by Bonsu Thompson / @DreamzRreal
Something’s out of order tonight and it has nothing to do with yesterday being Thanksgiving. It is the Los Angeles Clippers’ first visit to the Brooklyn Nets’ brand spankin’ new Barclays Center (yes, rustic decor can be brand spankin’ new?). And LAC did just receive a 10-point L. Yet despite the oddity protruding from the Clips’ field-goal section of the final stat sheet, it doesn’t seem team-produced. A tighter look locates the imbalance: Tonight, L.A.’s leading scorer, Jamal Crawford, did not lead his squad in shot attempts. Neither did second leading scorer Blake Griffin or his All-World point guard Chris Paul. The team’s No. 1 gunner was none other than…DeAndre Jordan. To wholly understand how nuts it is that the League’s most exciting offense was led in FGAs by its 6-11 center is to have followed the guy since he stepped into the NBA four years ago.
Tonight DeAndre finished 5-14 from the floor. That’s not only more shots than he’s attempted in each of his season’s first 12 games, but a career high. DJ is best known for being the tallest high-flying recipient of CP3 lobs and most valued as defensive enforcer. He has freakish hops. Easily in the NBA’s top 5. Arguably more than superstar teammate and reigning Dunk Contest champ Blake Griffin. While D’s leaping ability is pivotal to LAC boasting the world’s most entertaining frontcourt, the 24-year-old earned a starting job on the opposite end of the court. Dre doesn’t run like your typical center; he runs more like a gazelle, except he’s the predator––he’ll deflect or punch anything floating in his paint. Ask his coach and even he’ll tell you that DJ’s role is simple. “The main thing that we need from DeAndre is his energy and effort all over the court,” says Vinny Del Negro, standing outside the visitor’s locker room. “But especially on the defensive end. We need him to rebound the ball, run the court and be that big-time defensive presence for us.”
When DeAndre is asked to define his team responsibilities, he doesn’t necessarily sing a different tune than his coach, just a fuller one. According to the Houston native, not only has Del Negro encouraged his offensive assertion, but his productivity—LAC walked into BK 8-3 as the hottest Californian team in the NBA, largely in part to Jordan averaging double-digit points for the first time in his career, plus 6 boards and 2 blocks per—is a product of self-design. Last season, when Paul and Griffin gave L.A. hoops lovers another option as the nucleus of tinseltown’s new Showtime and ultimately ending the Clippers’ eight-year Playoff drought, Jordan knew he had to step his game up. After LAC brass spent last summer assembling the League’s deepest roster (players six through 10 could contend for an 8th seed in either division), Dre was determined to not be a liability. “Last year was different,” he says after the Nets game, getting dressed beneath the streets of Brooklyn. “Teams sagged off of me a lot, which was crucial at the end of games because I wasn’t really a factor offensively. So I worked on my game all summer.”
The summer before he began high school is when DeAndre dunked a basketball for the very first time. He had just finished a 5-on-5 run at one of the Houston rec centers he and his friends would frequent and decided to give it a try. After all, he was 6-1. First attempt was a fail. But the second jump began his journey upward. “I wasn’t jumping the way I do now,” Jordan remembers with a smile, then cracks, “I don’t think anybody [in the NBA] was, except maybe Blake [laughs].”
For the next three years, the young DeAndre would continue dunking at Houston’s Episcopal High School, eventually averaging 16.5 ppg, 14 rpg and 7 blocks as a junior. With his grades collegiate-approved and commitment to Texas A&M firm, DJ says he decided to sharpen his game against tougher competition. He transferred to the athletically stronger Christian Life Center, averaging 26 points, 15 boards and 8 blocks as a senior and graduating as one of the country’s top centers.
For DeAndre, college was unstable from the start. He was recruited by Aggies’ then-head coach Billy Gillispie in high school. Problem was, when he arrived at College Station, Gillispie was Tubby Smith’s successor at Kentucky. Under a first-year captain that hadn’t recruited him (Mark Turgeon), DJ’s playing time as a freshman was schizophrenic. Feeling underutilized as a collegian, the high flyer decided to aim higher and declare for the ’08 Draft. “It’s a dream to play NCAA basketball,” begins Jordan, who doesn’t speak highly nor clearly about his playing time at A&M. “But there were certain things that I didn’t like. It was up and down on the court for a while, so that was the frustrating part. I just had to get out of there.”
Despite a sandpaper raw game and anorexic résumé of single-digit college averages and a reserve spot on Team USA’s ’07 U-19 squad, Dre managed to get drafted with the Clippers’ 38th pick. With LAC depleted by injuries, the fresh face found himself in the starting lineup. Shortly after, he became only the fourth rookie of his generation to grab 20 rebounds in a single game. It appeared that DeAndre’s athleticism was getting him over (“I’ve been taller than everyone most of my life but the athleticism kicked in later, so I’ve been using both to my advantage”).
But the fun wouldn’t last long. Besides jumping and dunking, the rookie was useless on the offensive end. His touch around the rim was about as soft as DMX and his free-throw shooting abysmal. Fortunately for the 20-year-old, his guardian angel would come in the form of an assistant coach with a familiar face. Let DJ tell it and he’s been working with the renowned Coach John Lucas II—known for coaching and developing athletes on and off their playing field in Houston—since high school. Coach has a varied version. “DeAndre would always run from coming into my gym when he was younger,” says Lucas, who met DeAndre as the friend of his youngest son Jai. “He would never come in there. We didn’t really start working until I started working for the Clippers as an assistant coach. From then he would come to Houston every summer and put in some really great work.”
Jordan would endure grueling workouts that combined conditioning, which developed him into a transition threat on both ends, with individual post-up drills, which wrought his ambidextrous and increased scoring. Overall, DJ credits Lucas for instilling in him a pro’s confidence and desire for more. “Now it’s just about getting comfortable [as a scorer],” he says. “And the more touches I get, the more comfortable I am.”
It’s exactly two weeks since that losing night in BK and DeAndre’s day off feels deserved. His Clippers have ended a four-game losing streak and now boast a winning streak of the same count. Their center’s efficiency continues to be an ingredient of their early success (by press time they’ll be a Pac Div-leading 15-6). LAC’s November tells a tale of polar opposites—it featured a six-game winning streak as well as the aforementioned losing streak. Throughout the victorious run, Jordan shot nearly 75 percent, during the consecutive losses, under 50 percent. The Lone Star product may not be needed to produce as much offense as his partner in the paint Mr. Griffin, but he feels that being a threat alone brings his team closer to unstoppable status. “We have so many guys that can score the ball,” he begins over a cell phone. “So when [defenders] double Blake, Chris or Jamal, we all have to score so that they have to guard us all.”
Now as DJ’s O game rises, so does a dilemma. The more aggressive he is, the more time he’ll inevitably spend on the free-throw line. That is the one area of his game that has not seen significant improvement since his rookie year. Although he’s not shooting 38 percent from the line anymore, this season’s 45 percent accuracy still keeps him in the horrible free-throw shooter category. Last week, the other L.A. center got crucified for being a fourth quarter liability at the charity stripe. The last thing the Clippers want is for teams to start implementing a Hack-a-Dre scheme. If that is a real concern for DeAndre, he won’t let on. Nor will his coach. “I work on it every day so whatever teams want to do is cool with me,” Jordan says. “I know I’m getting better and that’s all that matters to me. I don’t put too much thought into it.”
“I know that [hacking] is part of the game, and DeAndre knows that,” says Coach Del Negro. “But he is a worker and I have confidence in him when he goes to the line.”
The Clippers’ faith in DeAndre Jordan runs even higher than the head coach. That was evident just before the ’11-12 season when the Golden State Warriors offered their rival’s big man $43 million for four years. The Clips countered with former general manager and VP of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey stating at the time, “[DeAndre] was always going to be a part of our future. And once you make that decision, the dollar amount doesn’t matter.”
“I told [DeAndre], ‘If you work this summer, you could get $40 million,” recalls Lucas. “Lo and behold, he got $40 million [laughs].”
With DJ’s youth, off-the-charts athleticism and constant improvement, the Clippers banking on him being a fixture in their future is simply common sense business sense. That investment is already returning, and the scoring jolt is just icing on an unbaked cake. To wholly understand how valuable DeAndre Jordan is to his franchise’s chances of earning its first Championship is to turn to Crawford. “Right now, he’s probably our team MVP for the simple fact that there’s nobody else on our team that can replace him,” says the current frontrunner for this year’s Sixth Man of the Year. “And we’ve got some stars on this team.”