The last few weeks have been a “Where in the world is Steve Clifford” tour.
To Las Vegas to watch rookies participate in former NBA assistant Tim Grgurich’s summer camp...To California to monitor center Al Jefferson’s training...Up to Seattle to check in with center Spencer Hawes...Back to California to visit point guard Jeremy Lin.
Now Hornets coach Clifford is back in Charlotte as players start assembling here for weeks of pick-up games leading up to training camp Sept. 26.
Observer NBA writer Rick Bonnell posed a dozen questions to Clifford on a roster with at least seven new faces.
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Q: Now that your roster is basically formed, what do you like best about the new group?
I think improved skill – not just shooting, but passing. That will help our ability to create open shots. And more versatility.
Q: In contrast, what will you have to overcome?
One thing we don’t want to lose is the defensive and rebounding mentality that we’ve had for two years. That will be an area we’ll have to deal with early.
Q: Power forward Cody Zeller went through a rough summer, with his shoulder surgery. How has he looked lately?
He did a great job – everything he could have done with the rehab. He’s been on the floor for the last seven weeks, doing a lot of shooting. He’s back to the same weight he was after losing some weight with the injury.
Q: Roughly half of your roster has turned over. How will that make this preseason different from if there had been less change?
We have to treat all of them as if we haven’t coached them before, even the guys coming back, so that we have the right foundation. The guys who have been here the last two years can help the new guys, but we have to make sure the foundation is set offensively, defensively and every other aspect.
The second aspect is they have to adapt to change quickly. I’ve talked to every one of them about that. Whether it’s a pick-and-roll technique or a coverage call, we all have to say, ‘This is the way the Hornets do it.’ We’ve all got to do it the same way.
Q: You have no control over injuries and tend not to get preoccupied with things beyond your control. But one of the challenges a year ago was a lot of preseason injuries that hindered continuity. Is it extra important now that you have minimal injuries to get the synergy you’ll need?
Absolutely. Critical. So much of that goes into what guys have done this summer to stay fit. We need to get lucky, too, but health is a big part of it. Two years ago we were relatively healthy. A year ago we weren’t, and that made a big difference.
Q: Center Al Jefferson was very open in saying he needed to lose weight. Have you checked in on him lately, and where does he stand?
I was in Santa Monica (Calif.) with him about 21/2 weeks ago. He had a plan month-by-month with (strength and conditioning coach) Matt Friia. He’s on target. He feels good and looks good. Now he has to finish up in August and September.
Q: You went West to watch rookies Frank Kaminsky and Aaron Harrison at Grgurich’s camp. How did they look?
I like the camp, thought it was really good. Aaron did a good job early, then got sick and missed a couple of sessions. Frank played really well. He shot the ball well and actually looked fresher than he did in summer league. Guys go straight from the draft to summer-league games. At the camp he just looked quicker and fresher.
Q: What is the key to Kaminsky contributing as a rookie?
Just strength. And obviously him adjusting to the NBA game. But he’s a quick learner and a good worker. He’ll pick things up quickly. That applies to both ends of the floor. He’s so good off the dribble that he would beat guys but be pushed off (his lane to the rim) a little bit. So a lot of times, where in college he got to the basket, he was instead taking 8-to-10 footers. As he gets stronger, he’ll be at the basket again.
Q: Is one of your preseason challenges figuring how the big men fit together?
Absolutely. We’ve got to get back to balanced play. We’ve all watched a lot of film, so we understand their strengths and weaknesses. But chemistry between guys – the dynamic of who plays better with whom – matters, and making sure we have enough offense and defense at each of those spots will be critical.
Q: You’ve said you’re intrigued by the potential in playing point guards Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lin together. Can you describe your vision for that combination?
It’s always good to have two pick-and-roll players on the floor. That way you can put pressure on the defense at one side, then switch it to the other. That makes more room to play similar to how Golden State does. You’ve got Steph (Curry) on one side, so defenses have to load up there, and then you’ve got Klay Thompson on the other with room to operate.
That’s what Kemba can do for Jeremy and Jeremy can do for Kemba.
Q: How important is Nic Batum’s versatility to your plans going forward?
His versatility, his basketball IQ and his skill level. He can guard different positions, and offensively he can play (shooting guard, small forward or power forward). He has size and quickness, and his decision-making on the floor is so good.
Q: You have twice, as an assistant coach, made one of these preseason trips to China. Have you plotted out how to get the work done in the preseason while fitting in this two-exhibition trip?
Absolutely. We get three extra days (of training camp), which helps. We will do more the first week (in Charlotte) because in China practice time is a little bit shorter than it would be here. Obviously it’s different – the whole experience – so that won’t be a week when we’re adding a lot. Over there we’ll just work on execution and getting ready for games.
Bonnell: 704-358-5129: @rick_bonnell