NBA PM: Hornets Need Al Jefferson

Al Jefferson wants the Hornets to be a perennial playoff team, but his injury is making that tough.

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Al Jefferson Pushing Charlotte to Maintained Credibility

Like two other teams in the Eastern Conference, the Charlotte Hornets are only a half-game back of the Boston Celtics for the eighth seed in the 2015 NBA Playoffs, which start in just a few weeks. Unlike Indiana and Brooklyn, however, Charlotte is an organization that has struggled for credibility since the minute it got off the ground as an expansion franchise back in 2004.

Since then, Charlotte has made the postseason only two times, and only once before last year. Now, they have the opportunity to inject themselves into the postseason picture for the second-consecutive year, which would be the first time in franchise history that their players could consider themselves members of a perennial playoff team.

Signing Al Jefferson in the summer of 2013 has been a big reason for this organization’s turn toward credibility, and he knows it. In fact, helping them shed their old losing image was a tremendous motivation for his having signed with Charlotte in the first place.

“That’s most definitely the reason why I came here,” Jefferson said. “I saw the young talent that this team had with Kemba Walker and [Michael Kidd-Gilchrist] and Bismack Biyombo, but the main reason I came here was the coach. When Steve Clifford got the job, just sitting down talking to him on my visit, I knew that he was coming here to turn things around.

“I just wanted to be a part of that. I feel like we did become a playoff team at that point, and I think we’ve got a chance to continue to be a playoff team.”

It hasn’t necessarily been an upper-echelon season for the Hornets, who are 10 games under .500, but the fact is that they have done enough to stay in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt despite some struggles and injuries. Jefferson believes now is a great time for them build some positive momentum leading up to a potential first-round matchup with the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks, for which there could be upset potential.

“I just feel like when we are right, when we are doing the things that we are supposed to do and are playing the way that we need to play to win, I think we have a better chance [than the other teams fighting for the eighth playoff spot],” Jefferson said. “It’s a fight, though; all the other teams are good at what they do, but we are a top defensive team, and when we play great defense and rebound the ball well and get back on defense, that separates us.”

It can take years for an organization to transform into the sort of team that strikes fear into the hearts of competitors each and every year, and Charlotte may finally be knocking on the door of that credibility. An offseason rebranding, with a rejuvenation of the “Hornets” mascot, has really put the team in a positive light for Charlotte fans.

“Changing the name was for the city of Charlotte,” Jefferson said. “They deserved that because it started with the Hornets back in the days when the team was here and there was excitement in the city.”

The team, however, didn’t necessarily see it as a fresh start for a team that has historically struggled. Some may have expected a fresh color scheme and new uniforms to rejuvenate these guys, but Jefferson said that really wasn’t the case.

“For us it was just continuing to have the same mindset,” he said. “It was better for us because we knew that the city was excited for the Hornets to come back. We still had the same mindset though: continue to build off of last year.”

Jefferson’s entire career has been a process of building. He’s played for four different organizations, was traded to Minnesota for Kevin Garnett early in his career, has battled injuries and after his rookie season in Boston didn’t even see the postseason again until last year, his 10th in the NBA.

All of that, he says, shaped him into the player he is now – someone who can help will a team into the postseason every year.

“Being in Boston and then going to Minnesota and the three years in Minnesota were brutal,” Jefferson said. “We had three different coaches in three years, and I think we averaged 18 wins a year. It was tough, but when I got to Utah it was a different environment, and they kind of taught me how to win and what it takes to win. That area I think got me here to the point of being able to come to Charlotte and help change this team around, and help change them into a playoff team.”

Jefferson tweaked his knee six games ago and the Hornets have gone 1-5 since, falling behind Boston for that final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Coach Clifford believes Jefferson will be at less than 100 percent the rest of the year, according to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer, so the Hornets could have a hard time fending off the other teams fighting for that last playoff spot.

All this does is prove just how valuable Jefferson has been to Charlotte in his two seasons with the team. With him at his best, the Hornets are a perennial playoff team. Without him at full strength, they’re a young team in need of veteran leadership.

Hopefully he’s healthy enough to lead them to the postseason because they’re too close to their first back-to-back playoff appearances to fall short now.

D’Angelo Russell Rising on Draft Boards

At last April’s McDonald’s All-American game, all of the chatter was about Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander. They were expected to be the top two picks in the 2015 NBA Draft. In addition to those two, there were plenty of media members hounding the likes of Myles Turner and Tyus Jones and Emmanuel Mudiay as well.

Despite so much attention on other players, Ohio State recruit D’Angelo Russell was there, too, and while he certainly was a well-respected young talent, there wasn’t quite the same sense that he’d immediately rise to stardom the way some of these other players would.

We all know better now, as Russell just wrapped up a regular season in which he averaged 19.3 PPG, 5.6 RPG and 5.1 APG for an Ohio State team that was knocked out in the second round of this year’s NCAA tournament.

Heading into college, however, Ohio State head coach Thad Matta wasn’t sure where he was going to play this positionless hybrid guard.

“In D’Angelo, I saw a guard,” Matta told Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated. “He wasn’t a true point guard, but he had such an understanding of the game. You just knew it would sort itself out.”

It did, obviously, and now NBA scouts are humming about his prospects in the NBA, a league where guards exactly like Russell are seeing massive amounts of success. He may have once appeared to be an odd fit in the NCAA game, but there should never have been any doubt that he’d thrive on the NBA level. Now it’s just a matter of seeing how high he ends up drafted this June.

One GM told SI that “he’s the total package. His awareness is as sharp as any freshman’s I have ever seen,” and many smart NBA people believe he’s a shoe-in for one of the top five picks in this summer’s draft. Behind Okafor and Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns, Russell sure looks like the next most exciting prospect.

“He sees how a play is going to develop before it does,” an NBA scout told SI. “There are not many NBA point guards that can do that. It’s a Chris Paul-type skill. And he has got it.”

Of course, his ability to score the ball is what makes his game so translatable to the NBA. His court vision and leadership added to that scoring ability could make him a star on that level, too, while his rebounding skills would also put him in a pretty elite group among his NBA peers.

He wasn’t the center of attention as a high school senior, at least not in terms of future draft status. Draft Express didn’t even include him on its 2015 Mock Draft last April, likely more a sign that Russell looked like a player destined for a few years at college than someone who couldn’t have at least been a second-round pick as the #18 prospect in the country that spring.

As a college freshman, however, Russell has separated himself from the pack of potential draftees and now looks like he’ll almost certainly fall in the three-to-five range when teams make their draft selections this summer. It’s a big leap for a kid who had no such hype a year ago, but there’s at least one of those players every year. For the 2014-15 NCAA season, that player was D’Angelo Russell.

Alan is an experienced writer of online betting and casino guides. He is one of the main editors of Basketballinsiders.

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