Jordan's game trying to catch up with his body
PHILADELPHIA -- The kids were merciless.
"C'mon," they'd scream. "You're the tallest guy out here. We keep throwing you the ball, and you don't do anything. You're awful."
And those were DeAndre Jordan's teammates.
That's the thing about being tall; people assume you are born with the tools of Wilt Chamberlain and the skills of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Forget that Jordan felt more like an awkward colt, all elbows and ankles as he tried to adjust to his chronically growth-spurting body.
He was the tallest kid in his class every year. He should be able to play.
"Oh my god, I heard so much trash talk," Jordan said and laughed.
The expectations didn't change much when he got to college, when that body had sprouted to 7 feet and the entire state of Super-Size-Me Texas expected Jordan to deliver great things to Texas A&M. He was OK but not a force, averaging 7.9 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game in his first and only season with the Aggies.
Now Jordan is about to pack his size 18 sneakers for the NBA. In a league that loves nothing more than potential and upside, the freakishly athletic Jordan induces salivating. He has hardly grown into his frame, his strength is all concentrated in his lower body with his upper body still like a piece of putty waiting for a weight-room sculptor to mold it.
He can handle the ball fairly well -- at a recent workout he did a series of 100 dribble drills, fumbling only twice -- and is a tremendous rebounder. His weakest link is his offense, but the NBA is littered with guys who couldn't/can't shoot.
On every draft board, he is a lottery pick lock. ESPN.com's Chad Ford rated him the 15th-best player in the draft, concluding that "on talent and physical ability, he's got the makings of a Top 5 pick."
But is the big, awkward kid ready to blossom?
"If someone is looking for instant gratification, he's not the right guy," said former NBA scout Steve Rosenberry, who's been working out Jordan for the past seven weeks in Philadelphia. "But three years from now, I mean who knows? Nobody has a crystal ball, but he could be the third-best player in this draft."
That's nothing shy of astounding to people who remember how Jordan played in the postseason.
And there probably aren't many who do remember him.
In two Big 12 tourney games and two NCAA tournament games, Jordan had seven points and five rebounds. Total.
"He'd make a play, we'd sit on the bench and think, 'There goes a first-rounder,'" Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon said recently. "Five minutes later, he'd do something else and we'd think, 'He's coming back.'"
Far from home, far from anything he knows, the Houston native -- who has already signed with an agent, thus closing the book on a return to College Station -- has become a hoops rat. He spends upward of four hours a day in the gym at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (the same place the 76ers practice) before heading back to his hotel room.
Kansas State's Michael Beasley was here for a while but he left a few weeks ago, so Jordan's free time is pretty routine.
"What do I do when I'm done? Sleep," he said.
Most people would agree this change of scenery is exactly what Jordan needed. Blessed with ungodly physical talents -- he's a YouTube dunk favorite -- Jordan needed to reawaken his passion for the game.
College sort of sucked it out of him.
I was inconsistent because I'd get down on myself. I think if I went back to college, people would see a different player.
Before the season started, a frustrated Turgeon said "he's 18 going on 12" of Jordan's emotions. Jordan admits his tattered self-esteem would take a bath every time Turgeon yelled at him.
"I talked to him about getting too high and too low, but that's tough for me at my age and that young man had extraordinary pressure on him," Turgeon said. "Sometimes he'd get low, and it would carry over to practice. It was an ongoing thing. We talked all the time."
There's no room for mood swings in an 82-game NBA season. Coaches don't have the time or the interest in coddling players or offering buck-up speeches. Don't produce and want to pout? The guy one seat over will gladly take your job.
Consequently Rosenberry has spent as much time on Jordan's mental toughness as his physical skills. He admits he "loves the kid" and delighted at a recent prank Jordan pulled. But he hasn't been afraid to give him a good verbal lashing.
On Friday, Jordan had two awful practices, Rosenberry said. Jordan wasn't hitting his shots, so he decided everything he had done had been wasted.
Rosenberry not so gently explained to him that wasn't the case.
"When guys are young, everything is predicated on how many shots they make," Rosenberry said. "That's not who he is. His shot will get better with repetition and I told him, 'Everybody has days when you don't make shots.' I give him a lot of credit. He came back Saturday [in a private workout with 19 teams], and his workout was off the charts. He's come a long way."
If a sign of maturity is recognizing where you messed up and admitting it, Jordan is on his way. He knows now that his emotional and mental makeup interfered with his physical progress at A&M, knows he has no one to blame but himself.
"You have to keep a level head, stay on the path, and I didn't do that," Jordan said. "I was inconsistent because I'd get down on myself. I think if I went back to college, people would see a different player."
Maybe even a kid who plays as big as he stands.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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