side of the game, Biz is entirely raw. Zeller's athleticism will clash with Biz's when they both go after rebounds, and they both will play off the other's energy throughout the game. Zeller's ability to pass will throw-off Biz and his unreliable hands. It's a pairing that is as effective as it is interesting, as they have the potential to become a tremendous frontcourt together someday.
Overall, Biz sticks to what he's good at: rebounding, defending, and blocking. He's tried to use some of the moves Patrick Ewing has been coaching him on, but for now, he's honestly better off sticking to defense until he gets comfortable with his post-game. He has the tools to be a great player; he just has to put it all together. Time is most definitely on his side.
All in all, Bobcats faithful should be proud with the way the team has played, and through that, we should all be excited for our team's future. We definitely have some solid young pieces that will all grow together, and that chemistry will pay off. Between those four players, we have a foundation for the future. Add in players like Kemba and Al Jefferson, and you suddenly have a team of relevance and promise.
The light at the end of the tunnel is near. Hold on, because we haven't seen the light in a long, long time.