Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford made a bold statement recently, saying small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has the talent to be the best perimeter defender among this generation of NBA players.
Not bold enough apparently. On Thursday Kidd-Gilchrist trumped Clifford’s expectation.
“I want to say ever; not just in the league (now). The best defender this league has seen,” Kidd-Gilchrist told the Observer.
“It’s baby steps. But when it’s all said and done, I want people to say, ‘That guy right there was the dog!’ That’s all I want.”
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If you’re a Hornets fan this season, you’ve had your disappointments: From the constant injuries to Lance Stephenson’s uneven results to the lack of performance from the rookies, 2014-15 doesn’t feel like progress.
Except MKG is blossoming. He has begun justifying the No. 2 overall pick the then-Bobcats used to draft him in June of 2012.
He was 19 then, a freshman who helped Kentucky win the national championship. In Lexington all he had to do was defend and run hard to finish in the fast-break.
The mechanics of his jump shot were non-existent. The other elements of his game – intense defense, solid ball-handling and a knack for seeing plays before they happened – were more than enough to let him excel at the high school and college levels.
That wasn’t enough in the NBA. His shot was a wreck: There was a hitch in his delivery, a bizarre side-spin in his release and an understandable reluctance to even attempt a jumper.
A season ago Kidd-Gilchrist took 61 percent of his shots inside the restricted area, that semi-circle close to the rim that helps referees define the difference between a block and a charge.
You want a small forward finishing hard at the rim, but you don’t want that to be his only offensive skill. Kidd-Gilchrist was easy to guard; just back off and dare him to launch an 18-foot jump shot.
So he went to work last summer. Assistant coach Mark Price, one of the best shooters in NBA history, tore everything apart and put it back together. The hitch and sidespin are gone and Kidd-Gilchrist now has a release point that doesn’t come on his descent from the jump.
The result? He makes 43 percent of his mid-range jump shots this season, compared to an embarrassing 28 percent a season ago. That forces defenders to get up on him, making his drives so much more effective.
The numbers show Kidd-Gilchrist’s value this season. When he’s playing, the Hornets are 9.6 points per game better than when he sits or is injured.
Fixing the jump shot made him better. It also made him more confident and assertive. Teammates see a different guy: more of a leader, willing to take over a huddle and convey his considerable knowledge.
Center Al Jefferson recently called Kidd-Gilchrist the Hornets’ defensive captain. Shooting guard Gerald Henderson elaborated.
“He’s not worried so much about his jump shot. So now he’s very comfortable in how he can affect the game at both ends,” Henderson said. “It’s freed him up to be the natural leader that he is; a leader in talking and how he plays.”
That quality was always within him. As a Kentucky freshman Kidd-Gilchrist organized what he called “The Breakfast Club.” He convinced teammates to get up early each fall day to work on voluntary conditioning before the season started. Six months later the Wildcats were one of the most dominant champions in college basketball history.
Kidd-Gilchrist says that was different; he was leading peers, not “grown men” in the NBA. But the difference was also about the initial holes in his NBA game.
“When my shot started falling I just became more confident in myself both on and off the court. I don’t shy away from things anymore,” Kidd-Gilchrist said.
Kidd-Gilchrist can become anxious speaking to a crowd of reporters, which can be confused for being timid. He is anything but. He understands his considerable potential and how well he sizes up plays in real time.
“I just know what is going on – what the next move is,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “I don’t second-guess myself at all. I’m just getting older and getting a lot better. Better and better and better.”
Teammates like the sound of that.
“He has everybody’s trust and guys all look to him for his energy,” point guard Kemba Walker described. “He’s our defensive anchor. We follow him. As he goes, we all go.”
What does being the defensive anchor entail?
“I don’t like getting scored on. I take it personally,” Kidd-Gilchrist summed up.
“I hate getting scored on and I hate losing basketball games.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell