Who are these 'Cats, anyway?

FORT MILL, S.C. – Welcome to the inaugural training camp of the NBA's newest team, the Charlotte Bobcats – name tags required.

"Training camp is usually a little bit like a class reunion," team president Ed Tapscott says. "You get together with teammates and begin the process of becoming familiar with each other again. This week was like the first day of class. No one knew anyone else."

Tapscott wasn't kidding. Not only have the Bobcats never played together, many of them literally had never seen their teammates play.

"It's tough man, I mean most of us are young and haven't established ourselves yet," Jason Kapono said. "We really came into camp without a clue of who your teammates are."

Fans are in the same predicament.

Take out the Bobcats three veterans – Steve Smith, Brevin Knight, and Jahidi White, – and the rest of the Bobcats' squad comes into the season with little to no experience.

They are a collection of castoffs, second-round picks who couldn't crack the rotation, talented teenagers who left school too early, players who have spent most of their time handing out Gatorade and waiving towels.

Now they're competing for starting jobs on the NBA's 30th team.

"I'm excited for the fresh start," Primoz Brezec, who played a whopping 72 minutes for the Pacers last season, said.

"It was a hard three years, waiting and watching. All I wanted was a chance to play. I think that's true with all the guys here. We're hungry. We want to show the world what we can do."

That's exactly the way GM and head coach Bernie Bickerstaff planned it.

Bickerstaff and his staff spent the last year scouring the NBA for young players they believe wouldn't be protected in the expansion draft.

He decided early on that the team would preserve cap space and spend their inaugural season developing diamonds in the rough – players that hadn't had the chance, for whatever reason, to shine on the teams that drafted him.

The players Bickerstaff choose are unfamiliar to even veteran NBA scouts.
That has rival GMs licking their chops.

"You have to have talent and experience to win in this league," one Eastern Conference GM said about the Bobcats. "They don't have either. I just wonder how they are going to win any basketball games.

"Even if they catch a team on a bad night, on a back-to-back, I still don't see the fire power to win any games. If they don't challenge the league record for losses in a season, no one will."

That is a pessimistic outlook that neither Bickerstaff nor the Bobcats players share.

The Bobcats, already hamstrung by a salary cap that was just two-thirds of what the rest of the league enjoys, don't believe winning will be the mark of a successful first season in Charlotte.

"Our goal is to get better," Bickerstaff said. "To find a group that we can build around. We're an expansion team and everywhere we turn it's something we have to surmount.

People say, 'Well, they're not going to be very good.' I don't think it's malicious. I think that's been the norm for expansion teams. So, we don't take it personal. But that doesn't mean we have to submit to it. We're going to get better."

That might come sooner than most people believe.

Last season, writers and GMs alike both predicted that two young, relatively untalented and unproven teams, the Bucks and the Jazz, would challenge the Sixers record of 73 losses in a season.

To everyone's surprise, both teams were very competitive, using a combination of hard work, defense and pinpoint execution to out hustle more veteran opponents.

Bickerstaff has crafted his team with the same line of thinking. From the sound of bodies crunching in training camp, he might have gotten it right.

"Defense has to be our statement," Bickerstaff said. "We knew that the offensive firepower wasn't going to be available in the expansion draft. So we decided to build around defense.

"All of the guys we have can do the dirty things. They can mix it up. They play with courage and intensity. They aren't afraid to work. People who take us lightly will be in for a surprise. I can't guarantee you how many games will win. But I do believe we'll be a team that will play you hard for 48 minutes. That's all I'm asking."

Apparently it's been enough to bring the buzz back to Charlotte.

Towards the end of the Hornets time in Charlotte, the city had given up on them and their controversial owner George Shinn – and that was when the Hornets were a playoff team.

However, with new owner Bob Johnson, the Bobcats have already done a good job of getting the community interested. The team has already sold 9,000 season tickets which puts them in the top-10 in the league.

The Bobcats are selling hope and the good people of Charlotte seem to be buying it. They're not the only ones.

Smith, the team's elder statesman, gave up a role on a championship contender, the Spurs, to finish his career in Charlotte.

He did it with the understanding that Bickerstaff wasn't going to use him as a crutch on the court. Instead, he would ask him to lead in the locker room and on the practice floor.

Smith was skeptical at first, but he's quickly becoming a believer in this group of no-names.

"Don't never say never," Smith said.

"I think these guys are hungry. They play hard in practice. They get after it. They aren't afraid to be physical. No one on this team gives up. I've been around the league long enough to know that's a formula for success. We're young and we have a lot to learn. But when the effort is there, good things usually follow."

"Success is knowing who you are," Bickestaff said.

"We're still figuring that out. But I believe our core values of defense and hard work are already there. The players we brought in all play that way. Now it's just about figuring each other out. Leaders have to emerge. We have to earn that identity. I'm optimistic that it will come."

The Bobcats are already off to an optimistic start.

The team has already pulled off a number of savvy moves this offseason that put the team in an excellent position to win down the road.

The Bobcats focused most of their attention on the front line this summer, stocking themselves with five young bigs that are 6-foot-9 or taller -- a feat many veteran teams in the league can't come close to duplicating.

The Bobcats did a great job in the expansion draft gleaning young players from winning programs that had big upsides, but no court time to show their stuff. Gerald Wallace has star potential.

Larry Bird and Jerry West cringed when Bickerstaff took Brezec and Theron Smith off their hands. Brandon Hunter, Jason Kapono and Tamar Slay were all seen as underrated guys who could blossom in the right environment.

Bickerstaff then pulled off the biggest trade in the draft this spring when he swapped the Bobcats' No. 4 pick and a second rounder to the Clippers in return for the No. 2 pick.

Bickerstaff had identified Emeka Okafor early on as the best player in the draft. By moving up to No. 2, he got him – The first time an expansion team has landed, arguably, the best player in the draft in their first season.

The Clippers helped the Bobcats out again later down the road, trading Melvin Ely and Eddie House to the team for nothing in return in an effort to clear enough cap space to make a run at Kobe Bryant.

The result? The Bobcats added two young prospects that figure prominently in their plans this year. And they did it all without negatively effecting their flexibility down the road.

The Bobcats will be more than $20 million under the cap going into next summer and will probably have the best shot of any team at the No. 1 pick in the draft.

If they can identify three or four young players from this group to be their core, they'll be well ahead of where some other teams are heading into the 2005 season.

So who exactly has the best chance of breaking out this season? After a week's worth of training camp, Bickerstaff is slowly forming assessments of each player on the team..

  • Okafor, C, 6-10 – "He has an innate ability to play great defense. He hustles, goes after every basketball. His shot blocking skills are excellent. He just needs to play basketball. Needs to find his rhythm. He's going to be a big part of what we do this year."

  • Brezec, C, 7-1 – "Brezec has emerged as a guy who could really help us, especially on the offensive end. Every one knows he can shoot it from the perimeter. But he also is a great passer. His retention ability is fantastic. He always plays the game the right way. He's relentless. Larry Bird told me when we drafted him in the expansion draft that no one will out work him. I believe him."

  • Ely, PF, 6-11 – "I think he has a chance to be one of the better low post players in the league, especially on the offensive end. He really knows how to score on the block. He's another guy who really never got the opportunity because of the situation he was in L.A. I think he'll shine once he gets the chance."

  • Jamal Sampson, C/PF, 6-11 – "He just needs time to play. His body has really developed over the past couple of seasons and he's been tutored by the best – Shaq. He's just got to stay healthy and find his game."

    Brandon Hunter, PF, 6-7 – "He's our bruiser. He's tough. He plays physical. He's an excellent rebounder. He's played tremendously in camp so far."

    Kapono, F, 6-7 – "He can shoot the ball as well as anyone on the team. He just knows how to play. He creates space and can be a good defender within a team concept. He's another guy we're counting on this year."

    Theron Smith, F, 6-8 – "I think he's one of the better basketball players on this team. He really understands the came. He does it all. He's tough and physical and can play in the paint. His shot is also pretty good. He'll play both the three and the four for us this year. He's a quiet leader who does all the little things that coaches love."

    Theron Smith, F/G, 6-8 – "He's very fluid and has great size for his position. His versatility really intrigues us."

    Gerald Wallace, SG, 6-6– "He was a guy we had really targeted in the expansion draft. He's a fantastic athlete who knows how to finish. I believe he can also be a stopper defensively for us. His shot isn't great, but the rules are conducive to players who can slash to the basket. I think he's got a great opportunity here."

    Jason Hart, PG, 6-3 – "He's steady. He's a tough, hard-nosed point guard who doesn't make a lot of mistakes. He's not going to do anything flashy out there, but he's got a great head on his shoulders. The fact that he was Tony Parker's back-up on the Spurs appealed to us. I think he's coming from a great environment."

    Eddie House, SG, 6-1 – "He's a scorer. He's got unlimited range on his jumper. That's what he is. People try to play him a little bit at the point, but I think that where you screw guys us. It makes him think about the game instead of playing by instinct. I think he could be a Dana Barros type in the league."

    Bickerstaff knows that all of these young kids won't pan out. He knows that, without veterans or experience, his young squad will struggle to win games this season. Scoring is going to be an issue all year. The losses will mount and the temptation will be there for Bickerstaff to use his veterans as a crutch.

    "This is the path we've chosen and we're going to stick with it.," Bickerstaff said. "I knew what I was getting into when I took this job. We have time on our side. We have a plan. We'll measure success differently here. Just get better. Play up to your capabilities and the people will appreciate you."

    Ten victories or thirty victories, Bickerstaff and the Bobcats have probably got that right.

    Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.