Nelson rewards Magic's faith
Magic point guard Jameer Nelson is having a breakout year in his fifth season
Nelson's improvement has helped Orlando become one of the NBA's top teams
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Patience isn't a virtue in the NBA; it's all but impossible. The pressure from all corners -- fans, owners, media, teammates -- leaves little room for a young, highly touted player to feel his way into a league in which experience almost always trumps raw physical talent.
For those teams willing to wait, however, sometimes the player they thought they were drafting eventually shows up, even if a little late.
Few have shown up with a grander arrival this season than Orlando's Jameer Nelson, a fifth-year point guard who entered the season with career averages of 11.7 points and 4.4 assists amid questions about his ability to be the floor leader of an elite team. With the former college player of the year posting career highs in scoring (16.4), shooting (50.4 percent) and three-point accuracy (43.8 percent), the Magic have joined the Cavaliers and Celtics in the hotly contested race for the best record in the Eastern Conference.
"We showed confidence in him and believed in him," Magic general manager Otis Smith said. "We have a tendency in our league, particularly with young players, to constantly load up, and so behind him are guys everybody else says should be starting at his position. No one ever shows the young guys any confidence, so they never really reach their potential. But [coach] Stan [Van Gundy] believed in him and he went out and worked.
"I don't think he's a different player than he was 15 months ago; he's playing with a lot more confidence because he doesn't have to look over his shoulder and say, 'OK, somebody is coming to get me in a minute.' "
Nelson credits his improvement on the offensive end -- he leads all guards in shooting percentage and ranks 12th overall in three-point shooting -- to his offseason preparation.
"Every offseason I try to get with a shooting coach and concentrate on my form. But last summer I wanted to try it by myself," said Nelson, who shot 45.7 percent from the field in his first four seasons.
"I tried to make 1,000 shots a day and stuck with a routine one of my old college coaches, [former St. Joe's assistant] Matt Brady, gave me two summers ago. I also tried to incorporate some things to help me use my left hand a little better. It's working out right now."
Nelson's emergence has provided even more room for Orlando's stars to operate, making the Magic not only one of the 10 highest-scoring teams in the league but also one of the 10 most efficient (as measured by points per 100 possessions). The trick for the 26-year-old Nelson is balancing his own aggression with the need to get the ball to Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu.
"In sociology, you learn everybody can't be treated the same," said Nelson, who majored in the discipline at St. Joe's. "Like my college coach says, 'Everybody is going to be treated fair, nobody is treated equal.' And that's how you have to approach things. When I'm on the court, I have to find our moneymakers because they get paid to score.
"Over the last year, I was trying to make myself into a guy who sets the team up and does things the right way as a point guard, but from an individual standpoint, that wasn't working. So I went back to being aggressive and taking shots through our offense. I never try to force anything, but at the same time, I'm trying to put pressure on the defense at all times."
To Smith, that shift in approach has made much of the difference in turning the Magic from a mere playoff team into a 30-8 Finals contender.
"As Jameer goes, we go," Smith said. "When he's attacking the basket, we're a pretty good team. When he's not, we're an average club. He knows it. He's just got to do it every day. The great players don't show up on Mondays and Wednesdays. They show up Sunday through Saturday, and that's what we're trying to get him to be."
Smith scouted Nelson extensively in college, so much so that he and the team had the former Naismith and Wooden award winner rated as the fifth-best player in 2004. Nelson ended up being picked 20th by the Nuggets, who traded his draft rights to Orlando.
"We were foolishly high on him," Smith said. "I spent a lot of time with him at practices and at games and watched how he carried himself. That's why I know he has the ability to lead more than he has been.
"He does all the things leaders are supposed to do, but sometimes leadership is uncomfortable in terms of being more vocal and in getting his team to be better than it is. That's where we have to get him -- to be a little bit uncomfortable."
Said Nelson: "I'm not a guy who's going to scream and yell. I'm not a rah-rah guy, but I think my maturity level and some of what I've been through in my life lets me pull guys off to the side and talk about basketball problems and life issues.
"In the beginning, it was a little weird to be one of the leaders on the team and also be one of the younger guys on the team, but now I'm used to it."