Ron Mercer believed he would average 20 points a game someday, the traditional NBA benchmark for offensive prowess.
But he didn't know it would almost happen during his first season as a Chicago Bull.
Before coming to the Windy City, Mercer had averaged 15.9 points over his three-year NBA career split between the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets and Orlando Magic. After an inconsistent start, his shooting touch began heating up. He first reached the 20 points per game mark after a 39-point outburst, highest for a Bull last season, against the Portland Trail Blazers in January. In the end, Mercer finished the year averaging 19.7 points per game, second only to Elton Brand's 20.1 average.
Ron Mercer's emergence as a reliable scorer gives the Bulls a solid go-to player on offense. The challenge from here on out is to round out the lineup with offensive contributors while boosting the production off the bench.
Whatever problems the Bulls suffered through this past season did not originate with Mercer.
"I'm at a point where I'm feeling comfortable with my game," Mercer said shortly after the Bulls' season ended. "But, I still haven't shown everything I can do. This season I played more minutes than I ever did before. Plus, Coach [Floyd] put in some offensive sets for me as the season went on -- plays that were successful for me in the past. That helped me get into a groove around the middle of the year.
"Once I completely understand the [triangle] system, I think my game is going to be better," the 6-foot-7 Kentucky product predicts. "It's using screens. If there's one thing I've been taught, it's how to come off screens and shoot."
Floyd believes Mercer's improvement is simply a matter of taking advantage of the opportunity he has received.
"He's the primary offensive threat on the perimeter for the first time in his career," Floyd affirmed. "He has freedom on the perimeter. He knows if he has a good look, we want him to take the shot. He got better in that area this season. This freedom also allowed him to play through slumps."
Mercer's maturity also is a factor. He's no longer a babe in the woods. The experience of four years in the NBA has helped him understand the difference between taking a good shot and a bad one.
"Experience is a big part," Mercer claims. "I've learned how to use my energy more wisely. Before, I just went out and played until I ran out of gas. Now, I'm still as hungry as before, but I've learned how to pace myself so that I can be effective for the entire game and not just a portion of it."
There were times this season where it seemed that Mercer couldn't miss an outside shot if he tried. There was the aforementioned Portland game, and against Atlanta and Charlotte, Mercer dropped 30 points on both, respectively. How do you get into that kind of "groove?"
"Just go out and shoot," Mercer says with a smile. "A lot of it has to do with getting easy baskets -- taking shots that you can make. I like to start in the 10-foot range or shoot at the free-throw line. That's where I'm most comfortable. The majority of the time when I go one-on-one, I try to dribble to the free-throw line and pull up and shoot because that's where I know I'm at my best on the floor."
A great scorer also will improve his shooting percentage. Mercer boosted his marksmanship into the mid-40 percent range by mid-season. He says he's not concerned with his shot totals, but prefers to simply get into the flow of each game.
"The way I like to approach the game is to just go out and play," he said. "I don't have a set amount of shots I want to take. I just play the game and whatever happens, happens. I just play to win the game."
To further boost his game into the 20-point range, Mercer figures he'd better benefit from the NBA's concept of charity -- the free throw line.
"Guys who score a lot of points in this league often go to the free-throw line. I think that's the main thing that's missing in my game. If I can get to the free-throw line six or seven times a game, I think I could be a better player and we, as a team, would have better results."
But how does a player gain that edge from the officials?
"I think its playoffs," Mercer says. "Teams that are winning, teams that are constantly making the playoffs are more aggressive on the offensive end."
Mercer's main goal for the off-season is to expand his shooting range from beyond the three-point arc. He passed the 30-percent level this season.
"I believe in taking good shots. However, you need someone on the team who can create and pass the ball to an open shooter out on the perimeter. The majority of time, I was the guy creating and passing out to either Fred [Hoiberg] or Ron [Artest] on the wing, so sometimes it was hard for me to get wide-open three-point shots."
"We never told him not to take them," Floyd says of Mercer's treys. "That's something you don't start practicing during the season. It's something you spend quality time on in the off-season. You play with it in the course of training camp and exhibition games to see how well it works."
The 25-year old Mercer has shown prolific scoring potential and has experienced success throughout his basketball-playing career.
He averaged 18.3 points and 5.3 rebounds, earning SEC Player of the Year honors his sophomore season with the Kentucky Wildcats. Mercer and Kentucky also reached the NCAA Final Fours in both 1996 and 1997, winning the National Championship his freshman year in 1996.
He was selected by the Boston Celtics with the sixth overall pick of the 1997 NBA Draft, and was named to the league's All-Rookie team, averaging 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists. In 1999-00, he averaged 18.3 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 37 games with the Denver Nuggets before being dealt to the Orlando Magic before the NBA's mid-season trading deadline.
However, throughout his career, Mercer has never been recognized for his defensive abilities. That part of his game is also something he vows to devote much of his time to improving.
"I came into this year with the reputation of not being a good defensive player," he says. "But my teammates and the coaching staff have helped my confidence in that area because a lot of the time I was assigned to guard our opponents best backcourt player. If I was as bad a defensive player as advertised, I don't think Coach Floyd would have allowed me to guard the likes of an Allen Iverson or Stephon Marbury."
Floyd endorses Mercer's going to another level defensively.
"I think he'll continue to get better defensively," says the three-year Bulls coach. "There's no reason he can't continue developing into a solid defender. There's also no reason why he can't continue developing into a great help defender, because he has terrific court awareness.
"Ron always gave us an honest effort on defense. His reputation coming in was that he only cared about putting up numbers on the offensive side. Well, we never saw that. He's an extremely talented offensive player, but Ron understands that games are won, and good reputations are built in this league on defense. He worked hard this season on becoming a better defensive player. I have no doubt, that for as long as he is a player in this league, he'll always strive to be a good defensive threat as well as an offensive one."
The stability in knowing he's appreciated and wanted is also a key to Mercer's development. He played for three different teams in his first three NBA seasons. With Chicago, he now has the assurance of staying put as he was the top free-agent Bulls signee of last summer.
"I think one of the biggest burdens that has been lifted off my shoulders is knowing that I'm going to be in Chicago for awhile. I now can relax and go out play and not worry about having everything in my life turned upside down with a trade. Being traded so often affected the way I played. I always had to adjust to 10, 12, 13 new guys."
Somehow, someway, the Bulls will have to convince future free agents to follow Mercer's lead. However, the Bulls are most likely going to have to win a few more games first. But Mercer's optimistic that good times, and Bulls victories, are just around the corner.
"Most likely we're going to have to continue to build the team through the [NBA] Draft, but hopefully other free agents will recognize that we have a bright future and that Chicago's a great place to play," Mercer says earnestly. "The Bulls fans this year were unbelievable. We broke camp with the youngest team in the history of the league and it was evident from the start that we were going to go through some difficult growing pains. The fans never stopped pulling for us -- even after we had that long string of losses. Every time we hit the United Center, they were there cheering. I hope that a couple of veteran free agents will be willing to take a chance on our future and we can put something together.
"I took a chance in coming here, and as far as I'm concerned, it worked out great."
- George Castle and Anthony Hyde