The Charlotte Hornets’ Steve Clifford is two weeks away from his second training camp as an NBA head coach. He has a team that unexpectedly reached the playoffs in his first season and improved itself this summer with the signing of free agents Lance Stephenson, Marvin Williams and Brian Roberts.
But there are still questions entering camp in Asheville in two weeks: How has Jeff Taylor recovered from major surgery? How will surgery for a sports hernia affect Noah Vonleh’s rookie season? Are the Hornets deep enough at center?
Clifford addressed all that and more in a question-and-answer session with Observer NBA writer Rick Bonnell:
Q. How is small forward Jeff Taylor’s readiness for training camp after missing most of last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon?
A. Unfortunately, Jeff has a family situation in Sweden (keeping him away from Charlotte). Nothing can be done about that and you know he’s an exceptional worker, but he’s had to miss our five optional workouts. So it’s hard to get a feel for where he’s at.
He did a couple of summer-league practices. Medically he’s fine. So it’s just a matter of having more continuity, so that when he plants and cuts and jumps he’s confident (in his recovery.)
Q. How much or little will missing the preseason affect Noah Vonleh’s rookie season?
A. It will definitely affect how quickly he can reach the chance to be in the playing group because a lot of the teaching comes at training camp. But he made good strides during summer league.
If you look at the early schedule (18 games before the end of November) we just don’t have many days to practice. In the preseason you can have double sessions and can do a lot of teaching. Camp is so geared to your game – both team and individual games. In the season you spend more time preparing for opponents.
Q. Clearly there was a focus this off-season on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s jump shot. How has he done?
A. Really, really well. He’s done a good job, and Mark (Price) has done a good job working with him. He’s transformed as far as shooting mechanics.
In general, he looks more confident. He’s just had a phenomenal summer as far as (improving) physically and in conditioning. He, Kemba (Walker) and Gary (Neal) have been here all summer. They’re all in high-quality shape and ready to get started.
Q. You have four shooting guards; how do you best use that depth?
A. That’s going to be an every-day evaluation – who’s going to play and in which role, who is playing most efficiently. It’s a pleasant problem to have, but when we meet in the mornings as a staff, that certainly comes up all the time.
Q. Gerald Henderson said it should help that the shooting guards and small forwards are versatile enough that you can mix-and-match. You agree?
A. Yes, because Lance (Stephenson) is so strong and physical. Some shooting guards can play small forward, but only in certain matchups. He can play (either position) against almost anybody.
Q. Do you see any holes on your roster heading into training camp?
A. Noah going down (to injury) means we need to add another big guy. Right now we have four (big) guys who are healthy – Marvin (Williams), Cody (Zeller), Al (Jefferson) and Biz (Bismack Biyombo).
Some things you can overcome for a few games. But you never want to come up short on size in this league. Very hard to win like that.
Q. You said in May how important this offseason would be for Zeller. How does he look?
A. Very good, improved in all areas. He’s worked hard at his shooting, and he’s a lot stronger. And he worked on all his post moves.
Q. Any concerns about Al Jefferson’s foot after the plantar fascia injury in the playoffs?
A. He’s here doing all the (voluntary) workouts. He’s had no pain, no restrictions.
Q. How do you envision Marvin Williams’ role?
A. He can play a balanced game – he’s plays both offense and defense well on the NBA level. He’ll play both forward spots, but I see him primarily as a stretch 4 (a power forward with 3-point range). Up close you see that he can shoot and pass very well. He’s a very smart player who makes smart, simple plays. And he’s very professional in his approach.
Q. You often use that term – “smart, simply plays” – as something you particularly value. Can you elaborate?
A. A big part of this game is decision-making at both ends of the floor. Guys who can move the ball in a way that it keeps pressure on the other team and allows teammates to play well are so valuable. That’s San Antonio. (The Spurs win) because the ball is always moving.
Q. How will Brian Roberts work out as your backup point guard?
A. I had a better feel for him (from coaching him in Orlando summer league years ago). He can really shoot, he knows how to run a team and he’s a good pick-and-roll guy. And he’s a gym rat. Gary (Neal) is the same way. They were both right on the fringes (of having pro careers coming out of college). They had to go to Europe and play well.
Q. You’ve talked about admiring players like that, who had to prove themselves outside the NBA. What makes them distinct?
A. I feel confident they’ll play well. In Europe, you have four bad games and you’re gone. They know how difficult it is (to reach the NBA), and you see it in their habits.