Summer Plans
D.J. Foster, April 19, 2011

Not all big men are created equal.

Some are given the one thing you can’t teach. Yao Ming (7-foot-6) received a whole lot of that. The man who replaced him, Chuck Hayes (6-foot-6), didn’t. Some have this incredible, bullish strength like Shaq, while others work with a more Keith Closs-like physique. Some can jump out of the building; some can’t even jump over a piece of paper. Some have the wingspan of a Pterodactyl and some get saddled with Tyrannosaurus Rex arms. Everywhere around the league there are big men that possess a few great athletic traits, but rarely seen are the lucky ones who combine them all.

DeAndre Jordan is one of those lucky ones. He’s the genetic lottery winner in the winner’s bracket that is the NBA. Outside of Dwight Howard, there’s no center that possesses his mix of size and athleticism.

Of course, that’s not the full recipe for dominating your peers. It’s true that in the NBA only the strongest survive, but those not blessed with all the natural athletic ability often make up for it with the great equalizer.

Balance.

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Better learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, everything good. Balance bad, better pack up, go home. Understand?"

The league’s best post players come in all different shapes and sizes, but they all have balance. It starts with the feet. Kevin Garnett’s footwork makes him look like he’s performing a choreographed waltz more than anything else. The aforementioned Chuck Hayes can slide side-to-side with the speed of a guard, then take the brunt of your shoulder square into his chest and not move an inch. Pau Gasol can have you dead in the water before he even catches the ball, putting his foot at just the right angle and placing you on his hip in the quickest of turns.

The best are rarely vulnerable, always balanced.

“The biggest thing for DJ right now is being able to keep his balance in the post,” coach Vinny Del Negro said. “It’s balance, it’s taking his time…that’s going to be the next level for him.”

With the Clippers seemingly on the cusp of something special, this offseason will play an important role in the future. That stands especially true for Jordan. As a restricted free agent, he’ll be searching for his first major contract all while trying to further advance his development.

Every student needs a sensei, and luckily for Jordan, he didn’t have to search far for one this offseason. Hakeem Olajuwon, one of the greatest centers to ever play, will be working with Jordan in Houston this summer.

When Del Negro was asked about what he hopes Jordan can learn from Olajuwon, the answer came quicker than a Dream Shake:

“Anything.”

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First learn stand, then learn fly."

Hakeem Olajuwon was probably the most skilled offensive center to ever play the game. He could do it all. He had a beautiful jumper, could hook with either hand, had a vicious pump fake, and had pristine footwork to go along with it. The guy had counters established for his own counters.

But it wasn’t always that way. For a time early in his career, Olajuwon was held in high regard more for his raw athleticism than his skill level. But Del Negro, who saw plenty of Olajuwon in his playing days during San Antonio’s epic battles with Houston, knows that Olajuwon was more than just an athlete.

“Anytime you can be around a great player, and look at footwork or balance or any part of the game and pick their brain, I think that’s a positive.“

The thought of Olajuwon tutoring Jordan is an exhilarating one. It’s easy to let your mind race with images of Jordan shaking defenders, pulling off slick up-and-under moves and spinning his way to the rim. But it’s important to remember where Jordan is offensively. Kobe Bryant, who worked with Olajuwon a few years back, benefitted from adding new wrinkles to his post game. MVP candidate Dwight Howard seemed to learn a lot from Olajuwon last offseason as well.

But for Jordan, his time in Houston will be less about adding little tricks and more about building a foundation.

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You trust the quality of what you know; not quantity."

DeAndre Jordan is 22-years old, steadily making improvements, and nowhere near his ceiling of potential. But some of Jordan’s more vociferous critics want his development to come at a more rapid pace.

“Everybody wants it now,” Del Negro said. “Everyone thinks they can go and do ten things. They can’t. You have to give young players one or two things; you have to let them develop because what happens is they become very mediocre at a lot of things.”

In their first year with Jordan, Del Negro and his staff vowed not to overload him. They wanted things to be simple to build Jordan’s confidence and to keep him from getting discouraged when everything didn’t come to him right away.

“The key for young players is to find areas that they have to get better in and drill those one or two areas,” Del Negro said. “You get them better so they’re really good and they understand it, and then move on. And that takes time.

“What happens to a lot of young players that aren’t successful in this league is they try to come in and do a lot of different things, and they’re average. In this league, you can’t be average. You have to find something you can do great, and you have to do it every night.”

Jordan may not do a lot of different things on the court, but what he does, he does well. The coaching staff wanted Jordan to focus on defending and rebounding, while remembering to always run the floor. With those objectives in mind, the results Jordan put forth were excellent.

Jordan ranked 4th among the league’s starting centers in blocks per 40 minutes, was one of only four Clippers (Griffin, Gordon, Kaman being the others) to finish with a positive adjusted +/- rating, registered above league average numbers in offensive and defensive rebounding rate despite playing next to Griffin, and finished third in the league in total dunks.

Jordan still has a lot left to master on the court. Even with the things he’s already successful at, Olajuwon can certainly lend a helping hand.

Take blocking shots, for example. You probably remember Olajuwon for his offensive prowess, but he’s also the NBA’s all-time record holder for career blocked shots. Part of that was because Olajuwon was an incredible athlete, but a lot of it can be attributed to his ability to block shots with either hand -- something that the ambidextrous Jordan should be able to adapt.

But skills even as simple as blocking shots need to be harbored by something more substantial than raw size and athleticism. Developing critical components like better footwork and balance won’t come overnight for Jordan – even with the help of “The Dream.”

“It sounds pretty easy, but it takes time,” Del Negro said. “He’ll put the work in, and he’ll get better just like we’ve seen this year.”

There’s a saying around the league that the best get better when no one else is watching. We may not be able to see Jordan put in work with Olajuwon this offseason, but rest assured, we’ll see the results.